Jean Paul Gaultier: ‘I love the eccentricity and the freedom of England’

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

The French fashion designer on Eurotrash, proposing to Madonna, and the new cabaret show about his wild life

Conical bras, striped sailor tops and gender-neutral designs… Jean Paul Gaultier has been in fashion for more than 50 years. He has dressed Madonna, Björk and Lady Gaga, and was elevated to cult status in the 1990s as the co-presenter of Channel 4’s Eurotrash, with Antoine de Caunes. The French designer recently turned 70, and his wild, eventful life will be celebrated in a song-and-dance cabaret, Fashion Freak Show, at the Roundhouse in London this summer.

Have you always had a strong connection with the UK?
Yes! The first time I came to England, to London, it was like somewhere very close to Paris, but completely different. The people, the architecture, the weather, the spirit. It was beginning of the 1970s, so I saw Tommy the movie, The Rocky Horror Show, the punks. For me, it was something incredible; nobody else but the English could do something like that. I love the eccentricity and the freedom. Whereas in France we are a little bourgeois: there’s no sense of humour, no sense of self-criticism. You have always to be so nice and so elegant. Truly, I hate that, and I love that in England there is a contrast: fantasy is completely accepted.

Was there anything about the UK you didn’t like?
At the beginning, the food was not good. Now it’s very good – it has been for many years – but before it was only Indian and Chinese restaurants where it was OK. The rest was absolutely disgusting. But it changed, everything changed, so now you have the perfect 12 points to England. No, that is wrong that they didn’t give you any points for Eurovision.

‘I remember the first time I saw Madonna singing Holiday on Top of the Pops… I was surprised an American could dress like that’

You’re a big Eurovision fan. Why have the UK done so badly in recent years?
It’s sad but it’s politics. Because OK, the 2021 song [James Newman’s Embers] was not one of the greatest, but it was not that bad. And to make zero, I think it’s because of Brexit or something like that, which is quite disgusting.

You were already very well known as a fashion designer when you started presenting Eurotrash in the 1990s. Was that a fun break from your day job?
My first collection was in 1976, and in 1990 my boyfriend [Francis Menuge] died. And that truly was a moment where I felt I was missing one arm, or two arms actually. So I had the proposition of Antoine de Caunes [to present Eurotrash in 1994] but I tell him: “I am not a presenter. I don’t know how to speak.” And he says: “No problem. You just have to be yourself.” Bon, which was meaning maybe the gay one! So after I realised that it was him and me, but very French, so: let’s do it. And I think it was funny.

More recently you have been a judge on the French version of Strictly Come Dancing
Oh, that was a big mistake. I don’t regret it but I didn’t like it. I thought I should have loved to do it, because I have been a fan some time of the programme, but you had to critique [the dancers] and give some advice, which is not my cup of tea. They have to do what they feel, and I am not able to say technically what they have to do.

After 50 years in the business you presented your final haute couture show in 2020. Do you miss fashion?
Oh, not at all, no! I like to do things about fashion but I don’t want to do fittings any more. So if somebody asks me to make an exhibition about a subject like denim or corsetry, I would love to do that. And that’s why I did the Fashion Freak Show, because I was getting to 50 years of fashion and I like to express myself about it.

What should the audience expect from the Fashion Freak Show?
For the show, they will see a little of my life. Actually, not a little, but it’s my life without the detail, explaining how a little boy, from a very good grandmother, dressed his teddy bear with the conic bra when he was seven years old, long before Madonna!

Madonna famously wore that conical bra on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. Is it true that you proposed marriage to her?
Oh yes, two or three times. But always no, no, no.

What would you have done if she’d said yes?
I would have realised, I suppose: “Oh my God, what did I ask?” She was such a strong woman. I remember the first time I saw her: it was on Top of the Pops and she was singing Holiday and I thought she was English. I remember thinking: “Oh that one, she’s good, how she dresses, and the music is nice, I like her.” But she was American! I was surprised that an American can dress like that.

Throughout your career you picked unconventional models, with diverse ages and body types. Did that feel radical when you did it?
I wanted to show that there is a lot of beauty in difference. There is not only one type of beauty. I have always loved difference – maybe because I was different myself, in some way. So I didn’t want the models that were so professional. I prefer to see girls that I saw in a club, like for example in Le Palace [the Studio 54 of Paris], which is where the French punks went. I didn’t want Parisian chic. I wanted the opposite girl: the modern girl.

Your clothes are a big part of the current revival of 90s fashion, being worn by the likes of Zendaya and Kendall Jenner. Do you feel proud that your work remains relevant?
Very proud. It means that I didn’t make mistake! But also I didn’t make only fast fashion, fashion that only lasts one season, things that come and go. And I have pleasure to see that. Even though I don’t want to make any more collections myself, my idea to take a different designer each season [to reinterpret Jean Paul Gaultier designs] is going very well. I see even the wife of Willy Smith was wearing one of the dresses, the green dress is a Gaultier with [Y/Project’s] Glenn Martens.

The dress Jada Pinkett Smith wore at the Oscars?
Yes! Normally in theatre, green is bad luck. [Laughs] But he wins the award!

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