You might think that, after nearly 40 years in fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier – he of the Amy Winehouse inspired runway shows, pubic hair embellished ball gowns, conical bras and Hasidic themed collections – might have run out of ways to think outside the box. It turns out you shouldn't make assumptions about Jean Paul Gaultier.
2015 sees the legendary French designer team up with Eastpak and Designers Against AIDS to launch a capsule collection of rucksacks aiming to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS. That's not hugely controversial, it's just generally quite a brilliant idea, but upon announcing the collaboration, Gaultier has declared the condom "the greatest piece of clothing ever invented".
Now, I don't know about you, but I've never considered a condom an item of clothing before. It's definitely not clothing in a conventional sense, I'm not sure people colour co-ordinate condoms with their socks (maybe they should?) or wear a particularly smart condom to work when they're trying to mask a hangover. That said, if anyone's going to convince me that condoms are a) clothing and b) heavily, heavily fashionable, it was always going to be the ever-unconventional Gaultier.
The collaboration with Eastpak and Designers Against AIDS, who will receive proceeds from each sale, came about through a shared love of ready-to-wear condoms and a passion for spreading awareness about safe, protected sex. "This generation needs to be aware of risks and to protect themselves." Gaultier enthuses, "Young people don't think about illness or death, they can't imagine it, Designers Against AIDS are doing a great job of raising awareness and I am happy that I can help."
The collection features two limited edition and two main collection backpacks, each modelled on a classic Gaultier design. "A bag can be an extension of an outfit," he explains, and these bags are basically outfits in themselves; based on corsets, denim, leather and bomber jackets, they feature lace-ups, quilting, classic buttoned pockets and bright orange lining. The practical yet statement influences ring true of Gaultier's obsession with subcultures and street fashion – sure, denim jackets might not be as significant a piece to this generation as they were in the 1980s, but he's taken the idea of one and turned it into something completely new. It's pretty fascinating to see such an influential designer as Gaultier re-imagining key signifiers of his defiant, punk generation in a way that speaks so clearly to the next.
Fashion has always been nostalgic – you can barely breathe in Elephant and Castle for art students in bomber jackets – but the idea of carrying your laptop around in one is pretty novel. There's also the element of wearability with a bag which makes this collection so significant; "It feels good to do something easy and wearable like a backpack" Gaultier notes, and while he's never been the kind of designer to make sickeningly tasteful cocktail dresses for the 1 percent (Gaultier's definitely more Eurotrash than Dubai) it's encouraging to know he's interested in what teenagers are wearing today. From there the collaboration with Eastpak came about "naturally" and the designs pretty much "immediately" too, which – given that he's one of the world's most celebrated and insightful designers – is not that surprising.
While Gaultier can't remember his first backpack ("I think I was in primary school") it's clear this project is close to his heart, so much so that he could never pick one favourite piece – "I love them all of course, I can't choose between my children!"
He adds, finally, "I have been involved in the fight against AIDS for the past 30 years," so designing accessories which "help raise awareness" at the same time makes total sense. And there you have it, the one thing no one saw coming; Jean Paul Gaultier being sensible – didn't I tell you not to make assumptions? Now if you'll excuse me I need to pick out a condom that matches my new backpack.