He’s done corsets and lingerie for day and put men in skirts, earning him the title of French fashion’s bad boy.
But as Jean Paul Gaultier celebrates the 30th anniversary of his Paris fashion house and makes a rare sweep through New York, the 54-year-old designer is — like any true rebel — still resisting any labels. “I am no longer the ‘enfant terrible.’ My age indicates it clearly,” he said with a laugh.
To be sure, many of Gaultier’s once out-there ideas have made it into fashion’s mainstream and enriched his unmistakable design vocabulary. He’s also taken some unorthodox routes with his business — launching couture after ready-to-wear, perfume before the couture and licensing many core categories.
Gaultier’s choice in fashion models has also underscored his daring spirit, having sent punk rockers, transvestites and exotic androgynes down the runway long before their time. His simple reason: “Because of their attitude.” For example, he mentioned Farida Khlefa, a Paris model who would one day go on to become his couture director. “It was not like I wanted to shock. Rather, she shocked me by her beauty,” he said.
In an interview in Paris last week, the designer reflected on his long design career and his business, which is currently on a strong growth track after a few difficult years. (And then, in a sign of his inimitable youthful spirit, he dashed out to catch a Madonna concert — his fourth time that week.)
“I’m not looking to have an empire,” he said in his rambling, rapid-fire way. “I am looking to do my profession, which I love, in my own way.”
Gaultier said some things have not changed one iota in three decades, and a fitting still elicits the pure pleasure of a job that fits him like a second-skin tattoo T-shirt (a Gaultier innovation from 1994). To some extent, he is still haunted with the same self-doubt that stalks all creative people, asking himself: Will they like it?
But clearly the stakes are much higher today, and Gaultier’s design duties have multiplied over the years with the addition of men’s wear, secondary lines, beauty products, couture and, since 2004, women’s wear for Hermès International, which owns a 35 percent stake in the Gaultier business. “When you start out, you have nothing to lose,” Gaultier explained. “There is still a challenge, but it’s not exactly the same.”Last year, consolidated sales at Gaultier rose 7 percent to 28.7 million euros, or $36.5 million, a figure reflecting mainly licensing royalties from rtw, perfumes and accessories, as well as direct sales from couture and boutiques. However, rtw sales have been advancing at a double-digit rate, buoyed by a string of hit collections. Expressed in retail terms, sales of Gaultier branded products last year reached about 630 million euros, or $802 million at the current exchange rate.
Gaultier started his fashion career working at Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou, ultimately launching his own brand in 1976 — around the same year disco was born. He would go on to become, along with Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, one of the biggest fashion stars of the Eighties — and ultimately that era’s true survivor.
His career and fashion image would also be catapulted with the launch in 1997 of couture, which was done almost on a whim.
Gaultier explained that he had long held a rather dim view of couture, considering the métier very “old and codified.” His original idea was to show couture only one time, but ultimately he found an audience and a customer base. It gave his brand a new cachet and upped his stature on the international design stage.
Including in America, where Gaultier is looking to boost his presence. The designer breezed into New York on Wednesday to celebrate the recently opened, 350-square-foot Gaultier shop-in-shop at Bergdorf Goodman, and his three-day visit was filled with in-store events, dinners and a personal appearance for his special clients and fans at the specialty store on Thursday.
America is clearly very dear to the designer, down to the coffee. “I always ask for American coffee,” he said, sitting in the lobby of the Soho Grand Hotel. “For me, it has the right amount of water. In France, if it’s not the right coffee, they call it ‘Jus de Chaussette’ [sock juice], but it’s the one that I like.”
Gaultier tries to make it to Manhattan at least once a year for a weekend of fun and shopping. He usually keeps a lower profile on those personal trips and spends much time going to the movies, combing the flea markets and vintage shops and seeing a few Broadway shows when possible. It’s a far cry from his first trip in 1979, when he immediately became smitten with the city’s energy, its mix of different ethnic cultures, the cinematic landscape and irreverent nightlife spirit, which he sensed from the second his plane started to descend.“I was flying in from Los Angeles and it was night,” Gaultier recalled. “When I saw the lights, it was like everything I had seen in the photos, magazines, books and in the cinema. I saw that dimension that was very American and that was so different from France.”
From department store window displays he deemed “100 times nicer than in Paris” to nights dancing at Studio 54 and Danceteria, to admiring extravagant city creatures such as Dianne Brill, New York became a source of inspiration for the designer.
“In New York, there are so many extremes and different and spectacular personalities,” he said. “I was influenced by the mix of people from different ethnic groups, and the way rappers dressed 15 years ago.”
These days, of course, Gaultier finds American women and their sense of fashion just as inspiring.
“The women in New York dress better than Parisians,” he said. “[In Paris], you go to a restaurant and it’s sad. When you see a woman who is dressed, she is not Parisian. It’s perceived badly if you are overdressed or even well-dressed because it will look like you are too rich. Maybe they are frightened of the taxes.
“You [the U.S.] don’t have the same approach about money that we have,” he added. “The chic American women are an emblem of elegance, always with beautiful makeup and hair. I have respect and admiration for it. I feel like I do my job for something. But when I go to restaurants in Paris, I feel like I have nothing to do with that. Maybe it’s because we killed the queen of France, we are frightened to look like kings and queens.”
Needless to say, Madonna most fits his perception of America. “She has started from nothing, and became the biggest, most clever, richest, powerful and artistically interesting woman,” he said. “She is unique. When you love Madonna, you don’t just love how she sings or performs, but also the attitude, the look, the way of changing it. You love her or you hate her.”In between the frenzy of this business trip, Gaultier was hoping to make some time to see “Idlewild,” starring Andre 3000 from Outkast. He got a twinkle in his eyes when he heard that “The Devil Wears Prada” was still in theaters. “Fabulous, I will try to see that,” he said. “Is it better than the book? I read the book but didn’t enjoy it that much. I felt the things the assistant was reproaching were clichés of humanity. I didn’t find it so scandalous, or outrageous, so I was disappointed. She had nothing special to say.”
Schedule permitting, he voiced an interest in catching up with Uma Thurman and Beyoncé Knowles, scouring some of the city’s vintage shops, and taking extensive walks around SoHo and TriBeCa. His favorite restaurant here is Lola. where he enjoys the soul food and gospel music.
But, of course, work came first. At Thursday’s personal appearance at Bergdorf’s, Gaultier, after a lunch at Bice, may have arrived over an hour behind schedule, but it didn’t stop the 40 or so fans from mobbing the designer, taking his photo and getting his autograph.
Anne Rohrbach, of Greenwich, Conn., tried on a black stretch velvet dress with a plissé bolero. “I said this morning at my golf game, ‘Ladies, I have to quit after nine holes, I have to go and meet Jean Paul Gaultier,’” said Rohrbach, who brought along her framed 1998 Christmas card featuring a family portrait with her wearing a Gaultier dress. The designer signed the frame. “What’s not to love about him? His designs are contemporary, feminine and a woman over 40 can wear them.” Julia Kolovarsky of New York arrived in an “I [heart] JPG” T-shirt, which the designer also promptly signed, just above the woman’s chest.
“He is one of the great living designers,” said Jim Gold, president and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman, which opened the Gaultier corner about one month ago. “Our business with him is stronger than it has ever been.” Gold added the special nature of the clothes requires an environment that allows the customer to see the details up-close. “We have seen a dramatic improvement of the business with the new space,” he said.Michelle Stein, president of Aeffe USA, which represents Gaultier, added: “Our [Gaultier] business is up over 40 percent, and our goal is to open mono-brand stores across America.” Currently, there is a licensed Jean Paul Gaultier boutique at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas.
Gaultier said one of his goals for the future is to build a meaningful accessories business, which he is tackling late in his career, true to his against-the-grain ethos. His Privé bag for fall, which borrows details from the trenchcoat, a Gaultier signature item, is the first step in that direction.
The house also is undergoing another management change. Last July, president Eric Labaume stepped down after 15 months, and a successor has yet to be named. Labaume had put into place a restructuring plan, which helped the company — reeling from heavy investments in retail stores, a new headquarters and the money-losing couture — reach breakeven last year.
Clearly, the designer is in a mood to celebrate. Besides a cocktail party at Bergdorf Goodman on Wednesday and a dinner afterward (see below), Gaultier is hosting what is sure to be the party of Paris Fashion Week on Oct. 7, feting his anniversary with a magic-themed blowout at the landmark Olympia club.
Asked to reflect on some of the highlights of his fashion career, Gaultier rattled off a number of memorable shows: his “James Bond” collection from 1979, his men’s wear debut in 1984 and collections inspired by the Dada and Surrealist art movements, tattoos and such exotic locales as Africa, Russia and China.
“Actually, I like the collections that have been copied a lot,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe I was very much in love with them at the time, which is why other people like them so much, too.”
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