Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past

By
Photography Thomas Whiteside

Published November 1, 2016

JEAN-CHARLES DE CATELBAJAC IN PARIS, OCTOBER 2016. PORTRAIT: THOMAS WHITESIDE.

Before outfitting Pope John Paul II in a rainbow-striped cassock for World Youth Day in 1997, French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac warned him that the rainbow flag was associated with homosexuality. “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow,” the Pope replied. Later that day, a pride parade of 500 bishops, 5,000 priests and the Pope himself spread the good word of Castelbajac.

Dressing His Holiness was neither the first nor the last time that Jean-Charles de Castelbajac—or JC/DC as he is more affectionately known—reached an audience of millions with his designs. Lady Gaga made his Kermit the Frog coat famous. Katy Perry gave his President Obama dress face time at the MTV EMA’s in 2009. All of Farrah Fawcett’s body-hugging looks for Charlie’s Angels were JC/DC, too.

For a man whose double poncho inspired Andy Warhol to say, “Oh no, who am I going to wear that with?” he’s maintained a jovial approach to creativity, tongue firmly planted in cheek. His new book Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Fashion, Art & Rock ‘n’ Roll (teNeues/YellowKorner) is a blueprint of JC/DC’s formidable career working with artists like Warhol, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Cindy Sherman. It’s one he hopes will be institutionalized to inspire younger generations, so that “people can see where the ideas came from.”

The book doesn’t, however, signal a cork in Castelbajac’s bottle. In fact, the 66-year-old has recently amped up his efforts, working with Iceberg and Lacoste Sportif, as well as on projects with Line and Each x Other, and a poetry project with artist Robert Montgomery. He’d also love to lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. So no, he’s not done. Not even close. “The upcoming creativity, the next round,” he says, “That’s what makes me feel alive.”

TREY TAYLOR: You mentioned you were once part of a secret philosophical society in 1970.

JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC: That was so funny. In Paris, I didn’t want to be friends with people in fashion. I wanted to get into a philosophical society where all the thinking men were. It was called La Phalène. They asked me to come after one year [of asking to join]. There were 12 men sitting around on chairs. I was one of them. One of them stood in the middle and said, “Now, today we’re going to speak about time!” One of the first to speak was a professor at the Sorbonne. He started to speak about the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes. I had five men speak before me. After all these brilliant exposés, it was my turn. I was there with my old blue jeans, my Perfecto [jacket], my long hair. I was looking left, right, thinking, “What should I say?” Then I stood up, and I took a stone. There was a stool in the middle of the circle. I took off my watch, which was my father’s watch. I took the stone, and I crushed my watch and I yelled, “Time is dead!” Then they said, “Okay, we’ll take you in.”

TAYLOR: They let you join La Phalène after that?

CASTELBAJAC: Yes, immediately. And the circle stopped after me because the next guy said, “I have nothing more to say.” I still have my dad’s watch in a matchbox.

TAYLOR: It must have been painful to destroy your father’s watch.

CASTELBAJAC: Not at all—and that story would agree.

TAYLOR: I know you’re a huge fan of music. Do you remember your first concert?

CASTELBAJAC: My first concert? The Yardbirds. It was very bizarre, and psychedelic. It was the best band. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on the guitar, you know? That was in ‘66 at The Roundhouse in London.

TAYLOR: Did any concerts stand out for you?

CASTELBAJAC: One day Malcolm [McLaren] took me to an Afrika Bambaataa concert. We went to the Bronx to see Afrika Bambaataa.

TAYLOR: When was that?

CASTELBAJAC: I can’t remember the year, ‘93 or ‘94. You know that song “Planet Rock” with the sample of Kraftwerk? We arrived downtown in the Bronx and we saw all these kids with my Iceberg sweaters. All of these black kids had my icon sweaters I did for Iceberg, with Snoopy, Bugs Bunny back in 1980. I was so amazed! I heard before that LL Cool J had bought my teddy bear coat, but then to see all these kids to come after that like Kanye and Jay Z… They wore those sweaters like they were a coat of arms. It was so touching for me to give strong tools to an incoming generation.

TAYLOR: In your book, you mention that when you first met Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, they were sewing bones onto clothes.

CASTELBAJAC: When I met Malcolm and Vivienne it was a strange day. It was in January 1972. It was pouring rain. I found this little shop called “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” on Kings Road in London. In the window were all these t-shirts, and the t-shirts had these chicken bones sewed on. They spelled out things like “rock’n’roll” and “sex.” So I said, “These people, they are my brothers!” At this time I was selling in Bendel’s or Saks. I was selling my blankets again. We were appropriating things and hijacking, like pirates. We became lifelong friends. I saw Vivienne two weeks ago. And then Malcolm came to Paris and said, “Next week I’m coming with a band to stay at your house.” I said, “What kind of band are you bringing?” He said, “They are named the New York Dolls.” So the week after I see all these guys with mini-skirts in my salon. With platform shoes!

TAYLOR: What do you think of all of these new brands, like Vetements?

CASTELBAJAC: This designer is very good. Malcolm McLaren used to tell me that this century was a big crisis between authenticity and karaoke. I think [Gvasalia is] authentic. He’s not copying anyone. He has his vision, and this is good.

TAYLOR: Some people say he puts a logo on a hoodie and sells it for $3,000.

CASTELBAJAC: I suppose he’s incarnating a post-punk vision. I think it’s proto-punk, his work. He’s a proto-punk. I even hear the music, it’s very hard disco sounds. It’s interesting. Even if it’s not so much in my family of inspiration. But I like Jacquemus, too. Jacquemus is a great designer, very pure. I also like my ex-assistant Giles Deacon.

TAYLOR: He worked for you for a long time, didn’t he?

CASTELBAJAC: Yeah, now you see my assistants coming out like [Sonia Rykiel designer] Julie de Libran. It’s beautiful to see that. [I feel] like a daddy, even if I have two sons already. Godfather, maybe.

TAYLOR: Is it harder starting out as a designer today than it was when you started?

CASTELBAJAC: I think it’s different. What is the most challenging is the industry of fashion is pushing for speedy consumption. When I see that the clothes are sold the day they debut in some cases, I fear we are going to kill the invisible side of fashion, the mystery. Now with the industry, it’s getting a bit difficult to create any mystery. But it’s quite an interesting period. It’s a bit chaotic. Chaos is favorable to creativity.

TAYLOR: Do you think there is room to combat that fast-paced structure of creating and selling?

CASTELBAJAC: I hope so. When you want to be a designer today, you are in a subversion. This is kind of exciting. I always remember this talk I had with Malcolm [McLaren]. I told him, “The underground and the alternative is going to be substituted with being a virus.” We have to be a virus now.

TAYLOR: What does that mean?

CASTELBAJAC: To project your idea, you have to use new technology. It’s not like the ’70s or the ’80s; you have an image that you project globally. For example, I designed a series of t-shirts. I’m working with a very big Korean company called Line. Line is the number one in Asia. It is huge. It’s around 200 million people using Line. They asked me to design figures. So I call them street art. They’re going to come out in December. I can become a positive virus, a hope virus. We need those vibes. We need color, purpose, strength. All of our work in a good energy.

TAYLOR: When you collaborated with photographer Oliviero Toscani, was he the one pushing you out of your comfort zone?

CASTELBAJAC: Oliviero and I, we are like brothers. So we always get out of our normal comfort zone. We’re always going in the twilight. We love creativity, with no fear of what people think. It was always complicity with Oliviero.

TAYLOR: Who else did you feel creatively close to?

CASTELBAJAC: This brotherhood I also had with Robert Mapplethorpe. I worked with Robert for many years starting in ‘82. We shot beautiful images with [body builder] Lisa Lyon and the black American flag. We did many, many pictures. He did my portrait. We did that when he was not at all celebrated, like now.

TAYLOR: Did you ever think Mapplethorpe would go on to be as huge as he is?

CASTELBAJAC: No, because at that time I was working with Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel. It was an entire group of people. I have my lasting friendship with Malcolm McLaren, so I suppose in life the first project is to get your gang, to get your chosen family.

TAYLOR: Did you all hang out together?

CASTELBAJAC: Mais oui, bien sûr! Bien sûr. But it’s kind of exciting today, too. Many exciting people today. It’s the base of everything to shut down melancholia. This chosen family is also a family that evolves with time. Sometimes you lose some friends and you get new ones. It’s like a huge project. It’s the most beautiful project of life, I think. That’s why Robert did my invitation photo shoot, and Oliviero did my campaigns, and Andy Warhol posed in it.

TAYLOR: Have you met anybody recently that’s become a new friend?

CASTELBAJAC: I met many, but recently a lot of photographers. I had a beautiful collaboration with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry. It’s every day I suppose. It’s wonderful.

TAYLOR: You’ve worked with so many amazing artists and celebrities—which one did you work most closely with?

CASTELBAJAC: I remember one day, I got a phone call and somebody told me, “Do you want to meet Farrah Fawcett?” I said, “Who is Farrah Fawcett? I don’t know her.” The guy said, “Come and you will see.” I arrived in front of her hotel in Paris. There were hundreds of fans there. The Six Million Dollar Man opened the door, Lee Majors. Then I met Farrah and I did all her costumes for Charlie’s Angels. I did all the looks for Farrah.

TAYLOR: Where were you in June 2009 when you found out that Farrah Fawcett had passed away?

CASTELBAJAC: I was in Paris. I was really sad because a few weeks before, one of my friends saw her and Farrah gave him a little note to say hello and we should meet up. She was a very fidèle friend. I got the same thing with Keith Haring. When Keith died I was in Tokyo, and I received a beautiful drawing that he did for me three days after. I published it as if it were the invitation for my show [F/W 1990-1991]. But it’s melancholy to talk about, what is important is the future. After 40 years of creation, I continue. This is what I love.

TAYLOR: Why did you decide to do this book now?

CASTELBAJAC: I have kept so many documents—7,000 pieces of archives, 15,000 drawings, pictures of the past. I wanted to make the book inspirational to put in universities, at RISD, to say to the kids, “This is possible. You can make it!”

JEAN-CHARLES DE CATELBAJAC: FASHION, ART & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (TENEUES/YELLOWKORNER) IS OUT NOW.