The name Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is synonymous in fashion circles with boldness and in celebrity circles as legendary; the now 69-year-old designer has managed to spar with longevity for years and constantly reinvent. What exactly his long career can be attributed to, whether it's his rotating roster of celebrity clients or his consistently vibrant aesthetic, is almost beside the point. Castelbajac is a fashion icon who need not worry about updating his visions and looks for the new age, because they update themselves. This adaptivity is something he sees in his music taste, as well — something we begin the interview discussing. "When you love music, you never get old,' he tells me. "I remember, I never heard my father say, 'In my age, the music was better.' I never heard it, he always loved the upcoming music. He loved jazz, and then he loved rock and roll. I have the same kind of sensibilities."
Just like updating a playlist with emerging artists that catch one's attention, Castelbajac updates his outlook based on the dawn of each new day. For some designers and houses, this sort of thing is seen as a type of reinvention or rebranding, but for him it is at the very least effortless and at the most a fun process. Over the years, he's dressed celebrities in a variety of campy looks that reimagine what it's like to live in the present day and to relish each present moment. Take a look at his famous teddy bear coat, for example.
"I came from the idea of, 'Stop using fur, because I can do a better coat, more fun, more spectacular, than a regular fur coat,'" he says of the coat when we talk about whether or not his looks can defined as "camp." He is very passionate about the word "camp," almost as if he sees his persona as an extension of the word itself. "All my career is camp," he says.
The teddy bear coat, having been a cornerstone of outrageous aestheticism and structure in fashion since the late '80s, got a facelift in 2009. Nearly 20 years later, the designer recreated the coat with a new stuffed character for the equally as outrageous, and then emerging artist, Lady Gaga.
Instead of teddy bears, Castelbajac reconstructed the coat with small Kermit the Frog stuffed animals, commentary not just on the fur trade — a reading which PETA lauded her for — but also on the movement of fashion towards something more viral. Fashion in the digital age was increasingly becoming about moments, valued much more than individual construction and concepts.
These examples are definitely some of the more flashy garments in Castelbajac's camp repertoire, but like he's said himself, his entire career can be traced to camp. His new collection with luxury French swimwear brand, Vilebrequin, is no exception to this long standing rule.
The collection is incredibly colorful by Vilebrequin's standards, with pops and swatches of rainbows littering each garment. This is not to say, of course, that a camp aesthetic is limited in this case to colors which might signal some sort of parody or illusion; the garments are indicative of a new movement within swimwear to innovate what has become a tired silhouette. This can be seen especially in an asymmetrical one piece swimsuit that's included in the collection, and retails for $280. Draping black stretch fabric is broken up by a rainbow bandeau — a concept that's also replicated in the design of the collection's beach towel, which retails for $135.
"To practice camp, you have to be camp [...] It has to be a part of you, of your life, of your involvement, of your way of seeing the world."
Created for and inspired by the beaches of St. Tropez, each piece in the collection is made fantastic through Castelbajac's eyes. While many of the pieces include a color palette that is fully saturated, some of the colors are adapted to the minimalist history of swimwear construction. He jokes about toning himself down, telling me, "It's amazing now that I'm almost 70 and I'm just starting pastel. Pastel-bajac!"
This is because, of course, the relationship he has with the rainbow. It's one that's utterly personal, sometimes controversial, but entirely unlike any that a fashion designer has previously had with a range of colors. He once dressed Pope John Paul II and the clergy in rainbow vestments — a decision he notes was revolutionary because of its link to the LGBTQ+ community. "The rainbow is the flag of the gay community, and this is also why I chose it. It is the link between all men."
Besides the rainbow pieces, the Vilebrequin collection's standout is without a doubt a $280 leopard-print one piece that features a bold teal bandeau in place of the rainbow one on the black suit. The leopard print is fairly plain, but small shocks of color are parsed between black half circles for a uniquely Castelbajac touch. The men's pieces are just as vibrant, if not brighter; a dazzling $170 short sleeve button-up is the men's collection capstone. It features a scattering of bold blocks of color, stacked beautifully on the white viscose. "This collection, I find, is a glam-pop," he says of the various summery pieces. "Now I feel it is time to bring back something fresh, something about naïve, something about utopia time."
He also describes the collection as a sort of "pop poetry," a characterization that might usually be interpreted in several ways, surely, but is very narrowly defined for Castelbajac's works. While certainly not as fluid and campy as his other looks, now which are considered revered historical and cultural artifacts, the pieces were birthed from his gaze, a gaze which prioritizes irony and invention. "To practice camp, you have to be camp," he states firmly. "You cannot invent yourself and say, 'I'm going to be a dandy.' It has to be a part of you, of your life, of your involvement, of your way of seeing the world."