For nearly half a century, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac has been breaking the rules: first as a fashion designer who clothed Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and even Pope Jean-Paul II—who commissioned the French designer to dress himself, 5,000 priests, and 500 bishops for his 1997 visit to France—and now as an artist. “I’ve spent my life integrating art into fashion,” he says. “It’s high time I start incorporating fashion into my art.” For “40 Passages,” now on view at the Mannerheim Gallery in Paris, de Castelbajac did just that, merging the concept of the fashion presentation with an art exhibition. Inside, collectors can purchase one of the designer-artist’s quirky portraits of women such as Marisa Berenson, Pat Cleveland, and the late Sonia Rykiel, or even have the illustrated items that they’re wearing realized as pieces of clothing. Document spoke with De Castelbajac about this new work and staying relevant in fashion’s endless spiral.
Ann Binlot—How did you come up with the idea for the “40 Passages” exhibition?
Jean-Charles De Castelbajac—I had the concept to do a runway show based on individuality—based on what I prefer in fashion, which is drawings. I created 40 different feelings, 40 emotions, and 40 souvenirs. All of these dresses are available, but they are not forced to be dresses, they can be paintings as well. The idea is you can put them on a wall and frame them if you want or you can wear them. If I were 18 today and starting again, I would start like this. It just needs one energy: your imagination and a lot of work.
Ann—You were breaking the rules in fashion long before Jeremy Scott or Demna Gvasalia.
Jean-Charles—Always. I am very happy to see my influence on the younger generation.
Ann—What do you think of big conglomerates running the show now, and the designers working under those constraints?
Jean-Charles—You can use the constraint and transform it. Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior does a wonderful job. The problem generally is that [some designers] put too much of their ego into it. If you go into the DNA—into the rules of the company—it’s a fantastic adventure.
Ann—What about the platform of the fashion show? Fashion shows have been around for nearly a century, but they’ve changed quite a lot from what they used to be. Now they’re basically a promotional circus, and a lot people think that the platform is dying.
Jean-Charles—That’s why we have to reinvent it. There’s a big group now that has a foundation in art and the idea in mind that the window has become the installation—that the fashion show will be like a performance. Suddenly the system of art is touching fashion. They all want a unique piece, a customized piece; they want limited edition. What’s confusing is the lack of pure creativity. That’s why I want to do these drawings. It is a good moment for the system, because it is a good moment to reinvent everything. Look at young designers like Jacquemus. There are good brands coming out.
Ann—Do you think the fashion world is over-saturated?
Jean-Charles—Who wants fashion? Nobody wants fashion today. We just want style. Style is something that you want to keep for years.. You want the things that are built like a house—they are linked to something more creative. If you buy style, you buy simplicity, you buy quality, and you buy something that you are going to recreate. Fashion today is confusion.
Ann—Retailers don’t know what to do, designers are overwhelmed. Where do you think fashion is headed?
Who wants fashion? Nobody wants fashion today. We just want style.
Jean-Charles—It’s very exciting because it’s going to bring us to a system of anti-fashion, which will be anti-fashion for a while before it becomes fashion again. It’s become frantic. Things have to go in three weeks. My proposition is to remove the fashion show—anyone can get a unique piece.
Ann—But how do you make something that is easily accessible and affordable, yet at that high-quality fashion caliber?
Jean-Charles—I don’t know about that. This is not my occupation today. My occupation is to make manifesto clothes. I think in the future there will be a new classic such as walking clothes, good jackets; simple basics, with something very creative, very sharp, and very affordable—an artsy bag, accessory, and artsy shoes.
Ann—What is your advice to young designers or artists; how do you stand out when there are so many?
Jean-Charles—First you read books about history. You read books about the Renaissance, about medieval times, about the far West conquest, and about Asian culture. Read about history. Then you look at your own failures, at your own wounds. All the pain that you have been hiding you put in a little seed and you let your contradiction grow. Then you build your DNA. You have to choose four colors. Are you choosing gray, black, blue, or white? Are you choosing pastel, pink, pale blue, and opaline? Are you choosing primary colors? Are you choosing brown? Are you choosing Khaki with a wrench? You have to keep on with these colors. Second: What is the stitching on your clothes? Courrèges has a stitching, I have a stitching, Jean-Paul Gaultier has a stitching. Third is your brand. Are you going to put your name on the clothes, are you going to use initials, what are you going to do? It has to be strong like a Japanese camera. It has to be strong like a medieval Christ. It’s more about the sign than the brand. We don’t want branding anymore. We want signs, we want symbols, we want powerful meanings. Fourth: What is the meaning of your work? Are you defending a cause? Is it ecology, is it to save nature? And what is your communication? You have to be very good on Instagram.
Ann—How do you keep in touch with what is happening today, do you talk to young people?
Jean-Charles—No, I don’t talk to young people. I am reading, I am on the internet. I am like a scout of the future. I love music, I love avant-garde dancing. This is my way, it is the way my brand is done. I am never sleeping. It’s not to be on trend, I don’t really care about that. I chose this kind of swimming pool. This is where I swim.
Ann—And the fashion world?
Jean-Charles—Actually the world looks more and more like what I have been telling them it would be. I’ve done art and fashion since the 80s. Sports and fashion I’ve done since the 70s. Now all of that is here. I am like a Pope of Pop.
Ann—[Laughing.] And the art world versus the fashion world, how are they the same?
Jean-Charles—They are both very cruel. You have to have very strong roots inside the ground, you have to have a loving family, and you have to have people who don’t care if you make it or not. So they are very cruel, but there are the rules of the world. I think finance is very cruel too. All the world has become very cruel. The only important quality of fashion and art is that we are doing new and wonderful work. Every morning when I wake up and know that I can pay for my house and make a good living from doing my drawings with what God gave me is the best present.