Legendary designer Jean Paul Gaultier on his journey of five decades


The global debut of this fashion retrospective marks Jean Paul Gaultier’s first trip to Dubai. Jean Paul Gaultier: From A to Z includes pieces that have been worn by Cate Blanchett, Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Kylie Minogue and Marion Cotillard. A designer who believes that fashion must represent the times we live in, Gaultier has been talking about gender, inclusivity and consumption issues long before mainstream fashion started having the conversation. The exhibition, which has been curated by Thierry Maxime Loriot, has been made to be recycle-friendly using wooden crates (produced in Dubai) that can be dismantled and reused when this show tours other cities. There is always such thought to everything this designer does.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

You are a known wanderluster, and have been inspired by so many cultures in your collection (including India and Japan), but this is your first trip to Dubai…

This trip has been a discovery of a new world. I love it, it is an incredible city. I am very pleased to represent French fashion at Expo 2020. When I was younger, I did not enjoy modern architecture, even that of New York. Till I went to New York and saw the beauty. Now we are here in Dubai and the architecture is truly spectacular. Dubai has an energy and I understand why there are so many young people from all over the world who want to come and live here. This city is the new world, it is the future.

Let’s start with the letter U from the exhibition, as that is for upcycling, which is such a focus in fashion now. But you have been upcycling since your early days in fashion.

To be honest, I started with no money. It is good to start like this; it forces you to become creative and you have to find a solution. I made a plastic bag into a dress. In some ways, there is irony here today. They make recycled plastic bags. I upcycled a plastic bag into a piece of fashion. The bracelets are made with cat food tins. In one of my last collections, I used ties from the 1940s and ’50s and patchworked it with other leftover fabrics to make this body suit. I always love to make something old new again.

Do you think we need to be more conscious about consumption?

We definitely need to think about ecology and what is happening around the world. We can consume less things and maybe an old dress can be transformed and given a new life. I remember my mother telling me how they used to dress in the 1940s, you know at that time there really were no new clothes to be found. She took my father’s trousers and opened them up and made a skirt out of it. For me, this transformation was so interesting.

Talking about turning men’s clothes into women’s, genderless fashion seems to be having a real moment. You have always blurred the lines between men and women, as shown by the men’s corset on display at the event.

It just happened naturally without me realising. Like the jackets I have made. Men’s jackets have a pocket on the left side to keep money, so this was something I thought of when I was making jackets for women. I wanted to put a pocket on the right side, it was a small detail but the people who wore my clothes got it, and enjoyed this detail.

With your use of embroidery and textures, you create objet d’art. Is fashion an art, according to you?

I see fashion as a reflection of the times we live in. We are supposed to reflect what is the need, what people are dreaming about. Take my conical bra as an example, it is about protection. It was not about objectifying women; it represents the strength of women. It is provocative in that it shows that a woman knows what she is wearing and doing. That she is a warrior.

Madonna, of course, was a muse. Tell us about your experience of working with her.

I have such admiration for the music she creates and the provocation she represented. I first thought she was not American, I thought, with her vibe, she must live in London. I worked with her for her tours, she was buying many of my clothes. She is a strong woman when it comes to style and was very mature in her approach to everything. She is passionate, and this is very important for any creative.

In 2020, you took a step away and designed your last haute couture collection. What made you do this?

I started at 18, so it was 50 years. It was time for me to move on and to give younger designers a platform. The first designer we worked with was Sacai’s Chitose Abi. She is such a talented Japanese designer, she took inspiration from the archival pieces I have designed and applied her signature splicing approach that she is known for. It was so well-appreciated. Then for the last couture presentation, we worked with Belgian designer Glenn Martens (of Y Project). He has such a unique take on clothing construction, it was a really interesting result.

(Jean Paul Gaultier: From A to Z is now open at the France Pavilion at Expo 2022)