Jean Paul Gaultier Reflects on How Cinema Shaped His Career

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Jean Paul Gaultier at the Ischia Global Film and Music Fest

The French enfant terrible was recently honored with a career achievement award in Italy.

For more than 40 years, Jean Paul Gaultier has been turning the fashion world upside down — and he has no intention of slowing down. Fashion's original enfant terrible was recently feted at the Ischia Global Film and Music Fest, where he was celebrated for his long career in fashion. Upon accepting his career achievement award, he noted that he wouldn't have become a designer if it weren't for cinema.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the couture king in Ischia, where he reminisced over his biggest cinematic influences to date: Bridget Bardot and Marlon Brando. He's been inspired by many film over the years, including The Untouchables, Barbarella,The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Tommy.

It's no coincidence that the cinema lover went on to design costumes for his favorite directors including Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And he famously created the costumes that defined the look and feel of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. His role as a costume designer helped land him a spot on the 2012 Cannes jury, a role he's been itching to repeat for other top fests, if time ever allows. However, with his current schedule of creating two couture shows a year, time is not a luxury he enjoys.

Gaultier has defined countless best-of-red-carpet moments, from Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning mermaid moment to Cate Blanchett's sculpted silk lilac Golden Globes gown. He has created looks for celebrities as diverse as Boy George, George Michael, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyonce, but his favorite collaboration remains his work for Madonna, cone bras and all, a relationship dating back to the red carpet of Desperately Seeking Susan.

THR spoke with Gaultier about how he sees his work as a documentary of the times, and why his upcoming couture show will pay tribute to his original inspiration: the cabaret.

How did cinema originally inspire you to become a fashion designer?

The first thing I saw that shocked me in a good way: I was 9 years old, and they were showing a cabaret premiere on TV — Folies Bergere, which is kind of like the Ziegfeld Follies. What I found beautiful was the costumes. So I sketched them, and I dressed my teddy bear, because I didn't have a doll, like Folies Bergere, with feathers, outfits and everything. For two years now, I have been preparing my own cabaret runway show, inspired by Folies Bergere. I am very excited to bring it to life.

The other key moment for me was when I was 13, I saw the movie Falbalas, a grand movie from the '40s by Jacques Becker. It was showing the world of haute couture, the fittings, the muses, these people walking with the lights and the audience looking at it. It was beautiful. And I said, "Oh, I want to do that," custom fitting, and so on.

And how did this translate to your own work?

Always in my shows I should say I make kind of a cinematography. I try to find a character of the time, of the period, not to take a professional model but maybe a new girl, a girl with character. So I chose them like that. My shows are like a little scene, more like a documentary, showing the reality of the day.

It was in '76 that I did my first collection. At that time, I was feeling very close to what was happening more in London, not the fashion scene, but the scene of what was happening in music, etc. I remember Farida Khelfa, I remember she was walking down the runway chewing gum. The models asked me how they should walk and I said, "Don’t walk like a model. Just be yourself." And the reaction at the time was, "Oh, my God — they don’t even know how to walk!" They were very of the time, very much strong girls.

In my fourth show, I asked the queen of French punk, Edwige Belmore, to sing in playback "My Way," like Sid Vicious. And someone came up to me after the show and said, "But you will never sell clothes if you do things like that." And I didn’t care. I was trying to do clothes that were wearable with the feeling of the time without analyzing it, because I was surrounded by girls that were inspiring me.

You're known for so many iconic pieces, from male skirts to cone bras. Why don’t we see so many statement pieces in fashion today?

I think because they want to sell. I was lucky because I was on my own. I started with nothing, so I didn’t have somebody telling me do this, do that. I was free. I love to be free, which is why I make my shows how I want. And now you see there is a movement for men to wear skirts in the U.K.

But I sold a lot of clothes, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but doing it my way. I think there are other designers who earn a lot of money, but they are employees. Fashion is a moment. The fact that I am still in it is kind of a miracle. I have no complaints.

Do you think your fashion has helped people feel more comfortable to be themselves?

I hope so. I don’t know if it did, but even if it did for one person, I am very happy. I should say that I was lucky, because my grandmother made me accept myself. And she did in a very natural way, so I only realized she was helping me only 20, 30 years after. I didn’t realize it, but she was doing things that let me do and express myself completely.

Also another thing, when I started in fashion I knew that, for example, [Pierre] Berge was with Yves St. Laurent, and so when I went into fashion I thought that since I was like them, maybe I would be accepted. I felt it was natural. So I was lucky.

Some people sometimes tell me that I never get to the demonstrations, like the gay demonstrations, but I say yes, when I do my show, I show it. I don’t make a show for gays, no — I make a show for a lot of people, different people. And what I show is different kinds of people, men, women, different sexualities, different religions, it’s all that.

Who has been your favorite person to dress?

Each time the story is personal, so each time for me it is good. But with Madonna it was different, because we were exactly the same. It was truly incredible. She was a little like the girl I was inspired by when I started, at the same time masculine and feminine, always fighting like that, but in a soft way, and nice way, and charming way. It was a fabulous experience.

In the '80s, she was at that time buying her own clothes. Now they don't do that anymore. So she had two of my dresses in '85 for the Desperately Seeking Susan premiere, one for the afternoon and one for the evening, the dress with the suspenders. One time she had done a copy of mine, in black satin with pom-poms. I saw her and I didn’t say, "Don’t copy my dress," but I said, "If you want it, I can do it for you."

There was only one look I created for her that she didn’t take. It was inspired by And God Created Woman, that scene where Bridget Bardot is on the beach, very wet, very sexy in a shirt dress. From that I was thinking Madonna, but like a virgin, the real Virgin Mary with a veil, in the shower. She loved the idea, but they said be careful. The contract with Pepsi-Cola was almost canceled because she did the video and it would have been too much.

Do you think it's important in your work to not take yourself too seriously?

I think it’s important in life. Honestly, I accept only the projects where I feel I will have fun.

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