Devil and the details
It's the eve of Jean Paul Gaultier's first fashion show on the mainland, and the view from his suite at the Park Hyatt in Beijing is of a smog-filled sky. But the haze does not appear to dull the Frenchman's effervescence.
Gaultier turned 60 on April 24, and his status as one of high fashion's most famous iconoclasts remains intact.
'I am a Taurus and a Dragon,' he says, flashing an impish smile that many will remember from the television programme Eurotrash, which he co-hosted with Antoine de Caunes for seven series from 1993. He's wearing a T-shirt and a pair of trousers adorned with black rhinestones on the legs.
Gaultier has had a bountiful year, his creative influence having extended beyond the realm of fashion. The exhibition 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier', has been touring major cities from Montreal to San Francisco. The catalogue is massive, spanning decades of work: 'You can do gymnastics with it, as well; it's like a weight,' he says, jokingly.
In March, he was named creative director for Diet Coke in Europe, and he has designed two limited edition bottles and shot a series of offbeat commercials for the soft drinks giant.
It was announced a few weeks ago that Gaultier would be on the jury for the Cannes International Film Festival alongside, among others, actor Ewan McGregor and director Alexander Payne. 'I was flattered to be appointed ... super flattered. This was like a dream for me. I did not expect it.'
Although Gaultier has visited Hong Kong and Shanghai before, this is his first trip to the Chinese capital. At a private dinner at Mei Mansion, named after famous Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang, in Beijing's Xicheng district later that evening, stars and socialites trickle in, including singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, actor Simon Yam Tat-wah and lyricist Wyman Wong Wai-man.
During the 10-course dinner, Gaultier expresses his admiration for Chinese opera, adding that a few days earlier, he bought two pairs of shoes traditionally worn for opera performances. Who knows? Perhaps they will provide inspiration for an upcoming collection.
The Chaoyang Museum of Urban Planning is the venue for the runway show the following day, which includes looks from Gaultier's latest couture and ready-to-wear collections. Before the show, the designer is excited. 'I expect a lot of emotion,' he says.
He delivers. Long dresses brush the side of the catwalk. There are coats and dresses made with feathers and fur and covered with graffiti. A delicate, body-hugging floor-length gown delivers a clever take on his signature mariner stripes.
Some Amy Winehouse-inspired looks from his couture show in January make an appearance, the late singer's hit Rehab playing as the models float down the catwalk. Androgynous model Andrej Pejic closes the show in a dress, and Gaultier leaps down the runway with a massive smile on his face as the crowd applauds. He looks like an athlete who has just won Olympic gold.
Gaultier discovered this passion for clothes at a young age.
'It was not about fashion at the beginning; it was about clothes - clothes for women,' he says, adding that as an only child, his grandmother was one of his earliest inspirations. 'I remember when I first discovered her corset. I didn't know what it was exactly.
'I sketched; I read. I didn't go to a fashion school. Journalists were very important because they were making commentary and criticism. So, I learned from the critics.'
He says that it was also a love of film that drew him to fashion; he mentions Falbalas (1945) as a favourite. 'It was so beautiful, that story. So poetic and tragic at the same time. It described so well the profession, the work of fashion, of a couturier, that I wanted to do that when I was 12 years old.'
He was 18 when he went to work for Pierre Cardin. Six years later, he presented his first collection. He has produced fragrances for women and men, and designed costumes for pop stars such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue.
His costumes for Madonna's 1990 Blond Ambition tour made him a household name.
'I was dressing my teddy bear,' he says. 'First, I put him in a cone bra - because it was not a doll; it was a bear. I dressed him as the queen of Belgium.'
Twelve years ago, he designed the costumes for the late Canto-pop star Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's final tour. 'I saw his show in Las Vegas. I loved it,' he says.
Hermes appointed Gaultier as in-house designer for its ready-to-wear collections in 2003 and bought a 45 per cent stake in his company. Last year, the Spanish group Puig - which also owns Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne and Carolina Herrera - bought that stake from Hermes, plus another 15 per cent from Gaultier himself.
His continued success is in part due to his understanding of contemporary culture.
'Clothes can help you communicate,' he says. 'I found out that fashion is related to society, with what's happening in society.'
This first visit to the mainland represents another important step for Gaultier. With so many milestones marked, what's the next challenge for the designer?
'I will try to learn a little Chinese, but I will say maybe it will take some years,' says Gaultier, laughing. 'Already there are collaborations with China, but I need more. I'm only 60.'