Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Has Never Lost His Punk Spirit

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is best-known for his confrontational approach to fashion. His outfits have graced everybody from Andy Warhol to Lady Gaga, and over the years he has often been the designer of choice for the most creative, and by proxy the most rebellious.

What you may not know is that he is also an accomplished painter and live artist, with a furiously productive output. He tours with the French group Mr No, painting live and performing onstage. And you can always tell where he’s been in Paris, and indeed the world, by the faded chalk drawings of angels and friends that he leaves on building walls — like friendly graffiti.

De Castelbajac’s latest exhibition, The Phantoms of Eden, opened this month in the luxury resort of Eden Rock in Saint Barths. We caught up with him at his French home to speak about the show and much more.

How did the collaboration with Eden Rock come about?
I always wanted to go to Saint Barths. It’s a place where the past encounters the modern and the Caribbean. This meeting, and in fact the collaboration with Eden Rock, came about through my Parisian gallery, Nuke. For me the idea of evoking ghosts in Eden was a perfect situation.

The exhibition is beautiful. Can you tell us a little about the act of making it?
The process of this exhibition has been quite long. I started to paint four months ago in small format. The link between it all was the evocation of ghosts: the ghosts of my innocence, the ghosts of my childhood, and the ghosts of the friends I’ve lost. All of this brought me to a land I’ve never known, closer to the invisible. When I arrived in Saint Barths, I started to paint a big fresco, in conjunction with my paintings. It’s all about accident, and the evocation of lost innocence.

Ever since I’ve known you, I’ve seen you draw on walls with chalk. Can you remember the moment this materialized?
The first time I remember drawing with a chalk on a wall was in Casablanca when I was six years old. So, a very little boy! After that, I was totally fascinated by the work of Keith Haring in the subways of New York. Around 1992 or ’93, I started to draw angels on the walls of Paris. Now, I always have a chalk in my pocket! It’s a form of prayer I suppose, a poetic gesture, and I love the idea of ephemera.

These large-scale immediate drawings are ‘phantoms’ and yet they hold all of the parts in place. Do you feel they are an important part of your working process?
The wall drawings are very particular for me because they are always unprepared. They are totally inspirational. So, when I start them, I paint with music on [electro music, generally] and I don’t know where the painting is going to take me. I cannot stop before I finish. It’s like a form of trance. I am in sync with the painting and every face appearing, every animal, has a kind of shamanic link to me. It is as if phantoms are appearing, yes. The first part of the process is to build the primary colors in shapes, like circles, arcs, or crosses, that I consider as ‘heraldic’ figures. Then I paint in black over it, and everything becomes almost religious.

Does your approach differ between your art and your fashion?
The very big difference between my art and my fashion is not the inspiration. It’s to do with the process. Fashion is an industrial process, and it takes up to six months to prepare a collection. The fundamental difference is, to me, that fashion is there to answer questions. It is something to protect, to make people beautiful, and it is functional. Art has no particular function, just the fantastic function of creating mystery, or creating hope, or asking questions. 

Today it seems pop culture has mixed with the classical arts and its preoccupation with sex, life, and death. Do you feel there are no boundaries anymore between the high and the low?
I have never seen any boundaries between low and high art. I was educated by popular culture, by advertising, calligraphy, coats of arms, flags, and toys. My first memories of being fascinated by color were the ideas that the fire truck was red, and that safety belts on the plane were yellow. All of these things have remained strong in my subconscious. In high culture, like in Paulo Coelho, or Francis Bacon, the techniques and the crystallization of actions — for instance, the way in which Bacon painted Pope Innocent X — fascinates me. I have a strange memory that appropriates and kidnaps things, and makes them mine. After that, it becomes all about technique. I am fascinated by the technique and the act of painting. Sometimes I look at my work and I think, “Who has inspired me? Is it Fernand Léger, Miró, Kandinsky, or is it Keith Haring or Lichtenstein?!” But certainly, my biggest inspiration is the strength of image. These images can come from popular culture or high art. I think this is because I come from the generation of the logo: a cigarette packet, the Lucky Strike packet, the Players packet, the Esso logo by Raymond Loewy. 

I remember you telling me once that rappers in the 90s wore your cartoon sweaters like coats of arms. This re-appropriation has always been present in your fashion. How does the cartoon relate to your art practice?
Roy Lichtenstein used to say that the cartoon was the most important symbol of the new age. For me, the cartoon is like a ghost. it is an icon that’s totally empty but can be filled with the feelings you give it. So, the cartoon is a big link between my fashion and my art. I see it like a contemporary feeling of a medieval time. So I was very pleased when people like LL Cool J interpreted my cartoons, like they would interpret a coat of arms for the King Of England! It’s a strong appropriation that the rap scene has taken from my work, and I sell many of the paintings to the artists of the rap scene.

There’s been a lot of fashion talk recently about punk. I said to a friend over Fashion Week that, to me, you were one of the most ‘punk’ creators. Do you feel an affinity with punk?
There is a song from the English pop band Wave Machines that asks, “Where is my punk spirit?” And honestly, I have never lost it. The idea of punk was so strong for me when I met Malcolm McLaren in the 70s, the idea of daring and never minding what the critics think. It’s a defiant attitude that for me is essential. My position, and my creations are always transversal, using and mixing territories, no matter the opinions of others. That’s my punk attitude.

I saw images of a dress you painted live in the Villa Polaroid space. You told me once about the furor you caused when you made your first ‘painted’ dresses. Could you recall this story for us?
In the 80s I created a symbolic dress that I called Robe Tableau, or canvas dress. Every artist I approached — Miquel Barceló, Gérard Garouste, Annette Messager — was asked to interpret this dress. At the time it was a big scandal because fashion and art were not linked in this way at all. We had a big fashion-art show in the FIAC and people were strangely surprised. But, I never painted personally on this dress. So, in Saint Barths, after a seven-hour live fresco painting, Ai Canno arrived with a white dress and I started to paint an angel on her, signaling the end of the cycle, painting myself on the dress. At one point I took her hair and used it to wipe across the paint, and to make drip forms on the angel, and this act was so strong and unfamiliar. That’s what I prefer: to perform. I love also to paint all alone in my atelier, but I love live art. It is the most rock ’n’ roll thing in my life.