Jean Paul Gaultier On Fashion, Beauty, & Love (At Any Age)

Jean Paul Gaultier hands me some Haribo gummies, and cracks a schoolboy smile when he starts to tell me about the girl with the red hair who taught him about real beauty, and when he earned the respect of the other boys in the schoolyard by drawing. I’m hooked.

Gaultier’s stories are just like his designs: They’re extravagant and approachable, two aesthetics that, when you’re examining his clothes (that iconic striped sailor shirt, Madonna's legendary cone bra, the men's skirt, the parfum torso), somehow make sense with each other. Needless to say, talking to this man is a real adventure. He’s one of the most important designers of our time, and one of the last living legends of Parisian Haute Couture.

Now, I’m sitting with him behind the scenes of Berlin's epic Friedrichstadt-Palast, as he talks about how he finally — after 64 years — fulfilled one of his biggest childhood dreams: designing 500 costumes for the new show, The One.

Mr. Gaultier, can you describe the feeling that came over you as you entered the historical Friedrichstadt-Palast for the first time?
"I was overwhelmed. I'd heard a lot about it before, and all of a sudden I was at this place, where the great Josephine Baker once played. This place is an institution, it's wonderful; the most beautiful in Europe, I think. I’ve been a fan of revue and cabaret since my childhood. Designing clothes for such a show was always a big dream of mine, even before I did fashion. When I was a little boy, I watched a movie about wartime. It was a French one and the embodiment of this special feeling. This was the first time I fell in love: I fell in love with theater. And the result was, I drew women wearing feather boas and fishnet stockings at the age of 9."

How was that accepted in 1961?
"It was not acceptable at that time. In fact, my teacher caught me and punished me for that. She glued the drawing on my back and made me walk through the class with it. The other guys ignored me at that time — I was not one of them. I failed at soccer and all the other sports [laughs]. Nevertheless, the punishment was helpful. The kids stopped laughing at me. Instead, they smiled at me and asked me to draw for them. All of a sudden, I had their respect, just because I was good at drawing pretty girls."

You're an international star, why did you decide to do this in Berlin?
"It's about the special flair of the former cabaret stars and the Friedrichstadt-Palast. It connects decadence, charm, and modernity. For example, I’m a big fan of Marlene Dietrich and her films. [When we] talk about shows, theater, and cabaret at that time, only Paris, London, New York, and Berlin were representative. At the beginning of the last century, Paris was very important, but is no longer today. I always saw Berlin at the top. While in England and America, it's all about perfect technique; in Europe, it was always more about freedom, creativity, and ideas."

Had you been to Berlin before your job as a costume designer?
"The first time I visited Berlin, the wall was still there. I think West Berlin was already pretty amazing at that time. Berlin still is amazing. [It’s] my boost of energy. David Bowie, Hedi Slimane... lots of artists I admire have lived here, because this city is so inspiring. The nightlife is so special, too."

Tell me about your craziest night in Berlin.
"Just one? I’ve had a lot of crazy nights, especially at Berghain and KitKatClub. Both embody eccentricity, extravagance, and freedom. It's like a dream in there."

When was your last time at Berghain?
"It's been 10 years now, I think. But I'm older now, I prefer partying on Sunday afternoons today [laughs]."

We've shot some street styles of Berghain visitors. What do you think about the style?
"It’s excellent. I admire and love it. It’s fashion and personality at the same time. It’s the expression of being strong and edgy, but individual, as well. That also applies for the music: It's techno, very strong and loud. I always wanted to see Berlin’s most famous band, the one with this spectacular show..."

Rammstein?
"Yes! They’re so special, and I've never seen them live. I definitely want to see them in Germany. That is a must."

Let’s get back to the show at Friedrichstadt-Palast: How did you find time to design 500 different costumes?
"That wasn't a problem — I just did it. Actually, I started sketching two years ago. Let’s say... I was well on track. At the beginning, I was inspired by graffiti art, as I wanted to create a connection between the Berlin wall, the typical Gaultier tattoos, and revue. I love the extremes and like to connect various realities. I do that all the time."

After 40 years in fashion, are you still nervous about premieres?
"No, not really. I’m totally looking forward to this, since this is a real affair of the heart to me. Maybe I’ll be a little nervous that evening, being confronted with the emotions of the audience, but so far, I’m just happy to work with such a great team. I don't want to say that this is genius, but I can definitely tell that it’s a lot of fun and I love what I'm doing."

You’re 64. What have you learned about fashion that you didn’t know at the age of 24?

"Let me see... Voilà! In fact, I did my first collection 40 years ago. I regarded fashion as a film, as an elegant movement image. It was all about the person wearing my designs. No matter how he or she looked, I wanted to show the inner beauty of the person. I had no money, but I realized my idea anyway. I’m blessed, I know. I do this not because of the money, but for the thrill. Ten years ago, the industry changed: Today, the money is more important, as well as advertising, and egos. [But] it's important to be honest with yourself and to stay motivated. Don't do things just because of the money. I will tell you something: I did not work for Hermés because it was great fun. Of course, I earned a lot of money, but that was not what it was about."

What was it about, then? You worked for Hermés from 2004 to 2011.
"I refused the offer of Givenchy because I wasn't convinced of it at that time. Chanel, Saint Laurent, Cardin — I would have done that, of course. Those fashion houses had a history. They had class and style... So did Hermès. It was an adventure, a challenge. After working with Madonna and Luc Besson for his film The Fifth Element, that was something fun to do... When I started doing this, I was a punk — an enfant terrible. Hermès was the complete opposite of my style, so that was really appealing to me. I was always impressed by their brilliant leather pieces."

What did you learn about beauty that you didn’t know at the age of 24?
"The first thing I learned: Santa Claus does not exist. After that, I learned God does not exist. And after that, I learned that beauty is off the norm for me. I remember there was a girl in school I was attracted to, because she looked so different from the others. She had extremely red hair and her skin was so white, you could see her veins. She was completely different. She was half-French and half-Algerian. She liked me, but I wanted her to love me. So I made up the story that we had the same roots. I’m digressing, am I not? [Laughs] I remember a girl in '72. She was Black and had her hair bleached; that was a sensation back then, and nobody wanted to hire her. I thought she was beautiful. There was another girl, with her narrow lips, she looked like a Berlin girl from the ‘40s. She wore red eye makeup, black lips, and no shoes. She still works with me today. The Arabic woman, for example, wasn't represented in fashion for a long time. That's so sad. I think diversity is very important. The Swedish type was never my favorite... I always liked the opposite: black hair, red hair, curly hair, bleached hair..."

What did you learn about love that you didn’t know at the age of 24?
"Back then, I knew that I had to draw to be loved. Today, I have no precise idea of love. I’m in love all the time: I love my work, films, and all the people surrounding me. I experienced true love once; Francis died too soon, but I’m thankful for every minute I had with him."

What did you learn about aging that you didn’t know at the age of 24?
"My grandmother showed me how great it is to get old. She was pretty. She owned so many pretty corsages and dresses, set with colorful feathers and tarot cards. She was magnetizing. She taught me that a lot of women even get prettier the older they get. Wrinkles, maturity, and experience also have an effect on charisma. And I still think that way."

And how do you feel about getting older yourself?
"I think I've never been prettier before [laughs]. My great fear was always becoming one of those old people with all the little aches and pains. But that's not how I feel. I’ll admit: I can't eat all that junk food that I ate at the age of 24 anymore. I gain weight much faster today, and my knees are not doing really well, but except for the fact [that] I hear less well, there's no indication of getting older. But all [of] the experiences and pretty things — the souvenirs of my life — just make me happy. Through my designs, I reinvent myself again and again. I recycle fashion and create new stuff. It's a natural circulation and what keeps me young."
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The One will take place on October 6 at Friedrichstadt-Palast. More than 100 artists will perform in Gaultier’s designs on the world's biggest show stage.
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