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“Designers, more and more, have a kind of social role,” Jean-Charles de Castelbajac says over the chatter of a crowded café at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York’s Soho neighborhood. He’s in town to promote his new collaboration with the summer-centric brand Vilebrequin, for which he’s designed a line of women’s and men’s swim and ready-to-wear. Though his work has flown moderately under the radar, de Castelbajac has designed clothes for five decades, dressing the crème de la crème of celebrities and notable figures. This season, a few of his iconic and historic pieces were pulled to be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”
From designing revolutionary coats constructed out of stuffed teddy bears in 1989 to convincing Pope John Paul II, 500 bishops and 5,000 priests to wear his rainbow vestment designs in 1997, de Castelbajac’s impact on the history of fashion is vast. He even copyrighted the name Jesus for a line of denim called Jesus Jeans in 2007. He is a master of elegance, tightrope-walking the line where irony meets polish. As he says, “Et voilà.”
ONE37pm had the exclusive opportunity to sit with the 69-year-old designer as he divulged his fashion grievances, his greatest accomplishments and how he’s created a life of art and adoration.
Do you draw your designs?
de Castelbajac: I draw everything. I draw the prints. I do everything.
When did you know that you’d make your current profession your livelihood?
de Castelbajac: Well, I was in boarding school to be in the military. My family, we were all soldiers for tencenturies. When I came out of school I said, “Wow, I’m gonna grow my hair, I’m gonna wear a shirt with flowers and I’m gonna sing in a rock band.” Which I did, and I even acted. I did two movies. But acting was like haute couture. It was a lot of waiting, and I didn’t want to lose my life waiting.
My mother has a little company, and one day she said, “Design me something.” I was 17. Then, I became a designer. Fortunately, I designed things that people adored immediately. Fashion chose me. I got big cash money from being a conquistador of fashion. I am very lucky that I can make my living with my art. I will be 70 years old next year. I’m free.
What are some of the highlights?
de Castelbajac: In those 50 years, I did so many revolutionary things. When I tell people I dressed Farrah Fawcett, some people don’t know who she is. I worked on the film Coming to America with Eddie Murphy. I did many movies in America, like Mrs. Doubtfire, Sunburn with Farrah [Fawcett]. I’ve worked for many artists, like Katy Perry at the beginning of her career, Lady Gaga, M.I.A. The best was when I designed a dress with Barack Obama’s face on it. I did a dress for Katy Perry four months before he was elected. He came to my show. The model had “Yes” and “No” written on her hands. Then, I dressed Michelle Obama.
Can you speak about Pharrell’s Chanel collection that draws inspiration from your ’94 color-blocked loafer?
de Castelbajac: It is a copy of my loafer! Chanel knows it and Pharrell knows it. It’s embarrassing. This world is very strange. It’s a huge fight between authenticity and copying. Everything is now free on the internet. Jeremy Scott did that for ten years with my archive. First the teddy bear and then the cartoons. He doesn’t even credit me. He stole and then he blocked me on Instagram.
I was inspired by Charles James to do my quilted coat, but I say that. I pay credit to all the people who have inspired me like Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat. I'm surprised that such a talented boy like Pharrell, so in the end, the kids have no couture. They think it’s Jeremy Scott who created cartoon sweaters and the teddy bear coat. It should be called Chanel x Pharrell x Castel.
What are your plans going forward?
de Castelbajac: There are one thousand trends, one thousand prints and one thousand designs. So I want to always think, “How can I make my little revolution?” How can you stay cool, chic, dignified and sport? That is my mission. I like my collection for Vilebrequin. It’s fresh and playful.
My next revolution will be a democracy in fashion. Conscious and fashion. To be very creative within very affordable price points. It’s not enough to just do a little bikini. Behind logos, it can’t be emptiness.
If you want me, you have to trust my experience. If you like my story, you come in my boat. It’s true I definitely have a very precise style. It’s just me. It’s fresh. That’s why we’re doing good work.