Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is having a moment.
An exhibit of the designer’s playful paintings can be seen at Ralph Pucci Gallery Nine, and de Castelbajac’s Lesage-embroidered chasuble with rainbow-hued Byzantine crosses is part of the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Castelbajac in 1997 created robes and vestments for Pope John Paul II and 5,500 church members to wear on World Youth Day in Paris. “The rainbow I designed in ’97 was like a visionary sign,” de Castelbajac said. “So much of my fashion has been inspired by art.”
Reached at his home in France recently, de Castelbajac panted into the phone, “I just finished my jogging. I am a young sport because I design Le Coq Sportif. I lost so many pounds and discovered another side of my imagination. I was rock ‘n’ roll like my old friend, David Johansen [a member of the band New York Dolls]. He’s so in shape. I saw him in New York a few weeks ago at the Ralph Pucci opening.”
The 68-year-old designer revealed that an exhibition of his work is scheduled to open in Shanghai in December. And de Castelbajac was chosen to stage and design the scenery for the Biennale de Paris in September at the Grand Palais.
“It’s a very interesting challenge for me to do the central art installation for the Biennale de Paris,” de Castelbajac said. “My creative act will be crystalized with the amazing Napoleonic memorabilia collection of Pierre-Jean Chalençon [which will be the featured collection]. I’ve always loved to project history into modernity. The Biennale is like haute couture, a symbol of Paris excellence.”
“This is a good time for projects,” de Castelbajac added. “It’s a very promising time for creativity, but you have to do things with ecology in mind and with a conscience.”
Pucci said that when he mounted de Castelbajac’s paintings, “the energy in the room exploded. I like to present multitalented people. This is mixing art with fandom and fashion and all the people he’s met and all the people he knows and his friends.” A series of paintings done in 2017 features stylized cartoony fashion figures such as Coco Chanel, Marisa Berenson and Pat Cleveland. Other larger canvases appropriate familiar logos. A painting, “Raymond, Kamsir and Walt,” 2018, consists of strategically placed Pespi and Lucky Strike logos and Mickey Mouse’s nose, while smaller works twist borrowed brand names into Hermesse, Surprime and Beurberry.
“We got along so well and he said, ‘Let’s not make this just one show,'” Pucci said. “We’re talking about other ideas such as furniture. I want to keep the show up as long as possible, probably through December.”
De Castelbajac engages in “cultural highjacking,” using symbols from popular culture in unexpected ways. In February, the last chapter of an artistic triptych, “Triumph of the Sign,” opened at Paradise Row in London. De Castelbajac painted popular logos over iconic works that had been meticulously copied for him in China. The Louis Vuitton logo appears over Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” and Gucci’s logo is superimposed on Ingres’ “La Grande Odelisque.”
“I invented the pop with Iceberg and fashion in ’82,” de Castelbajac said, referring to sweaters with Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat on the front that he designed as creative director of the Italian brand from 1976 to 1987. “Each piece of my clothing has meaning. I’ve kept 2,000 pieces of my fashion. When I did the quilted coat in 1973, I did it for ecology. Everything I’ve done was in anticipation of a social issue. With the teddy bears, I wanted to make a coat more spectacular than real fur,” said de Castelbajac, who also designed a coat covered with Kermit the Frog, puppets for Lady Gaga and a sequin dress with former President Obama’s likeness, which was worn by Katy Perry.
“I can see at the auctions that my legend is in my clothes. I’ve tried to buy [pieces] back, but they’re reaching such prices,” de Castelbajac said. “Sotheby’s sold the last clothes of the Eighties, multiplying the teddy bear coat to around $10,000 to $22,000. What’s nice about my designs is that they’re not aging. My Snoopy sweaters for Iceberg in 1981 look totally contemporary. I was a bit too ahead of my time back then, but now I’m right on time.”
De Castelbajac sold his namesake fashion company to South Korea’s EXR, which part of Seoha, then exited in 2016. “I miss designing my own line,” he said. “Two years ago, I resigned from my own brand because my Korean partner wasn’t agreeing with my philosophy. The future will tell if I’m right. I don’t want to do a caricature of myself.”
The designer is keen to work in the U.S. “My dream is to take the lead of a fashion company in America,” he said. “It’s where I started, actually. I’d love to work with a company like Gap and reinvent the basics. I also like Pendleton. It would be a wonderful challenge to reinvent fashion that’s democratic, too. When I see all the brands that were doing black and are now doing color.…They’re all using pop and doing comic strips. My friend Virgil Abloh [artistic director of Louis Vuitton], and Kanye [West] love my hip-hop things. The pop influence is very important, but it has to be functional and beautiful.
“Today I don’t feel like redoing that,” de Castelbajac said. “I don’t want to do urban fashion. I want modernity and comfort. We have to write the femininity of tomorrow with no nostalgia. My dream is to create a new minimalism with comfort.”
More than anything, de Castelbajac wants to be part of the process of moving fashion forward. “Now is a good time to participate in the change of the world,” he said. “Everything can be reinvented from fashion shows to distribution. My concern is the future. I have many things more to say. How will I continue to tell this amazing story?”