After training with Pierre Cardin, Gaultier worked for French designers Jacques Esterel and Jean Patou. Then in 1996 he got his hopes up when he received a call from luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH. The chief designer had just left Christian Dior and Gaultier assumed he was being tapped for the job. In fact Arnault planned to move designer John Galliano from Givenchy to Dior, and was thinking of Gaultier for Givenchy. Gaultier recalls: “So I was disappointed when Bernard Arnault told me it was for Givenchy... I said that if I do something, it has to be a name that I truly admire.” Givenchy, he felt, was too polished and bourgeois for his tastes. “So I say no,” he recalls.
Gaultier decided instead to launch his first haute couture collection in 1997, without the backing of a big group. “To start without money is very good because it makes you more imaginative,” he says. “When you succeed, you feel stronger because you know that if something happened, you can do with nothing. And creatively I think it’s the best thing.”
Gaultier’s haute couture creations caught the eye of French luxury group Hermès, which hired him as creative director in 2003, having bought a minority stake in his company in 1999 (which it sold in 2011 to Puig). While Gaultier’s distinctive style has served him well, critics say that his inability to thrive as an artistic director who animates an entire team of designers (in the vein of Karl Lagerfeld) has inhibited his growth potential.
Gaultier’s grown-up life seems to split into two halves: the years he spent with his late boyfriend and business partner, Francis Menuge, and those without him. The pair met in 1975, when Gaultier was 23, and were together until Menuge died in 1990. It was Menuge who emboldened Gaultier to launch his first ready-to-wear collection in 1976. “I know if I didn’t meet him, I wouldn’t have started like we did — alone, with no money,” says Gaultier. “He had complete confidence in me, and me, too, complete confidence in him. So it was good because I was feeling stronger.”
Yves Saint Laurent’s creative talent was famously bolstered by the commercial nous of his boyfriend and business partner, Pierre Bergé. I wonder aloud whether Gaultier might have gone on to greater commercial success were it not for Menuge’s untimely death. “He wanted to make an empire, which, me, I didn’t care at all,” says Gaultier. “I don’t even think about it, you know, honestly.”
Before I can press him further on this, the waiter returns with the dessert menus and this moment of pensive nostalgia evaporates as quickly as it arrived. “Dessert, dessert,” chants Gaultier like an enthusiastic child.
He confesses to having a sweet tooth, which, like, many important things in his life, comes from his grandmother. “She always wanted to please me, and so she made lots of desserts and I loved that. It was absolutely necessary to finish with sugar, that was the supreme reward. For me it was better than to smoke a cigarette. And I didn’t like the fact that, as a boy, you have to smoke. So it was like, no, me, I am not obliged to smoke. I prefer cake. A little rebellion,” he laughs with an impish smile.
We agree we’ll share both — he picks the apricot tart from the list of specials, and I can’t resist the classic tiramisu.
Gaultier is amid rehearsals for an autobiographical revue he has written and directed, Fashion Freak Show, which will open in October at the Folies Bergère, Paris’s cabaret music hall. It’s a romp through Gaultier’s life that will pay tribute to those who have inspired him in film (Pedro Almodóvar, Luc Besson), music (Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Mylène Farmer) and dance (Régine Chopinot and Angelin Preljocaj).
There will, of course, be a London chapter to the show. Antoine de Caunes, his co-presenter on the cult 1990s television show Eurotrash, “will play the Queen of England, but shhh, don’t say that, it will be funny,” says Gaultier. The show will also tackle subjects such as plastic surgery and the vanity of social media — and has inspired a number of new costumes.
Gaultier makes a pig’s ear of cutting the apricot tart in two and a crumbled mess arrives on my plate. “I completely destroyed it, oh my God, it’s a nightmare,” he says. Rather more deftly, I slide a slice of tiramisu on to his.
Between mouthfuls, conversation turns to politics, namely Brexit (“quite sad”, he says) and French president Emmanuel Macron. So what does Gaultier think of Macron? Here his anti-establishment perspective again shines through. Gaultier says: “The first thing about Macron that is very good is that he’s married with an older woman” — Brigitte, his former drama teacher, 25 years his senior. “I love that because 20 years ago this would not have been possible at all. And she’s clever and people love her.” He goes on to praise Macron’s energy and vision, which he says are “giving hope” to France.
True to his sweet teeth, Gaultier polishes off the rest of the tiramisu while I’m left defeated by my share of apricot tart. There’s just time for a quick cup of coffee before he must go to the airport. I ask whether the enfant terrible label that Gaultier has held since the 1980s still applies. “Still now?” asks Gaultier. “I am the ‘vieillard terrible’,” he laughs, “the bad old one”.