From adorning rainbow crosses on the vestments of Pope John Paul II in 1997 to dressing Lady Gaga in her notorious Kermit the Frog number in 2009, French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac holds the crown for being the king of camp, he is even presenting designs in this year’s costume exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His use of color, pop-culture motifs and irony have made him relevant in the fashion industry since his beginnings in the 1970s through the present day, and we cannot get enough of his fashion madness.
Currently, not only is JCC the artistic director of United Colors of Benetton but he has also collaborated with long beloved luxury swimwear brand, Vilebrequin to produce a collaborative capsule collection. The collection–which is available now both online and at his pop-up at The Webster in SoHo–consists of both swimwear and ready-to-wear pieces for both men and women. The designer has revolutionized the bikini, adding sporty layers to its classically fragile silhouette and adding his signature and colorful touches to the rest of the vacation-wear we love.
We sat down with Jean-Charles de Castelbajac at The Crosby Street Hotel to discuss this successful collaboration as well as his thoughts on both the upcoming Met Gala as well as the future of fashion in general.
ELLA SNYDER: This collaboration has been widely anticipated since it was announced in Autumn, what are you most excited for with the launch of this capsule collection?
JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC: This collaboration was really an exciting challenge because Vilebrequin, as it sounds, was not such a feminine name; it was historically and iconically a masculine universe. I always loved the idea of bringing one universe to another and so the challenge was to bring this feminine touch into Vilebrequin’s masculine universe. I started in fashion such a long time ago in the seventies and Vilebrequin started around the same time so it was really interesting and challenging to combine our ideas. And also the territory of bathing suits is something that I'm not very familiar with. I have invented quilted coats and big ski clothes and very sportswear things so this was a big adventure for me.
ES: Tell me a little bit about the design process for this collection.
JCC: There were two things. The first was to look to the DNA of the brand. Vilebrequin was created in Saint Tropez in the seventies, based on this love story where the guy wants to dress differently to seduce a girl. The other thing was to go on the market and see what kind of bathing suits had already been done. The bathing suits that I had seen all over were exotic, feminine, all very minimalist and very sporty. And my vision (for the collection) referred to a life experience I had in the seventies with Farrah Fawcett when she asked me to do the clothes for her Charlie's Angels. It was the idea of creating a powerful woman who doesn't feel fragile being in a bathing suit on the beach and also to be inventive. I wanted to do a new bikini, so I did a "quadrikini." It's a kind of combination because you have the color underneath and the small bikini on top. The process was really encouraging and very creative because the brand was very ready for that revolution, and i didn't want to do just another collection, this was to put down the base for the future and I am very happy with the result.
ES: What characteristics of French style are you and Vilebrequin bringing to the customers of this collection?
JCC: You know, I think the main characteristic of French style is that you can do something extravagant, something eccentric but still be chic. It always has to be chic. My priority is always to balance the clothes. They can be classic looking, but suddenly it becomes rock and roll. It's the duality between sport and chic, and glamour and sport; that's French.
ES: Can you tell us a little bit about the pop-up store that you're having at The Webster?
JCC: I love The Webster. Today, if you have a store, it has to have the four E's: the emotion, the experience, the ecology and most often the E of e-commerce. In my generation, it was the four P's: produce, price, positioning, and power. But I've invented the four E's and The Webster is a place with all four E's. You have an experience there. My son is a designer too and he was already selling at The Webster way before me.
ES: So what can we expect to experience when visiting the pop-up?
JCC: You know, my collection is like a playground, I want to bring back the freshness of the postmodernity of the seventies. When we were thinking about utopia without being retro, and everything was about living an experience or to play or to have a competition between the way you wear the clothes. I hope customers can have that experience at the store.
ES: You're known for the vibrancy of your clothes, did you have to change your approach in any way when working with Vilebrequin?
JCC: No, Vilebrequin had to change their approach. To be a designer is not a democracy. I am a dictator. If you want to work with me, you know what you're going to get. Unless you go to Virgil Abloh or to JW Anderson where you will find something else, but my style is very precise. I want this big hat with the rainbow, I want all these accessories and I made the Vilebrequin bag much bigger... that's the way.
ES: You’ve appropriated motifs from Mondrian paintings in a few of your works, what other artistic movements are you influenced by?
JCC: Surrealism. Marcel Duchamp's Readymades. I would say that and very much also hijacking. When I made the first ever snoopy sweaters for Iceberg, nobody had done that and it was so shocking. I was not paying any copyright for seven years because I invented the process you know? When I was doing Mickey Mouse in the eighties I created this whole system of collaboration. My inspiration is all over, I am a magnet. Some designers are like a sponge, I am just a magnet.
ES: A lot of your designs have borrowed from elements of camp, which as you know is the theme of the Met Gala this year. What can we expect to see from you with this year's event and exhibition?
JCC: You know, my life is camp. My first jacket when I was 18 was done with little cherries that I sewed together, and all through my life I was one of the major leaders of this camp movement. I didn't even know until recently that it was called camp, it was just me. After that, many people joined my movement but there were never a thousand of us. It was Franco Moschino when he was alive, and me. We were not so many.
What I like in camp is what I like in pop, it looks smiley, it looks fresh, it looks funny and ironic yet inside it says very important things about society. If I could link it to an attitude I would link it to the dandy. Nobody can improvise himself as a dandy, and today camp is a la mode. Everybody is campy. Everybody is doing teddy bears, everybody is doing cartoons, everybody is doing irony. So, I think it’s not about what I am excited to see at the event, it’s what comes after that I am excited about. After camp there is life and the next thing after camp is to transform all those trends into democracy. How can we do clothes for kids in today's world of instant satisfaction? I find for the younger generation, that I have the responsibility to create a new kind of clothes that are creative, with good quality and are very affordable. This is my next revolution. Next summer I will have a ten euro t-shirt with very good design. I just don't want to be like anyone else.
ES: If you could create a Jean-Charles de Castelbajac world, what would a visit entail? What would we see there?
JCC: I always say that this is a bit of what I'm living today at Benetton. I have all the power over the windows and displays, the power of creating a world. At first, the world I wanted to create is a world where color is a priority. But a Castelbajac world would be a world where we transform all of the difficulties of today. It would be more social. Our world is in a huge crisis. When I see Notre-Dame, when I see the crisis of my country, when I see the social difference between people, that’s what would be different. In my world, style is linked to democracy and you can play with things, and I'm building it today with Vilebrequin and my other projects. Step by step I'm laying the groundwork for this new world.
ES: You've experimented with stuffed animals, cloud print, rainbows, and so much more. Is there anything that you are hoping to experiment with next?
JCC: What I just did with Vilebrequin was really an experiment. I have always been a very creative designer, but my focus was never so much on the body. I was more preoccupied with inventing than I was with dressing. All my life, art [has] inspired my fashion. Today, my art is inspired by fashion. It's all about design and how to dress. I've been surprised by myself in the Vilebrequin collection, our introduction of the pink color that I had never used in my life, how I wanted to start making little dresses, how I did tight things and introduced décolleté. So I think in my life, Vilebrequin will be the signal of a new attitude. It's a big step. In the future, I want to create a very feminine collection, to invent a chic and sporty feminine attitude because the frontier of femininity today is evolutionary.