The man that came from the future

03 Sep 2020
By Ana Murcho

Avant-garde before all avant-gardes. Pioneer before all pioneers. Visionary before all visionaries. Here’s Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, creative director at Benetton, a multidisciplinary artist and a man of a thousand crafts.

Avant-garde before all avant-gardes. Pioneer before all pioneers. Visionary before all visionaries. Here’s Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, creative director at Benetton, a multidisciplinary artist and a man of a thousand crafts.

In October of 2018, Benetton surprised the world with a statement announcing its new artistic director - who is like saying, the helmsman, the one who makes the big decisions - for the collections of men and women. “We are happy to welcome Jean-Charles de Castelbajac into our big family,” said Luciano Benetton at the time, highlighting JC / DC's ability “to forecast tomorrow’s social and fashion trends.” Born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1949, the artist had every motif to refuse the invitation of the Italian brand. About to turn 70 (next November), he is one of those rare cases of success in all the disciplines he set out to take, a free soul who never shied away from trying out various areas - and in all of them he turned out (very) well. Browsing his portfolio is like looking at a universal encyclopedia from the past five decades.

Castelbajac started by working with his mother, Jeanne-Blanche de Castelbajac, with whom he launched Ko and Co in 1968. A year later, he created the controversial Jesus Jeans, a denim brand whose campaign was run by Oliviero Toscani - and which caused a controversy only comparable to those that Benetton, his future employer, would face later on. In 1974, he was one of the founders of Iceberg and, four years later, he decided to start his namesake, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Curious by nature, restless and irreverent, he was never did for clothes just for the sake of it, because his pieces were always a mix of old and new, pop and punk, beautiful and ugly. Perhaps that was why, from an early age, he was dubbed as the “king of anti-conventional”, thanks to his almost anti-fashion approach. What moved him - what still moves him - is the future. Throughout a career as long as happy, he collaborated with names like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, lent his genius to houses like Max Mara or Courrèges, designed furniture, made Haute Couture. And he never stopped. Not even when he lost his homonymous brand, which he confesses being the worst moment of his professional life.

Younger people may associate him with the sequined Obama dress, worn by Katy Perry in 2008, at the European Music Awards, or the Kermit The Frog coat that Lady Gaga chose for an appearance in 2009. But long before those aha moments, JC / DC had invented “the” Teddy Bear Coat in 1988, now on display at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Bold, idealistic, fearless, he always risked the use (and abuse) of color, even when the 90s dictated monochrome and the cuts ignored the silhouettes and details that make the difference when a shirt touches a naked trunk or when a pair of pants rub on bare legs. In love with women, they are his greatest inspiration. In 1997, he dressed Pope John Paul II, hundreds of Church members, and thousands of children, in an unprecedented ceremony, whose purpose, union, may help explain why, at this point in his life, he accepted a new challenge. Two years ago, he explained it this way: “An iconic brand, United Colors of Benetton envisioned the world of today: a pop, colorful, affordable and universal fashion, enhanced by Oliviero Toscani’s powerful images. United Colors of Benetton and I have always had a similar take on fashion, characterized by the passion for knitwear and the love of pop and rainbow colors.” And he continued: “Thanks to social networks, fashion today is visible to everyone. But it remains affordable only to a few. Together, United Colors of Benetton and I will seek to create tomorrow’s wardrobe, bringing beauty and style to everyday life, at prices that everyone can afford.” Two years later, thanks to JC / DC, the future is now.

Hello Jean-Charles, how are you? I understand it’s your first day of holidays. It’s my first day of holidays, it’s wonderful. I just went on the beach. I’m in Cap Ferrat [southeast of France]. I’m with my family, I’m with my newborn daughter, Eugénie, she’s five months today. I will be two weeks here and then I will go back to a propriety we have in the mountains, in the Pyrenees.

We are living very strange times. How do you feel in these first months after lockdown? I never felt locked up because when I was locked up physically I was free in my mind. And it was also a very good time to be with my newborn daughter and to develop new creativity. I never stopped. I draw a lot, and I was also on Instagram connecting with artist friends that I really love. And I worked a lot for Benetton, via Zoom, because we have to reinvent ourselves.

You mentioned using Instagram during the confinement. What is your opinion of social media? You know, I am an earlier finder of social media, because it appeared in the end of the nineties, I was immediately very involved in Myspace, Facebook, and things that would be a medium to make art. I consider [these tools] something extraordinary.

Let’s change the subject: what made you accept the job at Benetton? As you know, I have a very long career, like 50 years of career… I have developed a lot of work linked to functionality, to industry, to ecology. Then I did art and fashion, I worked with lots of artists, like Mapplethorpe, I did Haute Couture. I almost experimented everything. And [always] with the same more or less interest. Until one day I was asked to design for the Pope, John Paul II. It was in 1997. And then I had the opportunity to design Haute Couture to John Paul, who is a Saint now! I dressed 500 bishops into a kind of Haute Couture, I dressed 5000 priests into Prêt-a-Porter, and one million of kids into beautiful streetwear t-shirts. And everything was linked by color. After this experience, the Pope told me that I use color as an element of faith. And when I decided to use the symbol of the rainbow for this event, the bishop told me there is no copyright on the rainbow, so I could do a really proper visionary work - not for fashion, but for faith. Once again, this was in 1997. It was extraordinary. After that, I started thinking ‘Wow, what did I do?’, because after that I realized that I could use my talent for a social meaning. As a unity, as a democracy, because on this day of 24th August of 1997, there were no barriers between the important bishops and the 12 years-old kids watching the event. I and [started] thinking that I couldn’t go back doing fashion or Haute Couture or doing thinks just for experiment. That was why, when two years ago I was proposed to do Benetton by Oliviero Toscani, immediately in my mind I thought that Benetton could be the perfect tool, the perfect rainbow machine do dress everyone. It is a cool clothes [brand] with a democratic price. And it has been very amazing for me. In the last collection, some of my t-shirts cost €12.

Everyone can achieve Benetton’s style. Yes. And also, there’s ecology. And that question of style. It’s a good brand. It’s really a good experience for this moment of my life.

What do you want to accomplish with Benetton? Do you have a vision you want to explore? I think what I accomplish in this company is also what I accomplish for me, because it’s a renaissance. I started my career around the same year, in 1965, more or less the same time that Benetton was launched. My idea is to create for people. To open the world of creativity to everyone. And to transform Benetton stores into places of experiment, places of emotion, not just of consuming. My project is to build a Benetton wardrobe. I want that, in a few seasons, you can be able to find the perfect trench coat in Benetton. The best duffle coats. The best white t-shirt. The best poncho. The best knitwear, because we are very good in knitwear at Benetton. And now we are starting our line of furniture, our home line, with the sheets, the napkins, the plates… We want to do a total wardrobe, total complementary things that last in time with a twist of irony, with a twist of poetry, with a twist of creativity.

When will the lifestyle part of the brand be launched? Very soon. The lifestyle branch is on its way to be presented around September or October. I designed beautiful plates, we have beautiful glasses, so fun, so cool, and so affordable.

That’s what’s drives you, constant creativity. I want people to want things. How should I say it? I want to realize the wishes that people have, now. But what is wish? What do people want, or what do they hope, to find? And then we have to rethink everything, because a good part of the sales is being made on the internet. At this point, we are working with a very good agency to launch the best website, which will be entertaining, interactive, and also a fashion show, a place where you can find our creativity and all our products. I am so excited because this corresponds very well to my imagination. I have always been a transversal person. I think that’s why I have achieved so many things in my career, and that’s what some people don’t like in my work: the fact that I broke the rules between art and fashion, that I tore down the wall between music and fashion, and between architecture and fashion. But I think this is the world today. And that’s why it’s exciting. That’s my world.

You mentioned the use of color before, and it’s one of the things that you and Benetton have in common. Does that make sense to you? Oui, definitively. But also, the idea of ecology, the idea of quality, the idea of price, and the idea of democratic clothes. But color is definitively the link.

On the other hand, the brand’s trajectory is pretty similar to your own. I am thinking, concretely, in the ads from the 80s and the 90s, which shocked half the world - but that were incredible. Many of them were conceived by Oliviero Toscani. He is my oldest friend in Italy. I created with him a very scandalous brand in the 60s, called Jesus. I designed, he did the campaign. That’s how we met.

How do you look at this ad campaigns with this distance? Do you think these campaigns could be done today, with all the social media pressure and this new thing called cancel culture? I think today [the moment] demands another approach. The last campaign that I directed, We Are Rainbows, was based on the idea of federate people, not shop people. I think we need to create a new intimacy between the people who love Benetton and the brand. Because the brand was a sleeping beauty for a long time. So, I need to bring in a new generation, millennials. But I also want to keep the mother and the grandmother. I want to dress a whole family, that is my idea. Following this concept, I need to give kindness, warm, I want to recreate a complicity between the brand and the people. […] What has been done is fantastique, because Benetton was visionaire with Toscani, and it alerted people for some priorities, like race, homosexuality, anorexy, and so many things that no one was talking about. But today, if we achieve to do this challenge, to propose a wardrobe with an excellent design, everyone we will be very happy.

You will not follow that disruptive road for now. No. We will follow the idea of proposing a renaissance road, based on color and democracy.

This speech goes against the idea that you are an eccentric designer. Looking back, and even if some of your pieces look conceptual, it is obvious that almost all of them remain current and totally wearable. You know, my eccentricity was to be a visionaire. I imagined the world of today 50 years ago. Because when you see my clothes, you can see how much they influence the designers of today. When they went out, during my career, because I was always into innovation, they were too earlier too many times.

Because they were ahead of their time… Today when I see some fashion show [with clothes] printed with clouds all over, I did that 15 years ago. When I see teddy bears all over, when I see color-block… I see classic.

I imagine that your work, and the way you work, have changed over time. Do you still draw as much as you use to draw? Oh, I never have drawn as much. When I arrived at Benetton nobody was drawing, but fortunately I speak fluent Italian, I know about knitwear and I know how to draw. To draw is my language. And it’s also my art.

What inspires you? What gets your attention today? The first excitement is that I became a free man. I didn’t see it in the past, but I became a wiser man. My nephew calls me shaman. I know that what I do is quite amazing, because I have this library in my head, an emotional library, that takes all new technology and history, because history is my passion. So, today, I am inspired by the future generation, by the new generation, I find there they have huge creativity. Even in fashion, some young designers, I love their work. Like the two guys doing Nina Ricci [Rushemy Botter e Lisi Herrebrugh].

But don't you think that, at the same time, there are too many brands, too many “new names”, and that the consumer ends up dispersing and, at the same time, becoming too demanding - and confused? It seems that the notion of what fashion is, nowadays, is a little lost. I agree with you. Except I take a view like a helicopter of from a satellite. So, my favorite brand is the world. I want to change the world. I’m over all that stuff, I’m involved in a renaissance, in a revolution, to destroy the dystopia. To stop the dystopia. And to bring hope back. And to re-create all these things. To also speak about ancient values, mixed with new technology. There are a lot of things, when it comes to our levels of conscience, that we need to rehabilitate. 

That being said, I risk asking if you think your designs are political? Definitely. Bien sûr! They are political and they carry a spiritual height. All my clothes, everything I design, is telling a story. And everything I design as a sense, and as a role, on this planet. Even when I designed the little angel on the corner of the street, it was important that I did it.

I know that you are a huge fan of History, and of Music, so how did you become interested in Fashion? How did you choose it instead of the others? I didn’t choose fashion, fashion chose me. I didn’t choose fashion. When I was a little boy my mother had a little factory and she was looking at me with some worry because I was a flâneur, and I was out of the boarding school at 11 years. I didn’t want to do something very precise. And then she told me ‘Maybe you can help me and design’. […] During some time I saw clothes as a bunker to protect women. That’s the first part of my career, some sort of architecture in movement. And then I did cartoon and very powerful manifesto clothes. Because every man was thinking about the woman-object, and I wanted to [go in the opposite direction] participate in their emancipation. So, I guess I got interested in fashion because I was interested in the destiny of women. I am a warlord for that, I don’t like injustices. And honestly, I think women have been the biggest inspiration of my life. Even if it’s someone like Joan of Arc, or Mary, Mother of Jesus, all these characters have totally shaped my life. And my mother. And today my wife, Pauline. And my daughter, Eugénie. It is my objective, to be on the side of women, because if the world would be guided by women, we would not be in such a mess. Let’s say I love fashion because it’s a fantastique medium of expression, because it allows to add so many different energies. And it’s a very powerful tool for democracy.

Before we close this chapter on fashion, I would like to ask you how did you feel when you lost your namesake brand. I was not sad. I was desperate. I was more than sad, because for many years I tried to find a financial partner. And at one moment I lost it [the brand] to the courts so it was a very difficult moment. It was not exactly that I sold my label, it was that I lost it. I had to find a lot of hope inside myself to overcome all of this. And suddenly it transformed me too, because now I am more than a label, I became a free activist for the world. Even if I get back my label one day I don’t think I would redo a company like that I am very happy like I am.

You mentioned that, when you lost your label, you had to find hope inside yourself. This issue is, precisely, about hope. What does hope means to you? What gives you hope? Hope is a project. Hope is a target. But it’s also, in a way, a light in the dark. It’s something you know you cannot lose it. If you follow that light, hope will help you. Hope it’s linked to faith. When people don’t have a faith, they create a world of utopia, which is a world without the face of hope. To me, this is linked to the fact that I believe in God. And I believe in God because I believe in people. I believe in humanity. I can see God in the leave of a tree. In the design of a river. I can see God because the river has the same design as my vein. I can see God in the unicity of everything around me. And I can see God in the opportunities I have been given all my life to put my talent as a tool of transformation. I am not a contemplative person, I am an activist of hope.

A couple of years ago you launched a book called Fashion, Art & Rock’n’Roll. How should I present you? As an artist? As a creative director? I think I am all of that. I am an artist, I am a fashion designer, I am a philosopher, and everything is one. How could you ask Leonardo da Vinci if he was a painter or an architect? 

Translated from Vogue Portugal's Hope issue, out September 2020. All credits in the original articles.Texto em português na edição em print. 


Ana Murcho By Ana Murcho


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