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Jean Paul Gaultier: “My Passion Was to Make Things That Couldn't be Found Anywhere Else”

Jean Paul Gaultier

The de Young museum unveils the much anticipated “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” on Saturday, March 24. Jean Paul Gaultier has landed in town. First stop: Academy of Art University.

It's not every sunny San Francisco day a fashion heavyweight visits. JPG was greeted by an adoring crowd of students and faculty for a bonjour and awarding of an Honorary Doctorate degree from the University's president Dr. Elisa Stephens. Gladys Perint Palmer, the Executive Director of Fashion, asked the couturier a simple, yet inspired question: How do you keep the magic alive? Referring to fashion's opulent heyday of the late '80s/early '90s, when Gaultier emerged as a full throttle fashion force. One who avoided commercialism and pioneered creative collaborations, cue Madonna, The Fifth Element, and so much more.

Gaultier replied: “I was not as fortunate to go to a fashion school. Learning a base in excellent.” He went on to confess a pinnacle point in his childhood when revelation struck. “It's because of something very personal, when I was at school. I was rejected because I was not good at gymnastics. So I was sketching by myself. I was influenced by TV. One time I saw girls dancing and I was so impressed I wanted to reproduce it. My teacher saw it and because I didn't listen to her, she put my sketch on my back. And she made me go to other classes and show it to humiliate me.”

And with many negative life situations, the light eventually emerged: “Years later I realized, with my sketches I could do something. In some way, be different. To make something unique makes you different, and people love that. Because they are surprised. My sketches became a passport.”

Gaultier, in his warm and humorous way, completely motivated a room of aspiring fashion students. “If you have a job, you have to be passionate. Do it because you love it. The first function of the clothes is to dress. When you copy, and it's already been done, you cannot do it better. I always felt secure, through my sketches I could live. I didn't think about how to make it.”

“It's not exactly art.” Gaultier's words of fashion wisdom were woven with insights into the winding world that is. “The '80s and '90s, that magic, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, they were designers in the old way. Doing their own thing. Don't be jealous, don't try to compete.” And spoken like a true confident: “Sometimes it's good to have critics.”

Sincere, passionate, funny, no wonder Gaultier has prevailed. He mentions the exhibition and jokes about questioning whether he was passé, since most museum retrospectives honor designers who have passed away. He laughed that notion off and saw it as a way to recreate different periods of things he “loves, cherishes and are important” to him.

In many interviews with Gaultier he mentions his grandmother, whom he adored. A nurse, beauty queen and tarot card reader, she taught him that you can communicate through your appearance. “Express your desires” he seductively said. “Have beauty and adventure with your profession, with art, music, with sketches, with design, with fashion. It's your world to communicate. Always be in contact with reality, even if you want to be different, and if you want to dream.”

For the next hour, Gaultier toured the Polk Street campus, gracing his presence at knitting, screen printing, draping, sketching and styling classes. He engaged with students, offering up observations and many très biens. Students were quietly ecstatic, but how can you continue your work after a visit from a fashion legend?

Don't sweat it, you'll finish your work. When asked how Gaultier knows when a design is complete? “It's hard to say. You have work that needs work or you can see when a work is not complete and you just need to stop it. And then there's the phase when it doesn't mean anything else. But sometimes it would be excellent if we didn't show all the things that are not complete.”

Passions come and go, and some are here to stay, today's lesson from JPG is to just keep following them, wherever they take you.

Photography by Angie Silvy

Sam Durbin (sami.7x7@gmail.com) is a California lifestyle writer who honed her blogging skills as Editor of FabSugar.com. Sam graduated from The Fashion Institute of Technology, and also writes for 7x7 Magazine, Gilt City and Zagat.