Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Frontiers of Fashion

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With his painting-dresses, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac has abolished the frontier between art and fashion, since the 1980s. And today the fashion designer has become a painter himself. He has composed a giant fresco to brighten the façade of Orly Sud airport. His joyful figures, blue, yellow and red, drawn on mirrors, also have also brightened the Piazza in Covent Garden in London. Everywhere, the designer is raising his colours. Otherwise, Castelbajac is a fervent collector. He has brought together flags, photographs and paintings, those of free figuration, the trans-avant-garde and also some works by Barceló, Baselitz, Basquiat… As ever he is focused on younger artists. He talks about them passionately.

JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC IN FRONT OF LES SIX ÉLÉMENTS, APRIL 2017. 

Laurence Mouillefarine: So you’ve always combined art with fashion…

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: What an adventure! Breaking down the boundaries between disciplines seems obvious today, but it wasn’t in the 1980s. My painting-dresses were booed at the International Contemporary Art Fair. Yes, they were hissed! I was the first fashion designer to appeal to living artists – well, since Schiaparelli.

LM: How did you happen upon the idea of working with painters?

J-CDC: It was inevitable. Fashion for fashion’s sake wasn’t enough for me. At first I asked artists to draw invitations for my fashion shows. Robert Malaval was the first. Later, for my publicity campaigns, I had artists pose for me. Imagine! There’s Warhol in one of my jackets in 1982. Who wouldn’t dream of doing that? (The image in question features in Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Fashion, Art & Rock’n’Roll, a recently published album which he flicks through as he talks). Art is everywhere in my thoughts. I wanted to make everything move, so I asked Jean-Charles Blais: “Would you paint a fabric?” He jumped at the idea. So I cut out a shape that made me think of Louis IX’s penitence tunic, and off we went. Then, Annette Messager, Ben, Miguel Barceló, Gérard Garouste, Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa painted on my dresses. Living paintings.

LM: Several of them belong to Figuration libre. What do you like about that movement?

J-CDC: I was particularly touched by one of its representatives, his name was Rémi Blanchard. He had a talent for transfiguring childhood.

LM: Have you also worked with photographers?

J-CDC: When Robert Mapplethorpe shot my show, the fashion world knew nothing about him. As to Cindy Sherman, when she worked with me it was only the second time she had made a self-portrait. Approaching photographers struck me as quite natural, I already collected historical photographs and I’d brought together the most moving old pictures, Nadar, Steichen, Stieglitz, Le Gray…

LM: Didn’t Keith Haring design one of your invitations?

J-CDC: I asked him to, but sadly, he passed away soon after. Weirdly, three days after his death I got a registered letter signed by Keith Haring; it contained a drawing showing his famous Radiant Baby holding a blank space in its arms. It was the design for the invitation! It seemed to me like a friendly message from the Beyond…

LM: When did you meet Keith Haring?

J-CDC: He’d come to my office with Claude and Sydney Picasso. Keith wanted to buy a teddy bear coat for Madonna’s birthday. I gave it to him. The following weekend he came to our office, Place du Général Catroux, saying: “I wanted to thank you for the gift”. He set about decorating two enormous terracotta jars in the sitting room. My sons were mesmerized. They still have the vases. It was the wonderful Keith Haring who made me want to draw angels all over cities, in chalk graffiti. Thanks to him, for eighteen years, I’ve been a craie-ateur.

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac fashion

JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC’S MURAL, ORLOVE, ON THE EXTERIOR OF ORLY SUD AIRPORT, 2015. © GUILHEM DE CASTELBAJAC. 

LM: What was your first contact with art?

J-CDC: Raoul Hausmann. He lived in Limoges. Imagine! A Dadaist artist in that most bourgeois of cities. He photographed his models levitating on the banks of the Vienne… I was fifteen, I bumped into him in the street without knowing who he was. He was walking around with a woman on each arm, he had no fear of the critical eye of other people. One day my mother took me to the local antique shop, Chamouleau. Hausmann was there, wearing a beret and a pair of clogs, he had a candle in one hand and a bell in the other. What an apparition! My mother bought me one of his collages, made of absolutely nothing, a bit of photograph, a scrap of newspaper, some chocolate wrapping paper. Magnificent! He determined my aesthetic.

LM: And now what do you collect?

J-CDC: I don’t collect anything any more! I’ve started painting. My work is gradually replacing the work by other people. It’s invasive as well. The walls of my sitting-room are occupied by six-metre canvases.

LM: Have you stopped buying works of art?

J-CDC: Of course, I still get crushes the way I have done all my life. But let’s say that I’m no longer fired by the logic of the collector, which led me to accumulate by works by the Trans-avant-garde in Italy – Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente – as well as paintings by Malcolm Morley, Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat… In a collection, there’s a thirst for knowledge and an absolute desire for conquest.

LM: In 2003, you had to sell part of your collection. Was the separation a painful one?

J-CDC: Of course! It was a build-up of emotions, intuitions and memories…  Today, I feel no melancholy except for people who have passed away.

LM: Let’s talk about your recent crushes.

J-CDC: I discovered Oda Jaune at the Daniel Templon gallery, she’s a remarkable painter, completely surrealist, on the boundary between the grotesque and the strange. I bought a canvas print by Nicolas Chardon, an inheritor of abstraction; he composes geometrical forms which he distorts. I also like the photographs of Karen Biwell, a Colombian, who poses naked in dangerous conditions; there’s also a troubling relationship between the fragility of nakedness and omnipresent danger. My last purchase is a work by Guillaume Pinard, who is really, really talented.

LM: What projects are you involved with right now?

J-CDC: I’m looking for a place that brings together the great variety of my expressions, the lithographs I’ve published, the furniture I’ve created, my tapestries. I’ve had enough of the schizophrenia about balancing between being an artist and a designer. I no longer suffer in secret, I dare to show my paintings. I’ve taken the big step! I’m at peace with myself. I’m collaborating with Nektart Wine, a very promising new initiative that brings together the best urban artist and the excellence of French grape varieties. I suggest an exclusive design about a very good wine with my friends Lek and Sowat, THTF and Nick Walker. I’m also preparing my coming exhibition at the Mannerheim Gallery, which will be held between 1 and 31 July 2017. I’m filling the gallery with an installation dedicated to my drawings.

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