Jean-Paul Gaultier
Jean-Paul Gaultier
Image: Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

Jean Paul Gaultier bounds into the Ristorante National in Paris doing something distinctly British: complaining about the weather. “It’s so hot,” he says. “It’s quite humid, I think, it’s not a nice dry heat.” Casual in a denim shirt and camo-print jacket, he joins me at his usual table in a far corner of the trendy Italian restaurant in the Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers. “It’s a long time since you’ve been here,” says a waiter as he takes our drinks order (two “detox” juices, on Gaultier’s recommendation). “I know,” responds the designer with a shrug, “because work, work, work.”

Gaultier, 66, is the original enfant terrible of French fashion, with a 40-year career as provocateur. He made his name subverting the traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity through camp theatrics and outlandish inventions. In the 1980s he dressed men in skirts; a decade later, he designed a pink satin conical bra for Madonna that propelled him to international fame.

“I think at the time that it was quite nice appreciation, ‘l’enfant terrible’,” he says. “It showed that I was doing things that were maybe not in the rules, which is good for me. I wanted to show that women can be strong and feminine at the same time,” he says. “And men are not all like John Wayne. Men can also be seductive, they can also be beautiful and stupid.” (Gaultier’s first men’s collection, in 1984, was called “Man As Object”.) “I saw through clothes that it was a phallocracy. It was the men who had the power. And that shocked me.”

Old iconoclastic habits clearly die hard. While world health authorities rail against smoking, at Gaultier’s July couture show, the cigarette was centre stage. Models held pipes, cigarette-holders and electronic cigarettes; they wore cigarette-inspired jewellery; the floating organza dress that closed the show evoked a cloud of smoke.

Two small flagons bearing brightly coloured juices — one green, one orange — arrive at the table. With beach holidays looming, we decide to be virtuous and shun the delicious-sounding pasta selection in favour of two starters each. “To our health,” he says. We raise our vegetable juices.

In the past few years, commercial pressures have forced Gaultier into a partial retreat from designing collections. Almost four years ago, he and the brand’s majority shareholder, Spanish group Puig, announced he was stopping his lossmaking women’s and men’s ready-to-wear lines, citing “commercial constraints” and the “frenetic pace of collections”. It must have been a blow, but Gaultier, who still designs two haute couture collections a year, doesn’t seem bitter.

“I refuse the things that I am not into,” he says. “When I do it I am truly enthusiastic. I’ve always tried to be free.”

Puig, which also owns brands including Paco Rabanne and Carolina Herrera, preferred to focus on Gaultier’s main asset — the perfume business. Couture may be the zenith of creativity, but for many design houses, fragrances bring in the money. Gaultier is no different, and it’s scents such as Classique, introduced in 1993 and presented in a torso-shaped perfume bottle, that fund his couture activities. So is the couture part of Gaultier’s business profitable?

“Profitable?” he responds. “No. Let’s say that I manage not to lose money. It’s a kind of advertising. And I like to still have clothes that are worn, even though I stopped my ready-to-wear and couture is not the same clientele.” Puig, which doesn’t break out the performance of individual brands, recorded sales of €1.9bn in 2017.

The waiter returns. Gaultier orders raw sardines followed by a caprese salad. I opt for sea bream, burrata and mullet roe and the tuna tartare.

Gaultier may be one of France’s best-known designers, but he says he prefers London to Paris. He loves the self-deprecating British sense of humour, “which we do not have at all”. He reminisces over visits to Loch Ness, Edinburgh and the red-brick streets of South Kensington, where he lived for a time. The tartan fabrics and kilts that have appeared in so many of his collections were inspired by the 1954 fantasy film Brigadoon, in which Gene Kelly plays an American who gets lost in the Scottish woods on a hunting trip. “I like the classical tartans,” says Gaultier. “I prefer the clichéd ones, which are most known and popular. It impressed me graphically and I think the sensation to be in a pleated skirt with nothing under...”

He chuckles as he recalls his visit to the Highlands in 2000, in which he made this crucial discovery. It was for the wedding of Madonna to Guy Ritchie — and the groom was wearing a kilt. “I ask him: ‘Is it true that you have to wear nothing under it?’ And he says, ‘Of course.’ [Gaultier mimics Ritchie pulling up his kilt.] Voilà.”

It’s about the feeling of freedom, I suggest. “Exactement,” he says. “The wind breathing through. It’s something... it’s, you know, like to swim with no bathing suit is a fabulous sensation of freedom. I suppose for the woman to have the breasts floating is quite... it’s relaxing completely.” I nod earnestly. “And the balls the same. Perfect. Vive la liberté.

Hubert de Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn and Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière has Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gaultier’s muse is... his teddy bear

Gaultier slips between French and English, his stories embellished with hand movements and peppered with a “voilà” here and an “exactement” there. At one point he calls out mid-conversation to the chefs opposite and compliments them on the way that their hats are perched on their heads.

While Hubert de Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn and Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière has Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gaultier’s muse is... his teddy bear. It may be Madonna who propelled the cone-shaped corset into the spotlight, but Nana was the unsuspecting early adopter for this and many other of Gaultier’s early creations. “It was my teddy bear, the first transgender teddy bear,” he says. “I think I was six years old. I wanted a doll but my parents didn’t want me to have a doll. So surgeon Gaultier did a little surgery on my teddy bear. In the newspaper they were advertising little bras that were pointed, so I cut paper and made one with pins. I wanted a doll — so it was a bear doll.”

The starters arrive. Gaultier admires the wild flowers that decorate his sardines: “Look at that, the flowers, magnificent. Thank you, c’est joli.” My dish is similarly festive, the sea bream sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, and the creaminess of the burrata contrasting with the thick, salty strips of mullet roe.

Uninterested in football, Gaultier never really fitted in with the other boys at school. It wasn’t until an incident in class that he caught their attention. His grandmother let him watch a Folies Bergère revue on television, an extravaganza of girls decorated with Swarovski crystals, ostrich feathers and fishnet tights. “I thought, my God, qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?” And at school the following day, he sketched what he had seen. His teacher was “furious”, Gaultier recalls. She pinned the sketch to his back and led him on a tour of the different classes to humiliate him. But Gaultier’s schoolmates admired his drawings and were intrigued by him. “It was after that, it made me realise that through my drawings I could be accepted — even if I was not the model of a very good boy who played very well football.”

Gaultier began sketching prolifically, and through the 1945 film Falbalas (“Paris Frills”) he found out what a fashion show was. He sent sketches to many different couturiers and was spotted by Pierre Cardin, who hired him as an assistant in his studio on Gaultier’s 18th birthday.

The waiter clears our plates only to return in no time at all with the second course of starters. Gaultier again delights in the colours of his caprese salad (three different varieties of tomatoes), and is similarly admiring of my tuna tartare, decorated with cherry tomatoes and avocado. “Oui, oui, oui, c’est magnifique.”

Cardin is of a generation of legendary couture houses that were built around the cult of the designer’s personality — a phenomenon perhaps best epitomised by Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. These were the three names Gaultier admired as a teenager, and he has sought to model his brand in a similar vein — his name and brand synonymous with one another.

Gaultier muses on the current state of play in the fashion world. “There is too much of everything. We have too many people and there are too many clothes. When you look at the big brands like Dior and Chanel, people don’t buy any more the clothes because the ones that have the money to buy the expensive ones are offered them for free, or they have a contract to wear them. Can you imagine? I think it’s scandalous.”

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”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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