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France’s most stylish photographer Jean-Paul Goude

Jean-Paul Goude certainly knows how to put a woman on a pedestal – indeed, he’s been perching beautiful women on plinths like living, breathing sculptures for what seems like for ever.

“I know, I know,” says the fashion photographer with a groan when I mention his tendency to elevate the female sex to great heights. Then he giggles cheekily.

“I turn women into statues,” he says, “and they don’t like it.

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I don’t blame them.” Mainly, he adds, because they have to stand still for so long. “How long can someone hold a pose?” he asks rhetorically before acknowledging that he is inspired by an impossible image of womanhood.

Moments earlier I had asked Goude – who famously transformed Grace Jones, with whom he has a 28-year-old son, into an international superstar – whether he saw himself as Svengali or Pygmalion. “Oh, Svengali,” he exclaimed. “I was definitely Grace’s Svengali. I am not Pygmalion. He fell in love with a statue and wanted to turn it into a woman. I’ve often fallen in love with a woman and then transformed her into a statue. I have this desire to make women into characters; then I fall in love with the character and start to love her more than the woman herself, which is always a mistake.”

Goude’s subversive ability to create “characters” for some of the most wickedly witty and memorable fashion and beauty images of our time is evident in a new book, The Goude Touch, celebrating his irreverent decade-long advertising campaign for Galeries Lafayette, the Paris department store.

Whether it’s an elegant shot of a sophisticated model in slinky black, her face framed by a flurry of ostrich feathers with a red, heart-shaped hat on her head, or a photograph of a woman with improbably long legs encased in thigh-high, black leather boots, clutching an exuberantly exploding bouquet of flowers, it will end up pasted on the walls of Paris’s Metro stations or plastered on the back of the city’s buses.

It might be a beautiful woman morphing into a length of ribbon (see opposite page), an exotically painted Amazonian warrior or a fiery female who appears to have just torched her hat, but the resulting joyous photographs are guaranteed to make you smile because Goude’s relaxed, fashionable women are almost always laughing and smiling too.

Joie de vivre is Goude’s signature style, which has embraced campaigns for Hitachi, Louis Vuitton and Hermes, besides MTV videos. He’s also famed for his television advertisements for everything from Egoiste, the Chanel fragrance for men to Coco by Chanel. In the former, irate women were seen banging their windows to an operatic beat, cursing aloud about a certain handsome egotist. The campaign helped sell more than a million gallons of the fragrance in only a few months. For the latter, Goude dressed the singer and actress Vanessa Paradis as a songbird in fishnets and a few strategically placed feathers, then trapped her in a gilded birdcage.

So what’s the secret of his success? “I think it is because I am interested in creating the illusion of reality,” says Goude, 69. “What I do is create a credible illusion.”

But it is not only as an imagemaker, photographer, commercial artist and art director that Goude has made his name. In 1989, he designed France’s spectacular bicentennial celebration – an epic event devoted to the “planet’s tribes”, represented by an American marching band doing the moonwalk, Scottish bagpipers skirling in a shower of artificial rain, Africans riding zebra-striped ponies, and US opera singer Jessye Norman singing the Marseillaise.

He wanted to stage it on the Champs-Elysee, and he got the Champs-Elysee. The parade took place in front of 40 heads of state – “The honour of Francois Mitterand and France rested on my concept,” he says now – and is still talked about 20 years on.

But it is the Grace Jones years, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that established Goude – who was already known for his revolutionary work as art director of Esquire magazine in New York – as one of the greatest visual pioneers of the late 20th century. He put Jones into dark-blue make-up and purple lipstick, and cut her hair himself, creating her “squared-off haircut”, which, he claims with some overstatement, meant “every black person on the planet” soon had hair like hers.

Goude directed all her videos and stage shows, and put a snarling Jones, who had already done some modelling and performing in gay discos before he met and fell in love with her, into a cage labelled “Do Not Feed the Animal”, despite accusations of racism and sexism. In 1978, he took a photograph of her that adorns the cover of Jones’ best-of collection, Island Life, and has become iconic: it shows the androgynous singer executing an arabesque that’s a physical impossibility, but incredibly beautiful.

“I don’t want to sound immodest, but I was Photoshopping images long before digital cameras and computers had even been invented,” says Goude, adding that he always begins with a drawing since he’s an artist first and last.

He and Jones never married, although they were together from 1978 until 1984. So obsessed was Goude with her that he multiplied her into an army of clones in a series of astonishing photographs, a trompe l’oeil he’s repeated for Galeries Lafayette, manipulating the model and actress Laetitia Casta – another of his muses – into triplets, an image inspired by The Supremes.

“I could do anything I wanted with Grace creatively,” he says, “as long as I was constantly admiring and paying tribute to her, which I did for several years. It all ended dramatically when she got tired of holding the pose. She felt I had started to love the character we created more than I loved her.”

Was she right?

“I’m afraid so,” he murmurs, with a heavy sigh. “I have tended to fall in love with the fictions I’ve made.”

When Goude published his autobiography in 1983, Jungle Fever, Jones took exception to the chapter about her. “I needed to write it to get away from the turmoil I was living in with Grace,” he explains. “When it came out, we couldn’t go on – she said she felt betrayed. I think now that I expressed myself in a clumsy way, but as she was the mother of our son I felt entitled. Creatively, though, it was impossible for us to carry on.”

Nonetheless, they have stayed friends, especially for the sake of their son, Paulo, a musician. Goude had seen Jones only days before we talk while holidaying in the south of France with his Korean-American wife Karen Park Goude, their daughter Lorelei, 13, and 11-year-old son Theo.

“Theo discovered that Paulo was performing one evening, so we all went to see him play, and Grace was there,” says Goude. “It was lovely, very unexpected – we’re so proud of our son. By the way, her own last concert was a triumph.”

After Jones, Goude found another statuesque muse – a 6ft-tall Algerian beauty called Farida – and then along came Casta, who features in many of the photographs in The Goude Touch, which is his third book. “I like her a lot, especially her teeth and her smile – and, you know, my best work always comes out of my infatuation with one woman, although we were never romantically involved,” he says.

In his last book, So Far So Goude (2005), he looked back on his life and loves in pictures. With The Goude Touch, once again he sees his life story in every image. His wife Karen, a former fashion editor, for instance, is the model wielding a wrapped sword in a 2008 poster called Asiatic.

“I look at Karen’s face and it gives me pleasure,” he says, explaining that all his work remains infused with his own experiences and adventures.

Little and lithe, Goude is the son of an Irish-American mother and a French father. He was born in 1940 and brought up in a middle-class suburb of Paris, originally planning to become a dancer like his mother, a former Broadway showgirl who ran a dance school in Paris after she got married.

If Goude’s work is rooted in autobiography, then for as long as he can remember he’s been inspired by the human form, and particularly the female body. Which brings us to political correctness, the bane of his life. The French, of all people, he reveals, have become very PC about nudity.

“I’m a romantic,” he says. “I adore women, so I never showed pubic hair or nipples in my photographs, which have always been chaste, but nowadays I can’t get away with any hint of nudity at all.”

When Goude first started working on the Galeries Lafayette campaign, he saw it as a happy riposte to the vogue for surly, unsmiling models and S&M imagery in fashion photography, despite the fact he was a friend and admirer of the late Helmut Newton’s erotic, stylised, fetishistic images.

“I don’t like some photographers’ obsession with S&M at all, although I make sly references to it,” he says, citing his photograph of the black ballerina, Mia Frye, for the 2008 Danse avec la Mode (Dance with Fashion) poster, which shows her on pointe with her ankle tied in a knot of her flaming-red, dreadlocked hair. “Naughty, non?”

A major retrospective of his work, drawings, sketches and final images is to be staged in the Louvre. Meanwhile, Goude is still being garlanded with awards – he received one late last year in New York from the editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, the Englishwoman Glenda Bailey. They struck up an immediate rapport, so they are discussing a fashion shoot based on literary detectives, since the spring-summer 2010 couture collections often referenced film noir, in particular Victoria Beckham’s.

On holiday recently, Goude watched DVDs of the late Dennis Potter’s BBC series, The Singing Detective, for the first time.

“I’m crazy about it,” he says excitedly. “It’s the greatest TV series I have ever seen – I am feeling totally inspired and energised by it, despite the fact that I am no spring chicken any more, as you know.”

He pauses, then says, “I can’t believe the luck I’ve had. I keep saying to myself, ‘Isn’t it great I am not a bum?’”

The Goude Touch: A 10-Year Campaign For Galeries Lafayette by Jean-Paul Goude is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £40.

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