Jean Paul Gaultier has come a long way since his schooldays as a granny’s boy with no friends and a penchant for ladies in fish-nets. Ben Cobb does lunch with the king of French fashion and asks him how he first fell in love with la mode…

Rue St Martin, Paris. On the fourth floor of Gaultier HQ, the glossy Marlboro-red lift opens onto a private galley kitchen. A chef in small spectacles and a black-and-white chequered apron is busy preparing lunch on the stainless steel worktop. He smiles and shows me through to an adjoining white room; at the end of a long linen-covered table is a glass wall overlooking a giant concrete atrium. I sit at one of the set places and wait; the tap-tap-tap of the chef’s chopping in the background.

Moments later the lift doors part again and the unmistakable voice – that Pepé Le Pew cartoon French accent – of Jean Paul Gaultier booms around the space: “Bonjour!” A quick chat with the chef about what’s on the menu today, followed by a raucous laugh, and the 56-year-old designer appears around the corner, in black from head to toe, hand outstretched and an unstoppable smile across his face. “Bon!” he blasts, plonking himself down at the head of the table. He delicately unpeels a napkin, places it on his lap and pours himself a mineral water. “I em zo ‘ungry!”

Not many fashion designers become household names. Fewer still become household faces. But Gaultier is both. Since launching his first solo collection back in 1976, he has consistently provided the industry with wit, eccentricity and outrageous headline-grabbing moments: macho sailor pin-up boys; fetish all-in-ones with eye and mouth slits; men in dresses; an entire show based on Hasidic Jews; and his most enduring stamp, underwear worn as outerwear.

Even away from the catwalk, Gaultier could never be called a shrinking violet. During the 90s he hurled himself with gay abandon into the public consciousness. He dressed Madonna in corsets, a breast-exposing pinstripe suit and that conical bra for her iconic Blonde Ambition tour. He turned up at the 1995 MTV awards in a floor-length skirt. And throughout the decade, dressed in his trademark kilt and Matalot shirt, he co-hosted Eurotrash, Channel 4’s late-evening lavatorial flesh-fest. He and the even more absurdly accented Antoine de Caunes giggled about “penizes” week-after-week, like a pair of schoolgirls.

Gaultier hasn’t changed much. The peroxide crop might have been replaced by longer mousey-brown hair and the numerous earrings have gone, but the puerile humour remains. The chef brings over two bowls of Topinambour soup, an old WWII favourite made from a white root. Gaultier starts to explain that the dish’s nickname is ‘Tapine à Hambourg’ and disintegrates into hysterical laughter. “The ‘pine’ in ‘Tapine’ is slang in French for penis!” he guffaws, pounding his fist suggestively into his palm.

“C’est bon!” he says, slurping from his spoon. “I need to learn how to cook. I can only make simple things like pasta. To make good food takes time and I enjoy eating more than cooking. My grandmother was a super-good cook; she fed me well when I was a boy.” Gaultier’s grandmother, Marie Garrabe, did more than just cook for little Jean Paul, whose dream job back then was to make patisseries (as an adult he is a self-confessed cake addict). She opened his eyes to another world.

“I was very close to my grandmother,” he explains. “I was fascinated by her clothes and fabrics; all from the beginning of the century. Hats with feathers and things like that. She lived in an old lady’s apartment surrounded by objects that sparked my imagination. My grandfather had lived in England for 12 years – he was supposed to become a Protestant pastor – and he brought back objects like a long shaving razor and a sepia photo of himself from 1914. I liked all that, not because it was old, but because it was different. I love difference! I was more attracted to things that weren’t of the modern day: it was like they weren’t from reality.”

Gaultier was born on 24th April 1952, the only child of book-keeper Paul and secretary Solange. The family lived in Arcueil, a bleak, working-class suburb, three miles from the centre of Paris. School wasn’t a pleasant experience: he felt “ugly, boring” and, useless at football, remained a solitary figure in the playground. “But I lived in my own world so I didn’t feel embarrassed about not having any friends,” he shrugs. “I was curious and learning everything by myself. It’s stupid but sometimes I would look at the clouds and see faces. It was a game for me. I think all that educated me in ideas.”

Thursdays, the day he stayed with his grandmother, were the highpoint of Gaultier’s week. He’d often pull a sickie on Friday to avoid school and stretch his visit into the weekend. Her home offered rare treats like central heating, a fridge and, most importantly, a TV. But they weren’t the only draw. “Nana did faith healing, beauty treatments and gave Tarot readings for the local women,” Gaultier explains. “Once she did my Tarot and said, ‘You’ll be famous and do well in life.’ She always told me positive things; I think she did it to help my confidence.” Granny Gaultier also encouraged her protégé to express himself creatively: “I remember rolling and cutting up some paper to make the first pointed bra for my teddy bear!” he laughs. “He was flat-chested and I wanted a girl to play with. Et voila! I turned him into a transvestite.”

Gaultier recalls hours spent quietly sat in the corner of Marie Garrabe’s parlour, studying the gestures of Arcueil women as they had homemade perm solution administered, and eavesdropping on their gossip. He began to draw her clients in evening gowns, jewellery and extravagant hair-dos – “as I wanted them to look”.

Sketching was fast becoming an obsession. One night, aged nine, Gaultier sat crossed-legged on the floor in front of his grandmother’s TV set. It was late but she always let him stay up to watch whatever he wanted. A documentary about the Folies-Bergère came on and he was immediately transfixed by the dancers in their “fish-nets and feathers” – and not much else. At school the next morning, Gaultier sat at the back of his class feverishly drawing the glamorous women of the Folies-Bergère. His teacher caught him and, incensed, pinned the artwork to his back and made him parade down the corridors for his fellow pupils to humiliate him. The punishment backfired. “All the boys cheered me,” Gaultier says excitedly, still amazed. “It was the first time they had a positive reaction to me. I instantly thought, ‘Oh! By drawing, people like me.’ It’s only now I realise that was a super-positive moment for me… it gave me a passport to make people smile.”

Gaultier was hooked. He began skipping school to draw costumes for imaginary theatre productions. Aged twelve he saw Falbalas, the 1945 drama about a Parisian couturier, featuring the designs of Rochas. It’s a movie Gaultier has now seen hundreds of times, and it is no exaggeration to say that it set him on the path to fashion. “I love that film,” he says, tucking into his main course of sea bream and artichokes. “The details of the couture house, the description of the people working there… incredible! I met the actress Françoise Fabian once, the wife of Jean Becker, Falbalas’ director. She told me that he was a close friend of Marcel Rochas, so he knew all the inside stories of couture… And then I was in Robert Altman’s film Prêt-à-Porter, because he was a close friend of Sonia Rykiel. But his movie was very, very bad. It was a catastrophe, non?”

With Falbalas as his bible, Gaultier launched into his teenage years hungry for all things Haute Couture. “At that time couture was in all the newspapers,” he remembers. “I especially liked Yves Saint Laurent and Cardin because they were very Parisian. I started drawing my own collections, sometimes up to three hundred sketches, and even wrote my own show reviews!” By now, Mr and Mrs Gaultier – whom their son describes as “simple people, but open-minded” – had accepted that he was not going to be a Spanish teacher, as they’d once hoped.

Gaultier began designing dresses for his mother, who had them made up by a seamstress friend. Another of his mother’s friends worked in the Dior design studio and took in his drawings to show to its director Marc Bohan. The verdict came back that Gaultier’s work was “too gaudy” for Dior’s delicate tastes – “It may have been the fact that the faces of my models were bright orange!”

Undeterred, Gaultier began mailing out his drawings to other fashion houses. “It was my eighteenth birthday and I came back home from school,” he recalls. “I walked in and my mother said, ‘We had a phone call from Pierre Cardin and he is waiting for you.’ I said, ‘You have to come with me. I’m too scared to go by myself.’ So we took the Metro together and she waited on the pavement while I went inside. I was so nervous that all I can remember Cardin asking me was what I did. I told him I was at school. He replied, ‘What days can you come in?’ I said, ‘Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.’ It was the only time I didn’t have classes.’ He said I would be paid 500 francs. ‘A day?’ I asked. ‘No. A month.’ Et voila! That’s how I started.”

What did Cardin – the man behind 60s space-age womenswear – see in his drawings? “I don’t know! To be honest they were awful,” he winces. “I’m embarrassed just thinking about them. But Cardin was incredible; I hadn’t been to college, I didn’t have any references and he still gave me a job. He judged everything by himself. I suppose he could see I loved fashion and recognised my obsession and energy.”

In July 1970 Gaultier should have been studying for his Baccalaureate. But instead he was living out his childhood fantasy, slaving away in Cardin’s studio in the run-up to the couture shows. “It was my summer holidays, so instead of just doing three afternoons a week at Cardin, I worked for a month and a half flat-out.” Needless to say he flunked his school exams. Then, eight months later, he was laid off. “There were too many people in the studio,” he says, handing his cleared plate to the chef with an appreciative nod. “I was the last person in, so I was the first person out!”

Gaultier was unfazed by his sudden unemployment: “I had begun my fashion life.” He was armed with an outlook that has served him well throughout his thirty-year career. “I learnt to have pleasure and fun from Cardin, and to enjoy fashion,” he says. “The most important thing with him was freedom. He was very open creatively. Everybody criticised him for doing so many licences: from chocolate to toilet paper. But he believed everything could be art. He was a businessman. I am not at all business-minded. I am only creative.” This from a man sat in a $9.5 million beaux arts building, who oversees a vast fashion empire with ready-to-wear and haute couture collections, the youth-orientated JPG By Gaultier range, a denim line and almost a dozen fragrances. “It’s a lot, non?” he giggles. “But I never did it for the money. I mean, I enjoy the comfort, but it isn’t my //goal//. If it all went, I would be fine. I started with nothing so I’m not frightened of that. As long as I have my eyes I am happy because my eyes are my most precious thing.”

The chef delivers two small glasses filled with lychees and cherries. “Oh-la-la!” Gaultier chirps and digs straight in. “I just do what I love, which is to play,” he says. “Work is my game. I love it. But there are so many collections that sometimes there is more stress than fun. To think about designing, I have to find space away from all //this//. I have to find a place for myself. Somewhere that I am truly alone. Just like when I was a child.” Gaultier sits back with a contented grin; an empty dessert glass in front of him on the table. “Et voila!”

Photographer: Simon Thiselton
Illustrator: Peter Quinnell
Fashion: Way Perry
Words: Ben Cobb

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009