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‘Can we do jeans without 20,000 litres of water?’

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, United Colors of Benetton’s artistic director, talks fast fashion, reinvention & more.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 23, 2020, 11.29 AM IST
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When you bring up the climate emergency plaguing the fashion industry today, or debate the viability of a politically correct world, the artistic director of United Colors of Benetton, begins to light up.
When you bring up the climate emergency plaguing the fashion industry today, or debate the viability of a politically correct world, the artistic director of United Colors of Benetton, begins to light up.
It’s 9 pm in Mumbai and avant-garde French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is tired after a long day of media interviews and a masterclass for design students.

But when you bring up the climate emergency plaguing the fashion industry today, or debate the viability of a politically correct world, the artistic director of United Colors of Benetton, who once convinced Pope John Paul II to don vestments with a rainbow-cross motif, begins to light up.

Few know that back in 1970, Castelbajac petitioned to join a secret philosophical society — La Phalène — in Paris and it’s this love for a good philosophical discussion that comes across as he cradles an espresso and shares his take on the challenges facing the fashion industry.

Excerpts from the interview:

On slowing down fast fashion
“We are in a disruptive and a little bit [of a] dystopian time. When I started in fashion, we designed coats and jackets thinking a mother will give it to her daughter and she will pass it on, we designed for three generations. We never thought people would buy a coat and throw it away. Today, the emergency of what’s happening in the world is telling the fashion industry, ‘Calm down, we’re going too fast’.

“We’ve been so fast for so long that it’s time to go back to slow. Ecology is a good opportunity to go back to style [to the basics]. “ Stella McCartney was a visionary in this, in not using leather. Today we’re doing our buttons with cotton, I’m making a whole family of clothes using paper. So it’s very interesting to consider. Can we do blue jeans without 20,000 litres of water or without using acid? These are all important questions.”

On the challenge facing fashion retailers today
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Few know that back in 1970, Castelbajac petitioned to join a secret philosophical society — La Phalène — in Paris.
Few know that back in 1970, Castelbajac petitioned to join a secret philosophical society — La Phalène — in Paris.

“The perfect department store has to be reinvented. It’s no longer about the four Ps (price, positioning, publicity and power) but about the four Es — ecology, experience, emotion and e-system. It may be like Disneyland or it may be a mix of fashion and a modern art museum like what K11 is in Hong Kong. If you don’t [reinvent], you’ll be facing huge competition from the screen (e-commerce).”

On fashion having to be politically correct
“Today you can’t say something about religion, race or even a book on Instagram (without offending someone). But fashion represents an ambiguous part of the world. The former President of France, François Mitterrand, once said to me, ‘Fashion is a tool of democracy. Every totalitarian country hates fashion because fashion is a mark of independence’. You know, it’s like when I did the dress for Katy Perry with President Obama’s face four months before he was elected in 2008. Some people were very upset, they wanted to hurt me. This would have never happened in the ’70s.”

On the sustainability of a politically correct world

“I remember, my friend (former Sex Pistols’ band manager) Malcolm McLaren was an anarchist. When the digital age arrived, he said to me, ‘This is not for us. We have to resist.’ And I said, ‘No, no, we have to contaminate this digital society with our philosophy.’ I still believe that. I’m a total utopist like Don Quixote. He fought for crazy ideas.”

On designing for celebrities
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said [liked to dress] Lady Gaga. In the ’60s, I would have said John Lennon, but today I want to dress the people. Because I believe that to own a good dress with a good label helps people. They can get a job, they can go to a rendezvous, they can look good for their love.”

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