Jean Paul Gaultier on sailors, Eurotrash and why Madonna 'loves' his Fashion Freak Show

The sweetest, loveliest man in fashion ("it’s too much work to pretend to be what I am not!") reflects on getting older and David Beckham's 90s sarong in our exclusive interview


Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Provided

Jean Paul Gaultier is showing me photos of his favourite urinals on his phone.
“It’s nice – classical!” he enthuses of the loos in London celeb hotspot The Chiltern Firehouse, where he was recently partying. “With the marble here… it’s beautiful. Art!”
I nod along, eagerly. When the fashion icon behind Madonna’s cone bra offers you a lesson in good taste, you lap it up. That is, until I can’t anymore. I have a short amount of time to interview him - about the return of his catwalk show/musical revue Frankenstein’s monster Fashion Freak Show – and minutes later he’s still waxing lyrical about lavatories. At this rate, I’ll be dashing to the gents myself.

That said, I love the eccentricity. And I could listen to JPG talk about absolutely anything all day long - that’s how obsessed I am with his beautiful accent: a musical French cadence that takes me straight back to the 90s, and his time presenting cult Channel 4 show Eurotrash.

“I’m very glad, and flattered that you told me that,” he says when I remind him of the many LGBTQs he educated about sex-positivity through the show, which offered a saucy whistlestop tour of the continent and beyond. “It came after my boyfriend died of [AIDS-related causes in 1990]. It was very good that it arrived to me then. I had fun.

"It was a good moment with [co-presenter] Antoine de Caunes. He’s so kind and laughs so much! I was not at all professional! But I enjoyed it. When he asked me if I wanted to do it, I said: ‘No, I’d be no good, I’m not a presenter'. He said: 'Don’t worry! Be yourself!' I didn’t know what he was meaning until I saw it. He meant, be yourself, which is quite gay!”

"Go and do the things you like – you want more of that"

Attitude meets JPG at Fashion Freak Show rehearsals in West London, where we’ve just watched a pack of dancers shake their stuff to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ and Divine’s ‘You Think You’re a Man’. The segment, we're told, revolves around some of Jean Paul's inspirations.

“It was a dream to do a revue, a cabaret, like it was my dream to do fashion,” he tells me. “When I was choosing ‘what will I say?’, it was: ‘Things that I know,’” he explains. “The story of my life. And things that I love: fashion, beauty. What I did in my fashion shows before.”

Here, the Paris-based style guru talks Nana the Bear - his cherished childhood toy for whom he designed his earliest looks - plus his thoughts on Drag Race France and Absolutely Fabulous, on which he cameoed…

Where does Nana the Bear actually live?

She lives in a box of shoes. In a special place. With the same perfume that she’s always had. Sometimes I show her in photographs. Now she’s the star of the show!

Has Madonna seen Fashion Freak Show [below]?

Yes, she did. She enjoyed it. She said she loved it very much. She liked one of the [dancers] who is blonde, doing it a bit like Madonna.

What is Madonna’s second-most iconic look, after the cone bra [below]?

The beginning. It was a little in the spirit of me already! The first time I saw her was on TV on Top of the Pops. It’s true! Just after punk, the beginning of the 80s, a little in the trendy club. The gloves, the St Christopher – I was already doing jewellery like that. So, I found her to be exactly what I liked. I thought she was British. I couldn’t imagine she was American! Avant-garde. She had that sense.

You’re known for being warm and friendly, when a lot of people in fashion, maybe, aren’t. Has it always been important to you to be so?

It’s too much work to pretend to be what I am not! It’s normal. To be honest, when I was shy, I was lying all the time, because I was not very happy. I was lying to be accepted. I was never a macho teenager, I was no good at football - so when I did the profession I wanted to do, my dream, I said: ‘Now, I don’t lie.’

I was reading that you’re close to your grandmother, as are a lot of gay men. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because maybe they understand us more than the parents. My parents were great, and very open-minded, but… I had my teddy bear, and why? Because they didn’t want me to have a doll. My grandmother had a doll of the dead sister of my mother. I loved it. It was a very old one, from the beginning of the last century.

As well as Eurotrash, your sailor imagery was very important to many people's sexual development...

It was because of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s movies! The sailors, the bikers… But the parenthesis is, it’s sad. When they were fishing or whatever, the sailor sometimes fell down, because they were drunk or whatever, and they’d have to find them in the dark. With the lights, they could see some things moving strange, because of the strips. It’s very graphic. It saves lives.

What is your advice to younger gay men about getting older?

Go and do the things you like – you want more of that. Of course, I see wrinkles and stuff like that, but you have to accept them. It’s as beautiful as an old denim. The more denim gets old, the better it is. And some people get better looking because of their brain.

What’s your advice to someone who wants to elevate their style but has little money?

Buy less! And good ones! If you want to make it up to date, you know what you do? Cut your t-shirt and make a crop top! Show your abdominals… although I don’t know if I can. My stomach is a little too big!

David Beckham famously wore one of your sarongs in the 90s and got a lot of anti-gay abuse for it. What was going through your mind when that happened?

I was sad for him, and very surprised. But he didn’t care about it. He’s a heterosexual guy, everybody knows that. Clothes are something you can have. And many heterosexuals dress as women! In England especially. The perversity!

Did you enjoy working on Absolutely Fabulous?
It was fantastic, but I am a very bad actor! I loved the series. The French version was a catastrophe. I prefer to forget it!
Who are you backing to win Drag Race France?
La Grande [Dame] is my preference! She’s fabulous. She has good taste and is a good performer. I love her.

Fashion Freak Show runs at Camden’s Roundhouse from July-August.