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Jean Paul Gaultier on Fragrance, Provocation and Chaos

The designer sat down with WWD in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview.

PARIS Jean Paul Gaultier is like a whirling dervish, in perpetual motion. In just a matter of days, the designer had been in Berlin, where costumes he created are being worn for a cabaret show at the Friedrichstadt-Palast, and also at the Cannes Film Festival. There he took in some movies — a favorite pastime — and posed for a photo with other former members of the event’s jury to mark its 70th anniversary.

By the time he sat down with WWD in his sprawling headquarters here, preparations for couture season were already well under way, as was the planning for the launch of his new women’s perfume, Scandal.

It is the first major fragrance introduction he will be making with Puig, which one-and-a-half years ago took in-house the Gaultier perfume business. That followed the Spanish company having acquired Gaultier’s fashion label in 2011.

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Here, in a wide-ranging interview, the designer discusses topics including fashion, fragrance, social media, special projects and his love of TV.

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WWD: Your fashion has long provoked. What do you find provocative today?

Jean Paul Gaultier: I think all the things that try to be provocative — more and more transparency, more and more extravagance — are provocative no longer, to be honest.

What I think can be provocative is money. Like the amount of money that is [used] for some shows, the fortunes that are spent for what? For, like, the set, for one moment. In some ways that is provocative, because we are in a moment of social crisis, we are at a time when people don’t buy so many clothes. Or they’re given them or it’s contractual, or they buy some that are not at all expensive.

Money is being used for a kind of promotion, but there are so many people making promotions. There are so many different outfits for so few people buying them. That is the real provocation. (He laughs.)

WWD: Throughout your career, you have taken risks and challenged stereotypes, like introducing skirts for men. Do you still feel the impulse to do that, and are there boundaries left to cross?

J.P.G.: It’s a strange moment of a little chaos and change. We have more freedom and open-mindedness, it is true. But at the same time that we are at a point of extreme freedom, there are some reactions to it that are increasingly becoming stronger. Like, for example, there is the phenomenon of globalization, which is good, but there are some people who want the contrary.

Extremes are always bad. I think we are in a chaotic moment, maybe it’s because it’s the beginning of the Millennium. In the Seventies, there was a reaction against consumerism by the hippies, and [a focus] on ecology. We have arrived at that again — and with the opposite extreme. Religion, politics and business are super mixed. I think people are frightened all over the world. And there’s violence, too.

What will happen, I cannot say; I am not a prophet. But we are in a moment of chaos, and a solution always comes from that.

WWD: You’re the original enfant terrible, but you are also a master couturier. At this point in your career, which side calls you the most or is it a combination?

J.P.G.: Bon, of course I’m older, so enfant terrible — déjà, is a term about a child, a terrible child of French fashion. It doesn’t go. You know I’m 65? (He laughs.) So I’m no longer a child, but I am a couturier.

I want fashion to be like how I feel at the moment. That’s how I work. I stopped my ready-to-wear because I think we are more in a marketing world now. Today there are big groups occupying all the space. I feel there’s less freedom. At the time when I started, it was not money directing everything. It was more one’s capacity.

I am not saying, though, that I no longer have freedom myself.

WWD: Your fashion has always reflected the times. In the past inspiration was gleaned from club culture and punk. What is it from now?

J.P.G.: It can be anything. All the things around me, what I like and attracts me.

I love cinema. I still go, and it influences me a lot. To go to Cannes is inspiring. I think what inspires me — I won’t say reality TV shows; that’s an obsession. I don’t like most of the programs, but I still look at some. When they first came out, I was thinking it should affect shows, even theater.

So how can it affect the creativity of clothes? I think we are at a time when clothes are not to be worn. They are only to promote a brand. Now, more than ever, all of the big shows I think are only to make a kind of advertising.

I think you can find some clothes that are quite nice, not of bad quality, for little money. And people will wear that. Those with money would prefer to buy 10 of each outfit.

In the Eighties or even Nineties, I was very happy and surprised to see in some video clips people — a singer, rock star, whatever — wearing my clothes. They bought them, and I was very happy and flattered. Now, it’s not the case. I don’t say it’s bad, I don’t critique.

I went into the profession to be loved through my clothes. So in some way if I have to pay people to wear my clothes, it’s like I was paying a prostitute.

I am very happy to do couture because it’s more creative, I can put in some creativity and quality also. Fundamentally, it’s about truly dressing somebody — one client that exists — and not only about a show. So in some way it’s a reality.

Couture is not to shock. It is to do beautiful, well-done clothes in a unique way. If I want an extravaganza, it should be a show — a cabaret show, movie or cinema. There I can funnel my creativity also.

WWD: How are you finding other evolutions in fashion today, like the see-now-buy-now trend, and men’s wear starting to be presented more frequently with women’s wear?

J.P.G.: It’s definitely good. I think there is too much of everything, so it’s better to reduce. To have people go to one show for men’s and women’s wear, it’s for me like a solution. Not to have so many shows, to present fewer clothes, to be more concentrated — it’s better.

When I started, with little money, you were obliged to make a collection that was very concise and precise. When it is smaller, it’s easier to sell, easier to produce — easier in all respects. And it’s more understandable, also.

There’s too much of too much [today]. And now people aren’t looking at [a fashion show]. They are focusing on how to take photographs of it. Now it’s only click, click, click.

WWD: Since you started your fashion, with kilts for men, there have been shifts in how society views gender and equality between the sexes. Please discuss.

J.P.G.: Times change. The fact that MAC took RuPaul [for its Viva Glam campaign] is a very good step. Now there are some cougars, which is good. Even in France, our first lady, she is in some ways a kind of cougar.

So I think [such phenomenon] are more acceptable finally, [at least] superficially. Maybe deep inside I suppose there is still a lot of work to be done.

I am shocked that there are some people who still critique Madonna because she does what she wants. It is true there is still a little of that, but I think it’s coming from an older generation.

In Hollywood, that women are still not paid as much as men, I think that’s something that is truly scandalous.

WWD: You’re a deep-seated feminist.

J.P.G.: [As a child] I was surrounded by my grandmother and my mother, who was exceptional and very open-minded. I was educated by them, with love.

WWD: What gender differences do you note in fashion and how do you view them?

J.P.G.: I remember at the beginning I was shocked to see that men’s jackets had a pocket to hold wallets and women’s jackets didn’t. There was also a belief that men could not be fashionable, they had to be more classic than women.

For me it was strange there was so much separation — like during olden times at church, with men and women sitting on different sides. We don’t do that in restaurants. There are still hairdressers for men and for women. I think it’s like sexism.

When I started, I wanted my shop to be for men and women. But I was obliged to put it on two floors, with women downstairs and men upstairs. Though in reality for me it could be mixed. I don’t really differentiate.

I even did one collection that was called “Puissance Deux,” which was exactly the same wardrobe for men and women, with the only difference being sizes.

In my collection I [used to start] with the men’s wear first because it wasn’t at the same moment as the women’s wear presentation. Like the seasons were not the same. It’s ridiculous, you know. Why should they have a delay? I don’t understand that.

WWD: How do social media and all things digital play a role in your life?

J.P.G.: It can be useful. You can have access to many different things in the world. But to be honest, I’m not such a fan. I’m of an older generation and was never very much interested in highly technical things. It’s good that I’m not so technical or like using it, because if not maybe I would be completely addicted and not stop — like it is with TV.

I think it has to be used with precaution because it can be super dangerous. In general, there’s too much information. And in the end, it’s like a catastrophe.

For example, the fact that fashion shows are being presented on the Internet, I think that after people see one after the other, day after day, there are so many propositions, so many brands that in the end, nothing. I don’t know which one to choose.

WWD: How are you enjoying your special projects, which have included numerous ready-to-wear collaborations, such as with OVS; your traveling exhibition “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” which was viewed by more than two million people, and the current bridal gown exhibit on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts?

J.P.G.: I have a lot of activities — as many as before, even more so. The exhibition was a real experience for me, because I could do it as I wanted.

The new one is about wedding dresses. I love to work on scenography. I like to interfere in the scenography, in the choreography. [There is a project upcoming.]

WWD: How did you begin to come up with the idea of the new fragrance? Who is your Scandal woman, as shown in the advertising?

J.P.G.: She is bipolar. (He laughs.) The woman likes going out in clubs. She is quite strong, but she has fun. She is in a discotheque and can be very free and libertine if she wants. She makes her own decisions. She is also a [political] minister. So you can be somebody enjoying life and also having a lot of responsibility and being quite serious.

WWD: And the zany bottle design, with a woman’s legs jetting off of the cap?

J.P.G.: I show a bust [as the bottle shape for Classique perfume], and thought maybe the legs should be seen. It was a little like the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergère, more like a dancing element. I wanted it to refer to day and night — light and dark.

WWD: What about the name Scandal?

J.P.G.: We are now in a moment where what is scandalous, honestly? Not to make a scandal — is that the most scandalous, maybe? (He laughs.)

WWD: You were among the first to launch makeup for men. How was that experience, and is it something you would do again?

J.P.G.: Men changed because of rock stars, actors, who wear makeup, have their hair done, sometimes with an androgynous or more extravagant look. On TV all men have makeup now. They even have facelifts. I said I will do a perfume for men, like I do fashion for men — not a collection of clothes. My spirit was that.

So I think makeup is a part of it. Why should they not have it? Men should have the same freedom as women. C’est exactement ça. Definitely, yes [I would do it again].

WWD: You’re always giving a twist to the everyday, like your perfumes’ tin-can outer packaging, which has become iconic. How do you keep things fresh?

J.P.G.: I am curious and follow my instincts. It’s not planned. I try to remain observant. I’m very much like a voyeur. I try to keep my eyes fresh like a child’s. They love surprises, which is very important — to be surprised and not blasé.

WWD: How do you choose which projects to take on?

J.P.G.: There are things that I never expected that came to me. I made a record. Bon. I presented on “Eurotrash.” [The costume design] I did for Madonna…was an experience. After what I did for the movie [“Ab Fab”]…I was not frightened, I was excited. I say yes, you know, only from desire.

I am lucky. All of the things I did — I was not scheduled to do them. It doesn’t matter if it’s not well-paid. It is not for the money. It’s for the pleasure, the excitement of doing it. I need that.