The imagination of a man like Jean Paul Gaultier almost escapes description. For nearly four decades, the world has seen his irrepressible vision take shape in ways that not only changed the game but actually exploded it–whether on the human body, in the cinema, or all over our interiors. Today, one of the last standing couturiers at the helm of his own empire, Gaultier continues to perfect and probe the relationship between fashion and enterprise. Humberto Leon interviewed him in celebration of his very first international retrospective–The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts–which opened Friday, June 17.

Humberto Leon: Happy belated birthday! What did you do to celebrate?
Jean Paul Gaultier: Thank you. I am on this detox diet at the moment, so I couldn’t even have my birthday cake – I just had a tiny slice.

HL: What was your favorite birthday party of all time?
JPG: I don’t usually make a big fuss of my birthdays; it is something private and intimate. I did have a party for my fiftieth birthday, and I arrived in drag.

HL: This year also marks the 35th anniversary of your first runway collection. And despite nearly 4 decades in the industry, your designs continue to feel new and fresh. How do you seek inspiration?
JPG: Inspiration is never a problem; I usually have too much of it. I sometimes want to say too many things at once. Everything I see can inspire me: the cinema, theater, music.

HL: With Jean Paul Gaultier, you have cultivated a brand in a way that hadn’t been done previously, using a lifestyle approach that explored markets beyond standard ready-to-wear. How did this 360-degree view of fashion–which included home design, children’s wear, and beauty–come about? Did you learn about branding from your apprenticeship with Pierre Cardin at age 18?
JPG: No, I learned about freedom from Mr. Cardin. There was an absolute freedom in his studio. I would give him a drawing of an outfit, and he would say, “Great, you can do that now as furniture”. I worked for him in 1970, and he had just opened a theater, but he also did his shows there. He had assistants from all over the world–it was the first time I tried Japanese food with my colleagues from work. It was a great time, and it taught me that you have to have a free spirit to succeed.

HL: You have had some illustrious help yourself. What do you think of former assistant Nicolas Ghesquière’s work for Balenciaga?
JPG: I think that he’s doing a very good job for Balenciaga.

HL: If you were to leave your brand, what qualities would you look for in a successor?
JPG: Well, I don’t know–not leaving yet.

HL: You continue to work with some of the most exciting musicians in the industry, from Madonna to Kylie Minogue to Lady Gaga. Are there any other contemporary pop stars you have your eye on?
JPG: I have had the privilege to have worked with those that I admire, whether it be Madonna [in music] or Pedro Almodóvar in the cinema. I don’t know, there are interesting people out there, but they have to want to work with me.

Read the rest of the interview here.