L'Enfant Eternel


By Paul Flynn

Jean Paul Gaultier is celebrating his 60th birthday with a luxe retrospective -- but the king of the French fashion establishment has never shied from his iconoclastic ways.

Photo Collages by Damien Blottiere

Jean Paul Gaultier knows how he will spend his 60th birthday in April. “I will stay in my bed,” he says, affecting a theatrically glum expression, folding down his bottom lip. “Crying.”

It may provide a moment of philosophical reflection for the designer, on the nickname that has shadowed him since he took his uniquely countercultural and unapologetically gay eye and sold it directly to the heart of high fashion. “I will say, ‘Ah, no longer the enfant terrible! Now I am the old terrible,’ ” he jokes. Despite no longer being a spring poulet, the whiff of youthful, jubilant anarchy still clings to Monsieur Gaultier like his signature fragrance.

I wait for the designer on the second-floor suite of his Paris atelier, which is up a comically grand, baroque stairwell, surrounded by lonely mannequins, mirrored partitions, and frescoes of his latest campaign imagery -- a Sistine Chapel of canary-yellow corsetry. Gaultier is downstairs in his showroom, talking a princess (whom he won’t name) through her wedding dress. As a bespoke couturier, he is still in high demand. “I was never an empire-builder,” he says later, “the business did not concern me.” On completing his royal nuptial business, he bounds into the room.

There is nothing subtle about Gaultier: His gestures are roomy, his accent drunk on its own Gallic extravagance, like somebody doing an impression of a Frenchman. He is in fine physical shape. “I am doing, not a diet, but eating how I should have ate before,” he says. “It’s no secret. A lot of fruit in the morning, protein and green vegetables, no sugar.” His volume and energy is of a man half his age. Tellingly, save for the odd glass of Champagne, he rarely drinks. “Thirty years ago, I had hepatitis,” he says, “not the horrible one. But I can feel it when I drink.”

SLIDESHOW: Exclusive Gaultier Looks From 1990 to Today

The only visual disappointment in meeting a man whose career I have followed with a fan’s eye is that he’s not wearing a Breton stripe, the sartorial sailor detail he stole over 40 years ago and made his own. He first used the stripe as a diametric tribute, both to the Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie Querelle (“The atmosphere of that film was like a fever, elemental”) and his own pleasant childhood in Parisian suburbia. “I used to see them at flea markets,” he says of the sweaters. “I made one into a dress, something of a man for a woman. So très bien. Leslie Winer was the model. So beautiful. The first androgynous model. Fabulous. She was moving like a guy. She worked with William Burroughs. I gave her an umbrella, and, without even telling her, she carried it like James Dean in East of Eden down the catwalk. That attitude was so fantastic.” Voilà: the ’80s.

Tags: Fashion