L'Enfant Eternel

3.14.2012

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.

Gaultier’s grand gift as a designer has been to subvert the rigorous rules applied to masculinity and femininity in fashion. The “enfant terrible” tag was only ever a euphemism by the straight media attempting to get their heads around his bringing gay subcultures to the masses. “Exactly, definitely it was that,” he concurs. “That name came from people who did not know what to say about me. People were interested in me and they didn’t know what to call it. So they said, ‘Enfant terrible.’ I was against the codes we had in Paris. Through clothes, I felt that you could say something. In my shows, I could show a different type of beauty. Through my collections, I tried different casting, different ways of walking, and I loved to show ambiguity. What is masculine and what is feminine, anyway? Why should men not show that they can be fragile or seductive? I am only happy when there is no discrimination.”

In an age of mass-market designer clutches and fragrances, the idea of clothing as a form of cultural revolt feels almost anachronistic. But Gaultier had been incubated amid the ideological temperament of punk and the New Romantics. As a design hand at Pierre Cardin at the start of the ’70s, employed without qualification as an 18-year-old, he had presented to the grand master of Modernism a wedding dress that fit two people. “He didn’t make it, but he loved the idea,” Gaultier says. “It wasn’t like an old French house. It wasn’t that old prostitution of doing everything for money; it was doing things for the love of the idea. He taught me to be truly free-spirited.”

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This unbridled approach to his life and work is what has kept him relevant throughout his career. “He’s always understood fashion as it’s related to the broader sphere -- to pop culture and culture at large,” says Laura Brown, the features and special projects director at Harper’s Bazaar. “He has a wonderful sense of humor about fashion and himself. I saw him at Christmas, and instead of an angel on his tree, he had a teddy bear in a striped top. He has a sense of whimsy and doesn’t worry about being cool. He’s done crazy things for us, like dressed as a nun, and we painted him in stripes. He runs an empire, but he still has that glimmer in his eye.”

Gaultier attributes his cheery demeanor to growing up in a family similarly free of institutional rigor. Individuality was encouraged. “My parents never said anything bad about gay people,” he says. “My grandmother, also, was very clever. I was maybe 11 or 12, and she gave me a book about Christian Dior. It said that he was gay. So I realized that boys could go with boys. I was a little confused at this point, in love with Romeo and with Juliet. I had the great example of Yves Saint Laurent and Mr. BergĂ©, so I understood very easily that men could go to parties as a couple. They set that example. In fashion, you are not rejected because you are gay. I felt like everything was normal in the job I wanted to do.”

When he was 12, the Gaultier family watched the Sidney Poitier film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the young Jean Paul asked his parents what they would do if he were to bring home a black girlfriend. “They said, ‘If you love each other, that is all we care about. We will not say anything. Love is always good,’ ” he recalls. “A few years later, when I said that the girl is perhaps not a girl, they said the same: ‘If you love each other, perfect.’ That gave me peace.”

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