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.”
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