Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Takes on Art

"Triumph of the Sign" at Paradise Row is the French designer's first solo art exhibition where he pits classical against pop iconography.

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Yves Droite Yves Gauche, Diptych, 2008
We’re all suspicious of models warping into musicians and actors trying their hands at design, or just about anyone else who believes they have a pressing talent because they’re famous. And we should be – let them convince us! But no one doubted the success of Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s art exhibition Triumph of the Sign when the fashion legend went all arty on us with his first solo show. No, we knew Bethnal Green’s Paradise Row gallery was in safe hands because art, as his clothes proves, is the natural progression for Jean-Charles’ 40-year obsession with pop art.
 
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac or JCDC as we like to call him, has “culturally hijacked” our society since 1969, and whether it has been with Barack Obama dresses, Lego leggings or Kermit the Frog coats, he has used iconic images and legendary personalities to make his point. Now, the time has come to take it off the catwalk and put it in an art gallery. Triumph of the Sign is where opposites meet; classical masterpieces pitted against brand logos, consumer culture versus highbrow art. You get the point. Castelbajac was friends with both Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and this is him continuing their work. On the eve of his exhibition, Castelbajac laid out his vision for Dazed Digital:
 
Dazed Digital: What’s the story behind Triumph of the Sign?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: I commissioned Chinese artists to copy classical Western paintings in detail and then we applied a logo from a contemporary company or design house.
 
DD: You’ve been a designer since 1969 – are you now tired of fashion?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: No, ever since I started and copyrighted my Jesus denim brand 40 years ago I’ve had an obsessive relationship with art and they go hand in hand. I’m still interested in conceptual fashion and that’s why I use fashion as an art medium - they’re totally linked. You always have to ask yourself where the new fashion frontier is.
 
DD: Has art always been important to you?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Yeah, I started collecting it aged eight and I have produced art for the past 20 years, but it’s been personal paintings that I haven’t showed because they’ve been sentimental and emotional. I sold my first painting last night!
 
DD: How does art differ from fashion?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Well, not always that much. Some of my designs, like the teddy bear and Jimi Hendrix clothes for example, only came in between two to five pieces, which makes them very exclusive. I hate commercial fashion.
 
DD: What influences your art?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Many things, but Raymond Loewe is one of them. He designed the Shell, NASA, BP and Greyhound logos. He created contemporary coats of arms but he is strangely forgotten now.
 
DD: Are there any art movements that inspire you?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: I’m very interested the situationism and the whole Détourne movement because it’s all about including someone else’s work into mine. It’s about collision, provoking the audience and shocking viewers with absurd beauty.
 
DD: You seem to like opposites – You quote Karl Marx, the daddy of anti-capitalism, in the press release but also use dollar bills and corporate logos in your art and fashion shows. Why is that?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Yes, I like complete opposites because they provoke reflection. In many ways I’m full of contradictions; my ancestors were marquis and French Noblemen, but I’m also an artist starved for contemporary culture.
 
DD: You use icons and iconic images in both your art and fashion –why?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: They’re always with us, like faces, texts and prints, for example. And they’re linked to our past, they’re the heroes of history!
 
DD: Your breaking point came in 1997 when the Pope commissioned you to dress 5,000 priests, 500 bishops and the Pope himself for their trip to Paris. What was that like?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: It was amazing - I even chose the music! I always thought creating was linked to suffering, but the Pope showed me that wasn’t true and he changed my life. From that point on I saw myself as a fashion designer.
 
DD: What did he say to you?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: He said "Young man, you have used colour as a cement of faith."
 
DD: And what did you reply?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: I wish I had a good reply, but I was just totally silent!
 
DD: What’s the story behind your Kermit collection for AW 09-10?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: It’s just a bit of a joke about how English people calls the French for frogs. I made a frog massacre! Humour is a very powerful weapon.
 
DD: But you don’t mind Brits?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: No, I love English artists. Gavin Turk, Jake and Dino Chapman and David Shrigley – they’re all great. There is something sombre about British art, look at a Radiohead video, for example. It’s very dark, but there was darkness behind some of Warhol’s work as well.
 
DD: You’re very into music as well, aren’t you?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: I’m fan of Anita from the Cock’n’Bull Kid. I did a skirt for her a while ago – she put it on her head instead. She brutalised it – I love it! I have collaborated with M.I.A. for four years but I also like Metronomy and Ebony Bones. There are a lot of talented people around.
 
DD: Do you want to make more art?
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac: Yes, and next time I’ll include sound and 3D pieces!
 
Triumph of the Sign is at Paradise Row Gallery 3rd April – 2nd May 2009
St Matthew’s Hall, 17 Hereford St, London, E2 6EX

See our coverage of Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's A/W 09 show here.
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