As the curtain falls on his last couture show, Jean Paul Gaultier and his forever muse, Algerian-French model and filmmaker Farida Khelfa, sit down for an intimate chat about life, fashion, and the future
Laughter echoes across the soaring spaces inside the Jean Paul Gaultier Paris headquarters. The couturier and his muse Farida Khelfa are engrossed in each other’s presence. While this very well may be their last Vogue photo shoot together, posing in the designer’s ultimate haute couture collection, along with iconic pieces from former seasons from a career spanning 50 years, neither is ready nor wanting to throw in the towel, just yet.
FARIDA KHELFA Your last haute couture show. What was going through your mind?
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER I had been thinking about this particular fashion show for some time. Everything was ready, we had invaded the Châtelet theater at the last minute – we couldn’t arrive earlier because there was a previous performance – and I had the shock of experiencing a feeling like it was my first show, not my last. I thought, oh my, the theater is packed. I felt the same panic as I did at my first show in 1976 but I also felt an uncontrollable joy. I thought to myself, I have to let go. I’m always there fixing the sleeves, but this time, I let everything go. I wanted to live it. I was thinking, no, this isn’t the right hair and this isn’t the right makeup, but everything started, and I too, consciously, decided to also take pleasure in the moment, in the magic. It was magnificent, beautiful, and amusing. It was moving because all these people who incarnated – and still do – my vision of fashion had come together. And of course, for me, it was essential that you be there with us. I couldn’t have done this show without you.
FK During the opening tableau I felt overcome with emotion. To begin, I thought, don’t fall! [Laughing] It was very moving. Backstage, it was beautiful. There was a real intimacy among all the women and many people found themselves together again after many years. There was an atmosphere that I had never experienced at any show. Then, on stage, a movie by William Klein was projected for this opening scene and I remembered we had filmed with him, for two days, at Mouffetard. It was a great fashion film. Everything washed over me in that moment and I thought, wow.
On the topic of your vision of fashion, this last collection featured 200 of 250 couture looks created with recycled fabrics. And yet, this is something you have always done.
JPG Yes, I was forced to for lack of money. We had no money, but we had ideas. In hindsight, this also helped me find my own style. I took things from the street and transformed them. The tutu and the perfecto. Hybrid clothing. Mix and match.
FK That was then; now, you certainly have the means to make a collection as you desire and you still chose to create with this same spirit for repurposing fabrics.
JPG My parents were modest. During the second world war, my mother had taken a pair of pants belonging to my father and made herself a skirt, because she couldn’t afford the fabric. I love this spirit. Today we’re not at war, but I still love to mix and match. Take three items of clothing and mix them together to create something new. Find a new significance and geometry from the combination of the sophistication of haute couture and the biker spirit from the street. Take a perfecto and make new sleeves with feathers. It’s a renaissance. Haute couture recycling. Actually, we’ve regularly done this with our haute couture clients. They bring me their dresses and we alter them. Give them new life.
FK I love a Gaultier suit. They are the most beautiful and with the best cut. The day of the show, I wore a Gaultier spencer jacket, which I have had for a long time, and the shoulders are exactly what we see in the magazines today. That says something. Very few people make beautiful shoulders. For me, that’s what is most important, in regards to couture. Your ready-to-wear has beautiful shoulders, too. I also have a weakness for trench coats. It’s what I love the most. I have many, from the Eighties. These are quality clothes. You touched on the fact that we are not at war, but in a way, we are fighting a war on consumption.
JPG I love fashion; it’s my passion and it’s my life. But there are too many clothes. There aren’t enough people to wear them all. We’re at a point where we have to know what we’re good at instead of trying to do everything. Sometimes, there are wars between fashion groups, that strive to eliminate the other. And so they do everything, and too much. Today, there are streets lined with boutiques with clothes from new designers but when you are a visual person, and you see so many images of new clothes – which really aren’t so new after all – you go, next, next, next, not wanting anything at all.
FK It’s an overdose. And such poor quality. Personally, I’m looking for a beautiful piece, not a seasonal item. I thought that the message that you gave for your last couture show was magisterial. If we have talent, we can retouch and re-twist a piece. If you can’t, maybe you should do something else. Even with regards to food – when you consider that people throw food out and cover it with bleach so people can’t eat it, or burn clothes, I feel sick. We need to get a grip on our responsibilities. JPG We are all responsible. Luxury has become industrial. So since we have so many clothes, why not go back and redo them in an artisanal way? Instead of killing ourselves to “be first,” we need to instead consider what are the real needs of today.
FK We need to return to local artistry. We have the savoir faire. For me, luxury is rarity. If it’s everywhere, it’s something else…
FK It’s up to the youth to show us. I’ve seen young Arab designers create remarkable things – often the lack of money forces you to find solutions – I’ve seen them go to landfills and create incredible pieces from garbage.
JPG What I’d like to say isn’t a critique, but an observation. Today, a fashion designer’s dream is to enter a group, to have the chauffeur, a certain life, and to be famous right away. This brings about careers where they lose themselves afterwards in the competition, and they’re not thinking about what the moment and epoch actually need. They get lost amid inter-designer competition. The proof that none of this is sustainable is that we don’t even talk about what dress we liked but what designer is going where and who is going to be the number one.
FK Exactly. It’s musical chairs. I would even go further to say that the front row at a show has become even more important than the runway itself. It’s a problem. Imagine if we start filming the people who are in the front row of a concert instead of the star on-stage. It means that something is not working.
JPG And when we film, what do we do? The model arrives, she turns, we’re already looking at the photo – did we get it? Oh, quick! Another model is coming out. No one is looking at the back! Ha! Now there’s an idea for a collection. Have two girls come out with the same look, one wearing the front, one wearing the back. That would be funny. Fashion is also about emotion, desire, the dream. How can we have any of that if we’re busy taking photos? Now, our emotions our virtual; they aren’t real.
FK After 50 years of career and real emotions, do you feel sad? What is next for you?JPG It was just a mise-en-bouche! [Laughter] My goodbyes were just my goodbyes to fashion as I have practiced it thus far. You know, Fashion Freak Show was the beginning of my adieu, all this rhythm of the shows… Couture will go on, but without me. I will give advice, there will be a new concept, and I will be something of an ambassador of the brand – after all, it is my name. I have chosen my successor and I will be at the shows, but in the audience. And I will also go and see my friends who interest me.
I’ve seen shows by Mugler where he went all-out that were extraordinary; the same for Kawakubo. I’ve had moments of love at first sight for the work of Martin Margiela, who was an assistant for me. I adore Galliano. There are many – I think Iris van Herpen is fantastic.
I’ll always do something. All my career I’ve done things I never thought I would do – an album, television, cinema costumes, costumes for Madonna, Kylie Minogue, or Boy George – someone who really represented such freedom. These are stars I admire, and who purchased my clothes. Yes, that was normal! You worked and were paid for that work. Now, it’s a different time. You make contracts so that people wear your work. And frankly, that hurts me – to pay someone to wear your clothes.
I started doing fashion in the first place to be loved. I did it with enthusiasm, with the enthusiasm of a child. It was all a bit bohemian and bordélique. Now, I’m ready to stop because the rhythm is somewhat tiring. Also, everything is centered more on marketing rather than pure creativity. I’ve always been free and I want to continue that way.
FK Personally, I want to work. My kids are grown; they are at university. I need to re-center myself and not just work to work but to help others. I’ve been fortunate in my life and this chance should be shared, be it through film, documentaries, or with associations. Maybe I can help people, in France. When you arrive in Paris and you see all these tents, mass migrations, you can’t just throw these people into the sea. We need to do concrete things. It didn’t call me before, but it does now. Also, there is my work with the Middle East – I love going to Arab countries and working with young designers. Transmit and share.
JPG You have the talent.
FK My first film was about you.
JPG I said yes right away because I had confidence in you. Regardless, I was surprised at how precise and clean your vision was. Aesthetically it was perfect, too. You’re also a great actor. You have so many talents; you have to do it all. And of course, we have to keep working together, too. FK Absolutely. We haven’t finished our work together. I think that in France, we devalue working. It’s as if working is perceived as degrading. What we don’t say enough to people is that unemployment is what is degrading. That’s when we start to degrade physically and mentally – when we are unemployed. Work is what keeps you going. It keeps you alive. It wakes you up in the morning. It’s so important in one’s life. Maybe at another time we could spend a life without working but it would not go well. It never does. Not working is catastrophic for people. We need to be busy and the best way to do that is to work, and besides, one needs to earn a living.
JPG I agree with everything you say. In the 1970s, I remember government officials would arrive for work and take one-and-a-half hours to take out their dossiers. Then they would calculate how they would earn their extra days off, and then go for lunch, and one hour before their time was up they would start packing their briefcases. I know that at the time there were people who were satisfied to be paid for not working. It’s something of a French mentality. I myself remember taking the metro and sliding under the bar to get a free ride. I was a kid. France is a marvelous country, with many beautiful things, and beautiful ideas, but to realize them takes hard work.
Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia