Cultural Exchange: A French fashion designer launches a rock musical

“You need to create blur to create desire,” Jean-Charles de Castelbajac says in English, at a swanky restaurant in the center of Paris. The manager teases him about a TV appearance as he walks in and shakes hands with a famous French actor.

Later, leaning in off his seat, the 61-year-old fashion designer and artist of noble birth excitedly talks about projects and the changing fashion business. “You like to see a man you understand in one minute? If you want to be seduced you don’t like some blur? You want someone hyper-clear, transparent? No. In the future, a brand should create blur and desire.... Everything in the future has to be full of accidents,” he says.

He speaks in short, analytical metaphors that journalists love. De Castelbajac knows media and image. He created a line of jeans called “Jesus jeans” before he was 20. They were body-hugging sexy and caused a scandal, photographed with the phrase, “thou shalt not have any other jeans but me.” He helped create Farah Fawcett’s athletic, sexy look by cutting sports gear into sizes so small her breasts and buttocks peeked out. He dressed the late Pope John Paul II in ecclesiastical robes of rainbows for a youth celebration, and Lady Gaga wore his coat of hanging Kermit the Frogs, among other outfits. He has also made forays into painting and film, calling himself a “proteiform” (form-changing) man.

His recent artworks were of reproduced classic paintings, superimposed with brand logos. He draws chalk portraits on random Parisian walls and transformed a statue of France’s King Henry IV into an illuminated Jedi knight.

After 40 years of fashion shows for the French and collaborating with artistic rebels including Malcolm McLaren, Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe, he has managed to stay both underground and mainstream — something of a rarity here — and become a household name.


“In France, you either go with the current, or against it. He does both,” said artist-scenographer Abdesslam Oulahbib before the March 20 showing of Castelbajac’s first rock musical “Ceremony.”

A member of the most prestigious French haute couture federation, de Castelbajac was considered at the top of the industry in the 1970s and ‘80s, and has survived as a kind of French Warhol-esque pop symbol for multiple generations. “Is there anyone [else] who creates counterculture and mass-produced clothing, while reaching out to kids and their mothers?” Oulahbib asked.

That mélange makes De Castelbajac, or JCDC, as he’s called, “very pop.” His brazen interpretation of cultural icons “is the perfect example of French culture, based on values of the Enlightenment,” said Oulahbib, because they draw from and combine multiple aspects of society. “There is also something typically French in bringing elegance and high art to the street.”

Yet now that De Castelbajac has become ingrained in this country’s cultural landscape, he says he is bored with fashion. “Ceremony,” which he hopes to show in Los Angeles and London later this year, is the result of a long-held desire to express more through the stage, and a chance to slough off some of the fashion industry routine. “We are at the end of a cycle, and we don’t give a damn [about] fashion shows. It’s not at all what makes the world move forward. I’m bored,” he said.

Unlike in the 1970s and ‘80s, couture has become “more a world of stylists than creators,” he said. “The stylists are the ones who make magazine covers.... When I do a fashion show, I do it like an installation. I was always closer to music and art than to fashion.... I was never crazy about fashion for fashion.… Until now I made clothes to tell stories,” said De Castelbajac, who nevertheless will continue designing.

His fashion shows feel more like concerts (Katy Perry and Kanye West attended the last one) because youthful crowds show up in bright, primary-color, cartoony outfits typical of his absurdist style. He works with, and looks for, young talent like Mathieu Cesar, 24, who launched a photography and film career, thanks to De Castelbajac. “When he found me, I hadn’t done anything before. But he didn’t care,” said Cesar, whose long hair forms a scruffy mullet. “I was a hairstylist before meeting Castelbajac.”

“Ceremony,” performed by the group Nouvelle Vague last week, was part of digital arts festival Exit, at the MAC Créteil art center in a low-income suburb. The festival was packed with installations interpreting this year’s theme — paranoia — including one with three dead peacock heads speaking in robotic voices about a robbery and murder, created by artist Christiaan Zwanikken.

Behind heavy doors, two women in black leather, leg-baring dresses and iron-straight black hair crooned ‘80s punk hits to bossa nova beats. Liset Alea and Mareva Galanter, lead singers for Nouvelle Vague, and stars of “Ceremony,” were not just singing, Castelbajac said. They were “calling phantoms.”

He used much of the Nouvelle Vague’s repertoire to create the performance, along with his own musical selection, costumes and choreography. He showed it where the late artist Robert Malaval did his last painting performance before committing suicide 30 years ago. “Ceremony” is an homage to Malaval, a friend, and a kind of costume show turned concert, evoking memories of punk, rock and post-punk, pop — for those who have them.

Being a rebellious French artist can be a lifetime occupation. And Castelbajac is at a new phase in his. “Now I’m really becoming Jean-Charles,” he said. “That’s a man who’s at peace with himself, who has a vision, who lets himself experience a course of events … maybe in 10 years I’ll be a scenographer, I don’t know. And I am absolutely not afraid.”