AN ICONIC FACE WHO REDEFINED BEAUTY IN THE 1990’S, GURMIT KAUR LED AN EXTRAORDINARY MODELING CAREER AS A MUSE TO YVES SAINT LAURENT AND AZZEDINE ALAÏA. TODAY AN ACCOMPLISHED JEWELRY DESIGNER AND ARTIST, THE LEGENDARY MODEL TALKS TO D’NA ABOUT HER LIFE AND WORK.
I grew up in Singapore in a very conservative Indian family. Like many adolescents, I had low self esteem and it took me a while to build up my confidence. I suffered from dyslexia and child epilepsy, and I remember having attacks while waiting at the bus stop. When you have those experiences at an early age they shape the way you interact and are perceived by individuals. In a sense I never wanted to feel different from anyone else, I just wanted to be accepted and be part of a group.
Living in places as diverse as Toronto, Brussels, Paris and New York over the years, taught me how to embrace different cultures. In a sense those experiences of balancing East and West reflect who I am today, and inevitably inform my creative process.
My career as a model happened by sheer accident. To make extra money I tried doing some modeling on the side, but it was tough finding jobs in Singapore because they were always looking for Chinese girls. But I saw modeling as a means to make money so I could do the kind of work I was passionate about.
Being dyslexic it was very difficult for me to write, but I was very visual and acquired the ability to look at things three-dimensionally from a very young age. I loved creating with my hands and knew I could make a living out of it someday, so I decided to enroll in some sculpture courses.
In 1986, the American architect John Portman was in Singapore designing the Pan Pacific Hotel, and he had commissioned the well known Belgian sculptor Olivier Strebelle to do a monumental piece for the lobby. John asked Olivier to speak to our sculpture class. Although he was much older than me, there was an instant attraction and not long after meeting, we married and moved back to Brussels. It was there that I really began to gain an appreciation for art and sculpture. Olivier exposed me to a world of artists and creative individuals that provided the best education a young person could have.
Not long after moving there, I enrolled in a jewelry design course in Brussels, which has a long history of the craft. During the 1920’s and 30’s most of the big Paris couture houses used to have their costume jewelry created by its famous workshops. Robert Goossens made jewels for Balenciaga and Chanel, while Lina Baretti made pieces for Elsa Schiaparelli.
After living in Brussels for two years, a modeling agent I knew suggested I go to Paris to do a “go-see” at Yves Saint Laurent. It was 1989 and I was only 19, but I went on my own to try out for his autumn ready-to-wear show. Although I was nervous, I told myself this would be my first show and not my last. When you’ve experienced difficulties from an early age, you become fearless and take more chances in life.
There was a woman at Saint Laurent named Nicole Doré, who was the “gate keeper” of the house. No one saw Monsieur Saint Laurent unless you were approved by her first. Thankfully I passed the test. When I walked into Saint Laurent’s studio I remember the first words out of his mouth were “Ah comme elle est belle! Je vais vous appeler Jezebel!” For some reason he loved the name Jezebel, so that’s what he called me from that day.
By the time I came to Saint Laurent, the designer was already under heavy medication and the atmosphere around the couture salon was tightly controlled by his people, trying to anticipate any mood swings he may have. Yet despite this he was a very cool and sweet person.
There is a synergy that often occurs between a model and a couturier, that’s almost a spontaneous spark of inspiration. Saint Laurent loved exploring other cultures, and I think he saw in me the exoticism of India. I remember one day after we had completed a fitting for a show, he took me by the hand and lead me to a corner of his studio. He unraveled a bolt of beautiful silk-chiffon printed with vibrant floral patterns, and began to drape it around my body like a sari; even creating a turban to go with it.
Right after I did that first show for Saint Laurent, Colleen Firth, the fashion editor, booked me for an Italian Vogue shoot with Steven Meisel. It was one of the most exciting moments in my career. Meisel and Steven Klien were the two photographers I loved working with. They were both very difficult and demanding because they were such perfectionists. But at the end of the day they produced these extraordinary images.
After that shoot with Meisel, Colleen took me straight to Azzedine Alaia to meet the designer. He worked and lived in this historic building that once served as a storage space for the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville, the Parisian department store. Alaia was very different from other designers in that he conceived every aspect of his creations from developing the fabrics to the final stitch on a leather belt. He was a master couturier in every sense of the word.
He also designs specifically for the female body, and because of that he was very inspired by the models who worked with him. Where most couturiers would have one fitting model, Alaia liked to work with different girls. All of us used to cry to do a fitting with him, because it was such an extraordinary experience.
Although he is a perfectionist, there is also a side to Alaia that is very coy and boyish. He’s someone who loves a good joke, and to us he was a father figure, a teddy bear and confidant all rolled into one. To this day I still wear Alaia most of the time, mixing vintage pieces I’ve had for years with recent purchases. Even when I got married again, I asked him to do my wedding dress.
Working with designers such as Saint Laurent, Versace, Lagerfeld, Lacroix and Alaia over the years was an education, as it gave me insight into their design process. I’ve taken those lessons with me into my next career as a jewelry designer and artist.
In the mid-90’s I went through a painful separation from my first husband, and although I still cared for him deeply, I decided to move to New York. I loved living there, but after a year I decided to quit modeling and returned to Brussels to complete my studies in jewelry design with a goldsmith. I could have studied anywhere, but in Brussels they take an old school approach to the craft of making jewelry. As a designer it was essential for me to understand the properties of materials and construction, before I could truly feel free to innovate.
After I finished my studies I moved back to New York 1995 to launch my jewelry line at Bergdorf Goodman’s. I stayed for five years until I married again, had two boys (7 and 6) and moved to England, where my husband is from. Today I still design jewelry for private clients, and have traveled to places in the Middle East like Dubai and Bahrain.
More recently I decided to return to sculpture, and enrolled at the Chelsea College of Arts. I think it is my love of objects that attracted me to sculpture and jewelry design in the first place. Yet both mediums present different challenges. With jewelry you are not only dealing with objects at a smaller scale, but you also have to work with the human body which imposes certain limitations. Sculpture offers fewer constraints on the other hand in terms of where it can be placed in an environment.
When I decided to go back to school and get my BA from the Chelsea College of Arts, I challenged myself to re-examine the way I approach art. I’ve always thought and worked three dimensionally, but for the last 3 ½ years I trained myself to think in two dimensions. I explored film, painting and even light, but ultimately I came back to what I love best, which is sculpture. In a sense that process was very liberating for me as an artist. For my final degree show this summer I created a sculpture that turns the body inside out. I’m also thinking more about where I place sculptures, especially in places where we wouldn’t expect to find them.
Currently I’m searching for a metal smith to fabricate a ring I designed in silver and titanium. It’s based on a Turkish puzzle ring, but the fingers literally act as a lock holding the pieces in place. The moment you take it off, it falls apart and transforms into another object. I love this idea of creating a conversation piece that brings people together. For me the secret to what I do is having fun.