Jean Paul Gaultier cannot stop gushing about his love for all things British — the punks, the humour, the tartan, David Bowie — all vital inspirations to the French designer.
But it took the Frenchman a while to come round to British cuisine — and some of it remains firmly off the menu.
“Now I love the food — at the beginning no. Apart from the English breakfast,” Gaultier said on Tuesday, gently poking fun at terrible English food and Anglo prudishness as he opened the London leg of a major exhibition celebrating his three decades as one of fashion’s best-loved rebels.
The show features 165 of his over-the-top creations, from Madonna’s cone bras to risque bondage-inspired corsets to men’s skirts.
Some of Gaultier’s designs, like his signature Breton stripes, are unmistakably Gallic. But he said London’s irreverence has always been his inspiration and his escape from the snobbishness of Parisian haute couture.
“It was my vitamin,” he said, speaking English with a thick French accent. “I love the freedom of London. I saw it in the streets, the rock scene, the rock stars, the concerts. The energy, the character, all the people that are different, assuming their own beauty and character.
“In the London clubs they’re there to dance. In Paris, they’re there to pose,” he added.
Gaultier — who can talk a mile a minute — recalled how much he was struck by the original Rocky Horror Show and the punk movement when he visited London in the 1970s.
Bringing that provocative flair back to Paris, the designer would inject a healthy dose of street sassiness into the exclusive world of couture gowns. One of them, a tulle ruffle gown worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in 2000 and shown at the exhibition, sported a camouflage pattern. It took 312 hours to make. Another bejewelled evening dress next to it adorns a mannequin with a green Mohawk hairstyle almost a metre tall.
Gaultier has always embraced the different, preferring tattooed, bald, curvy and androgynous models to stick-thin blondes. At the beginning of his career he posted a newspaper ad that read: “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models — the conventionally pretty need not apply.”
Lifeless mannequins will never do for the exhibition. Instead, organisers showed the garments on mannequins with uncannily lifelike faces that blink, stare and speak. Those modelling his extravagant mermaid gowns beckon with their siren song, and there is even a projection-beamed version of Gaultier greeting visitors.
At 61, Gaultier is as mischievous and energetic as ever. But with this retrospective — which has already toured New York and other cities in the US and Europe — the designer is also reflective about aging and the transience of fashion. London is the eighth stop for the exhibition, launched by the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal in 2011. The retrospective, already seen by a million visitors according to the organisers, will be held in Paris at the Grand Palais in 2015.
“My view about beauty is not concerned with stereotype. Getting old can also be very beautiful,” he said.
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” runs to August 25 at London’s Barbican Centre.