Words by Julia Eskins
Photos by Aleyah Solomon
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac sits in his apartment with a wool blanket draped over his lap, thinking about a memory from the past. The aristocratic French designer’s storied career has spanned half a century, including creative collaborations with icons and artists like Mick Jagger, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat and even the Pope. Castelbajac is behind some of the most talked-about clothing items in recent history: Lady Gaga’s Kermit the Frog coat, Katy Perry’s President Obama dress and Farrah Fawcett’s costumes in Charlie’s Angels, to name a few. Even Andy Warhol acquired Castelbajac’s “poncho for two” back in the 1970s, which JC/DC (as he’s often affectionately referred to) delivered by hand to the artist’s Factory. But long before his tongue-in-cheek designs made pop culture waves, he was the boy with the blanket.
The Moroccan-born, Paris-based designer has always been attracted to unconventional materials, including blankets. His deep fascination was sparked while visiting family in Canada in the winter. His uncle in Ottawa sent him into the woods for one month “to become a man,” but Castelbajac came out an artist.
“It was a difficult time. I had a huge Hudson Bay blanket that became somewhat of a home for me because I was so cold,” he says. “After that, throughout my whole life, I became very attached to blankets. Even Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who created Snoopy, always called me Linus. Blankets have a sense of protection and that relates to my work, which on one side is very protective and on the other side is a manifesto.”
Castelbajac began his career designing for his mother’s company and in 1970, presented his first collection. It’s no coincidence that his initial fashion hit was a jacket made out of his boarding school blanket. After opening his own business in 1975, he simultaneously created Sportmax for the Italian house of Max Mara and later on, designed for the Paris house of André Courrèges.
Some of his most memorable designs, such as a coat made of Snoopy plush toys for model Vanessa Paradis, are now decades old, yet still hold a timeless allure. Above all, Castelbajac’s conceptual yet functional pieces have always reflected both sides of his personality: the artist and the designer.
“The artist is on earth to provoke questions. The designer is the opposite: he’s on earth to provide answers. I do both. After 50 years of work, both roles have come together in such harmony,” he says. “At 67, it’s inconvenient to think that most of my life is behind me, but my work has also become so mature, so clear; it’s become a loud weapon. Before, it was like a letter of resistance and now it’s like a virus of hope.”
At times, Castelbajac speaks like a poetic preacher – you can’t help but be captivated by stories from his colourful past spent with good friends Malcolm McLaren, who created the Sex Pistols, and artist Keith Haring. Even to this day, Castelbajac draws angels on city walls around the world in memory of Haring and often quotes McLaren fondly.
“Malcolm was such a good storyteller. He once told me about how Oscar Wilde invented rock ‘n’ roll and I believed it.” he says.
Music is a prime source of inspiration for the designer, who recently released his book Fashion, Art & Rock’n’Roll, a collection of souvenirs, images and tales from his career. The designer’s self-described life motto is “to be a rock and not to roll,” one of the last lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. It also serves as the bio on his Instagram profile, which Castelbajac regularly updates with photos of his family, creations and collaborations with a new generation of visionaries.
Castelbajac has always been the type to move in various circles; collecting stimuli as it strikes him. Drawn to bizarre art and people, he refers to himself as an aimant (magnet), rather than a sponge. Perhaps this is why he eschewed tradition in favour of the avant-garde by joining Créateurs & Industriels, a 1970s design group that played a key role in launching the careers of Issey Miyake, Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, allowing a new wave of French designers to spread their wings.
“I’m so French but I’m so open to the world. I am inspired by the history of civilization,” he says. “I chose Paris over New York City because Paris has a link to the past. You can feel at home in Paris because you’re never alone – you’re always surrounded by ghosts. I was confident in Paris because I came from a 1000-year-old French aristocratic family, so I had history inside me and also a desire for modernity.”
While Castelbajac’s apartment is an iconoclast’s treasure trove, the designer often explores cemeteries and other “places that most people don’t go” to ponder the greater reach of art and fashion. Castelbajac’s practice of appropriating pop culture, and contributing to it, has long been his signature. To this day, one of his most moving commissions was dressing Pope John Paul II, along with a parade of 500 bishops and 5,000 priests, in vestments adorned with rainbow crosses for World Youth Day in 1997.
“Suddenly, I realized that being a designer was not only about doing experimental things for a few people but it was also to have a social role,” he says. “When I made dresses with President Obama’s face on them, four months before he was elected, I received about 30 death threats. But it was reassuring to know that fashion is also a tool for democracy.”
Lately, Castelbajac has been interested in reaching the mass market, leading him to design sportswear for Rossignol and Le Coq Sportif. Imparting his wisdom on the new generation, he frequently gives lectures at universities. Often, his advice to young artists looking for inspiration is to start with their childhood souvenir, the item that stirs up emotion, whether painful or joyous. For Castelbajac, it remains his blanket. He still has one lifelong dream yet to be fulfilled: designing for the Hudson Bay Company.
“I put this blanket on my knee to remember the cold. We used to climb up trees. The problem was, I never knew how to come down,” says Castelbajac, who just so happens to be jet-setting off to Belgium as our conversation comes to an end. “That’s a metaphor for my life: I never know how to come down.” ■
*Originally seen in Here & There Magazine's Paris issue as 'To Rock, But Not To Roll', released January 2017