“There are stylists who conceive their collections according to the trends, and there are creators who don’t follow the market, who advance the history of apparel.” These are the words that Didier Grumbach, honorary president of the French Couture Federation, chooses to introduce Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, adding respectfully: “He is an artist who has changed fashion history.” Thanks to the close relations between the two men, Pluris was able to meet the designer and gather his insights on fashion, creativity, art and beauty.
EleganceOne day my father said to me, “I’m taking you hunting in England.” I was 11 years old, and one of the very few young boys at the event. We arrived in Somerset, where it rains all the time. We waited in front of an extraordinary manor house, with other elegantly dressed people who smelled of animals, because tweed in the rain has an animal scent. Then the front door opened, and I saw what has remained for me the very peak of elegance: a gentleman wearing tweed knickerbockers and a jacket, superbly tailored à la Savile Row, with a tweed belt that divided his figure in the middle. He held out one arm in a gesture of incredible elegance, holding a custom-made Purdey shotgun. The best of the best. He was wearing a little cap, slightly tipped, and — most importantly for me — pink Mapa gloves. And no one seemed to be surprised! My father said to me, “That’s the English for you, Jean-Charles.” And I replied, “I want to be English.” From that day on, I called him “Daddy.”
“If fashion is not a real part of the person who creates it, if it is not built on memories, on a kind of proactive melancholy, then it’s no longer fashion — it’s just a product.”
BeautyFor me, real beauty is the beauty that arises by accident, from discontinuity. At first I didn’t like silk, or anything soft. I only had a feeling for what was rough and had a story behind it. My family’s attic had clothes in it that were stained with blood, that had been in battles, clothes that were permeated with sweat. When I saw the oldest tee-shirt in France at Notre Dame — the hair shirt worn by Saint Louis — I was overwhelmed. My aim has never been to create glamour or beauty, but to stir things up. [The industrial designer] Roger Tallon always said to me, “The designer is there to answer a question, whether in fashion or industrial design, about comfort, esthetics or sensuality, whereas the artist is there to ask questions.” I have always been on the border between the two.
FunctionFarrah Fawcett of the TV series Charlie’s Angels wanted me to dress her for a show in which the women would be stronger than the men. I told her, “Send me all of your sportswear.” Two weeks later I received a package full of tennis clothes and jogging suits, and I had an assistant in my studio recut everything down to size XXS. Afterwards, she could hardly zip up her jogging clothes, and when she bent over on the tennis court it was incredibly sensual. That’s how we created Farrah’s look, which became wildly popular. This reinterpretation of American sportswear, starting in 1974 with Farrah Fawcett, was my declaration of love for the United States. Later I worked with Woody Allen, with Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. I liked the functional constraint. My ads from the 1980s, like Iceberg for example, were always composed like old coats of arms, based on a chromatic dimension of balance and geometry.
Barriers and dangerStarting in 1990, I had my fashion show sets designed by Pierre Bismuth, Michel Gondry and Xavier Veilhan, and my music done by Malcolm McLaren or Grace Jones. I had only one thing in mind: fusion, breaking down barriers. As Montaigne said, “There is no idea without duality.” And since I had always been the king of co-opting, I took the history of France and the colors of the flags and made them my own. In the nineties I was exploring the negation of clothing, and I decided to express that in painting-dresses. I asked Keith Haring, Robert Combas and Ben to work with me. I was closer to rock groups, philosophers like Deleuze and artists like Robert Malaval than to fashion designers. What I liked most in fashion was the idea of danger. I had to put on a fashion show every six months, and it had to be dazzling, a performance, with musicians, with scents, in the most extraordinary places, filled with ghosts of the past.
Generosity and embodimentIn today’s creative activity there is an element of generosity and sharing, based on history. Too often we forget history, even though it’s our roots! I’ve learned much more from history than from personal experience. It’s also about transmitting knowledge. There is no egotistical perpetuation. Even if you have power, the shadow of power, you are still vulnerable in relation to the moment when you will be no more. Kant said, “Intuition without concept is blind.” If fashion is not a real part of the person who creates it, if it is not built on memories, on traumas, on a kind of proactive melancholy, then it’s no longer fashion — it’s just a product.
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