“It’s not so easy to be creative in such a Material World”
— Jean-Charles de Castelbajac
Chanteuse, producer and cultural provocateur: is there anything Santigold CAN’T do? Her most recent album, ‘99¢’, challenged her unwitting status as a consumer object and the conflation of celebrity with commodity.
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac ushered in a fashion revolution with his work at Iceberg in the 80s, putting Betty Boop, Kermit the Frog and Snoopy on sweaters. Enamoured by her personal style and electric stage presence, Jean-Charles and Santi have become fast friends and frequent collaborators. Santi dialled in with Jean-Charles at his Paris office to talk heroes from the past, the challenges of social media in the present and the how to keep those creative juices owing in the future…
JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC: Hello?
SANTI: can you hear me?
JEAN-CHARLES: the connection between France and England is dodgy.
SANTI: It’s been obliterated by Brexit.
JEAN-CHARLES: yeah, I think so. they’ve started to tamper with the communications. it’s incredible what’s been going on.
SANTI: I was just saying that I read in a newspaper headline this morning that remain had won, it was on one of the main papers but they’d printed the wrong result! it’s crazy.
JEAN-CHARLES: I’ll be in London in a few weeks — I am doing a kind of performance called La Femme Tableau. It’s inspired by a Japanese writer who was living at the beginning of the century called Edogawa Ranpo. he took his name by copying Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote a very famous story the human chair, about a man who is spurned by a woman, she doesn’t want him. So he designs a chair that he can hide inside.
SANTI: Like a trojan horse.
JEAN-CHARLES: Exactly. This chair is beautiful and he offers it to her — but of course he has a secret place he sneaks into every night to be near her.
SANTI: That’s bizarre!
JEAN-CHARLES: When I did my first creative job, oh my gosh, forty years ago, I was shocked by that surrealistic dimension Japan has, it’s very mysterious. But then I thought, what will happen if a woman is inside a painting.
SANTI: Oh, I get it, so that’s why it’s called la Femme tableau.
JEAN-CHARLES: I came out with this concept that I did in the 80s with Jean- Michel Basquiat, with Keith Haring, to do a painting made incarnate. I threw my dress into the canvas of the painters.
SANTI: You actually put a dress in the painting?
JEAN-CHARLES: The lady goes inside and I paint on her, with special music. I’m going to be doing that in Covent Garden.
SANTI: I’m only in the UK for a few days. I’m playing Glastonbury tomorrow.
JEAN-CHARLES: Is it going to rain?
SANTI: Oh, it probably will rain. Hopefully that won’t stop the party.
JEAN-CHARLES: And you’re not coming to do a concert in Paris?
SANTI: I was just there!
JEAN-CHARLES: Oh no. I was not invited.
SANTI: I’m the worst, I know. It was my first show on the tour, we played at Le Trianon. I always forget to invite everyone until I get there.
JEAN-CHARLES: Everything in life goes so fast!
SANTI: It’s so fast.
JEAN-CHARLES: I’ve lived a long life, but suddenly it’s like everything’s sped up, like an arrow… [makes a whistling noise]
SANTI: It just gets faster and faster. I have a son now, since the last time I spoke to you.
JEAN-CHARLES: How old is he?
SANTI: He’s two. And he’s on the road with me, so I’m trying to be a mum and a performer. There’s so much going on, and it’s just speeding by, I can barely believe that he’s two already.
JEAN-CHARLES: Is Trevor [Andrew, Santi’s husband] there right now too?
SANTI: Yeah, he’s here. This really strange thing happened, where he was just drawing with markers over trash cans and stuff, and he was drawing the Gucci monogram and came up with this Gucci ghost character. Then Gucci called him! And asked him to come and collaborate on his last two collections. So he’s been going to Milan all the time, it’s insane.
JEAN-CHARLES: Alessandro Michele? Wonderful. He’s such a talented designer. I can’t understand why he called just your husband though, and not you to do the music of the show too. The world I have been dreaming of for forty years seems to be finally materialising, this exchange between music, art, fashion — there is no limit anymore. It’s perfect timing for people like you and me.
SANTI: I totally agree with you. I think we are really similar in that we like to do all sorts of things under one umbrella. Nothing’s off-limits in our creative process. I remember in the 90s when people would say ‘what do you do?’, and if you replied with more than one thing, they wouldn’t take you seriously. so you had to choose one thing to say. it’s not like that any more.
JEAN-CHARLES: I’m preparing a book about my thirty years in fashion and collaborations, and there’s some pictures with you. It’s coming out in October. When I see my cartoon pieces from the 80s with iceberg, everything feels very now, nothing has aged. I feel like eccentricity ages better than that classic look.
SANTI: Definitely. It’s strangely timeless.
JEAN-CHARLES: I remember your first album cover with the glitter, I loved it so much.
SANTI: That was so easy to make. It was a mock-up of what the cover was supposed to be. And then we re-shot the real one and we liked the mock-up better. So i’m on the cover in my pyjamas, on my couch.
JEAN-CHARLES: One other thing I should say about your music: what I love is that there’s no frontier between influences. I feel the same about where my inspirations come from.
SANTI: I think true artists all feel like that. I remember doing an interview with Debbie Harry once, and she was talking about how all artists are inspired by so many different things and if you’re talented then there’s no way it can come through you and end up sounding exactly like something else. A bit of you comes out in the wash. Doing that is second nature to an artist. But these days when things are moving so fast, it can mean that there isn’t time for these ideas to bounce around within that person’s own creativity, it becomes a trendy copycat thing. That’s the stuff that won’t last, what you were talking about earlier. Art lasts for hundreds of years. Poor van Gogh, nobody appreciated him until after he died.
JEAN-CHARLES: I remember Malcolm McLaren, who I first met in 1972 and we stayed friends until he died. I was always amazed that he never wanted to go to Facebook or instagram or all those things, because we have this culture where we feel we need to be resisting things. But I told him that the culture has changed, that it’s not about direct resistance any more. We have to be like a virus now, to infiltrate.
SANTI: Yeah, you’re really good at social media.
JEAN-CHARLES: A virus is the only way to bring your identity into the world today. Mclaren told me, “Now this century is about authenticity versus karaoke”. We’re saturated by copies of things, but occasionally you come across something sincere.
SANTI: What you said about the virus is so interesting, and I’ve never heard it expressed that way. It’s true. It’s something I struggle with, having come up in the era before social media. I struggle with the fact that it’s hard to reconcile a sense of authenticity with the awareness that you need to operate like a virus. So much of that virus element is marketing, whereas so much of authenticity isn’t. To find that balance is special. Some people find it really easy, some people struggle. For me, it’s hard to figure out how to balance that. Because the real, authentic me is busy and doesn’t want to use social media! [laughs] The authentic me is really, really tired.
JEAN-CHARLES: But you know, I’ve been using angels for years, maybe twenty years now. I designed that
in the streets, all over the cities I go. To give a kind of positive vibe to this strange, dystopian world. Now I’m going to do those angels as a sticker on the internet. So some angels are free to fly all over the world! Maybe it’s totally utopian. Wow we have to be positive activists as well as artists.
SANTI: That’s true.
JEAN-CHARLES: When I hear your song, l.e.s. artistes, it’s got a sweet sound. But it’s actually a kind of war song, it’s galvanising, like Fela Kuti. I haven’t seen him in a concert for a very long time.
SANTI: I went to see Fela Kuti when I was seven years old!
JEAN-CHARLES: Oh my God! those amazing songs, some of them up to forty minutes long!
SANTI: I know. To think people used to have the attention span for that. What you said about viruses is sticking with me so much. I’ve been really so over social media recently, and I’ve been reading the news instead, which I’ve always struggled with because I find it so depressing. I recently read and watched the vice thing about killing cancer, about how they’re recoding viruses to basically attack and kill cancer, which is absolutely fascinating. Have you heard about that?
JEAN-CHARLES: No, never. That’s amazing.
SANTI: It’s incredible. They were figuring out how to recode the HIV virus, and they put it in this little girl and it eradicated the cancer in her body — before that she was in a terminal condition. They’re doing it with all different viruses for the different types of cancer, and it’s working. And strangely enough I kind of took something from this amazing work they were doing, that I could apply to my own work. As an artist, you have to figure out how to ‘recode’ your own viruses.
JEAN-CHARLES: Oui! Bien sûr. I like to think of my tribe not in any aesthetic sense, but as being a tribe of kindness. A new kind of tribe. In the 90s and the 2000s, this sense of tribalism was elitist, it was these little groups. But kindness and gentleness have almost been punished as part of that.
SANTI: They’re not valued within that system at all.
JEAN-CHARLES: I am happy! I smile! I think like that. I’ve been a permanent fighter for that. Keith Haring was always like that. Until his last breath he was always drawing, and giving them away. I’ve never seen anybody so generous. He would be so contemporary these days. I think that’s what makes the difference between real artists, they have this instinct to always share. Yesterday I was with captain Paul Watson, he’s the guy who fights against over-fishing all over the world, and has been arrested twenty times. He’s a kind of pirate, but against industry. He was speaking about this. That we need artists, because they are the only ones who can speak about this things outside of facts and figures, like scientists. I think this is the new challenge.
SANTI: Just like with the European Union, there’s this trend around the world where money is trumping humanity.
JEAN-CHARLES: Money and this moving world. Today we have this nice call, but we’re in the middle of this Brexit situation, which is a revolution for Europe. But in the midst of all this uncertainty, you have to keep being creative. To be able to keep doing that is wonderful.
SANTI: I feel like the challenge for artists is to maintain that joy and positivity, even when it’s so challenging, when there’s this barrage of negativity and you’re witnessing this failure.
JEAN-CHARLES: We’re running out of time already for this conversation. What are you wearing right now?
SANTI: Sweats. Right now I’m wear some super old Gaultier pants and a t-shirt.
JEAN-CHARLES: A vintage piece! Mmm. Out of the young designers, who do you like? Do you know Jacquemus?
SANTI: I don’t.
JEAN-CHARLES: I want you to look at Jacquemus. He’s very fresh.
SANTI: How do you spell it?
JEAN-CHARLES: J-a-c-Q-u-e-M-u-s. He’s cool, he’s authentic, he’s bringing humour back to fashion. He doesn’t copy anyone.
SANTI: I love humour and fashion. That’s one of the best things about you and your work. I love fun fashion. When I first discovered you, I was just amazed. I would turn page after page, I couldn’t believe that I’d never seen it before. I was a baby when you started.
JEAN-CHARLES: You were not born! You know Santi, I’ve been designing for Iceberg again. I stopped fifteen years again, but they called me again, and U’m doing two collections for them.
SANTI: Amazing, when is the first one coming out?
SANTI: I can’t wait to see that.
JEAN-CHARLES: It’s very strange to go back to the place you started. I first worked there in 1974. Imagine.
SANTI: I didn’t realise you were there so early. I remember Iceberg being really big in hip-hop.
JEAN-CHARLES: It was funny that, because I’m so not hip-hop myself, I was very… Kraftwerk. Very electro.
SANTI: I like both. A bit of hip-hop, a bit of Kraftwerk.
JEAN-CHARLES: I know! and I discovered hip-hop because all of these hip-hop artists started to wear my Iceberg sweaters.
SANTI: It was the ultimate thing you could have. It was up there with a Coogi sweater.
JEAN-CHARLES: I love Coogi. Even their technicolor coats. What is very strange is that I discovered last year that my clothes are really popular in Africa. I never knew that, I heard that because people from Kinshasa in the Congo, but also Rwanda and Cote d’Ivoire, made songs about me.
SANTI: No way.
JEAN-CHARLES: There is some song, and I feel silly saying this, but it’s because they think Yohji Yamamoto and I, that we are Gods or something. There is a religion of fashion called La Sape. Recently I heard these songs, they are amazing! and the contemporary art museum in Paris called me six months ago, and said they are doing an exhibition about all expressions of art from all over the world, and these guys from Kinshasa want to come to Paris and meet you. So they invited sixteen of these Sapeurs from Kinshasa and we did a performance where they wore my old archives.
SANTI: Amazing! Are there pictures of that online? And send me the song too.
JEAN-CHARLES: I’ll send it to you over email. But yes, Jacquemus is good and J.W. Anderson is good too.
SANTI: I’m gonna check them all out! I feel a little out of the loop.
JEAN-CHARLES: There are so many good young designers coming up. I feel very