This Jean Paul Gaultier Devotee’s Collection Is About More Than Clothes
For Steve Karas (a.k.a. Lordwarg), his JPG treasure trove is about celebrating his identity.
In the minutes it takes me to ring the buzzer of Steve Karas’s New York City apartment and walk up a few flights of stairs, he purchased a Jean Paul Gaultier dress — specifically, a cyber-dot number from the ’90s that recently re-entered It status thanks to Kim Kardashian and Cardi B. “The print has gotten so hard to find that if I come across it, I have to buy it,” the hairdresser turned stylist reveals. “And once you have one, of course, you need two and then all the different colours.”
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This thinking explains how Karas (known on social media as @lordwarg) has compiled a collection of over 500 Jean Paul Gaultier pieces, all of which line the walls of his small Chelsea living room. “I like to see everything,” he smiles, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up at his stockpile. “I promised myself I would never get a storage unit because then my collection would truly be endless.” Yet already, you can’t open a drawer, turn a knob or lean on a wall without hitting various Gaultier garbs. The space is overflowing with enthusiasm and dedication to the French designer, and Karas and his husband have been reduced to working, living and sleeping in one room. (Don’t worry! They’re in the process of moving to a bigger space.) But Karas wouldn’t have it any other way.
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His experience growing up in Cannes, France, was more “grungy motels, food banks and homelessness” than international film festivals. He began shopping at vintage stores for practical purposes (read “cheaper clothes”), not passion. Still, even from a young age, he’s always had a particular aesthetic, which his mother encouraged. “I once got sent home from school because I had spikes on my shoes,” he laughs.
It was actually his mom who introduced him to Gaultier when he was around 10 years old. The local French news would often report on the designer’s collections, and she would call Karas down to watch. After his years of being violently bullied for “looking effeminate” and “dressing flamboyantly,” watching Gaultier’s creations walk down the runway changed his life. “There was not a lot of gay representation back then, so to see him — a proud gay man — being celebrated was very powerful,” Karas says, getting emotional. “He was the first person who showed me I could wear whatever I wanted and still be accepted. So my collection is very much a labour of love.”
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While Karas initially found a few $1 Gaultier T-shirts and other basics in thrift stores and on eBay, it wasn’t until he moved to New York in 2010 — and gained some financial security — that his hobby became his way of life. He admits that he sometimes searches through his “catalogue of online bookmarks” from morning until late at night for rare Gaultier finds. “My collection is made of patience and then some money,” he shares, revealing that he found most of the wares in his wardrobe for about $200 each. “I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I take the subway. Gaultier is what I spend my money on.” As such, Karas considers himself an archivist and one day hopes to host an exhibition at The Met with all of his finds, most of which hail from the ’90s, his favourite Gaultier decade.
Despite his devotion to vintage, Karas doesn’t think of himself as an environmentalist. “My clothes come wrapped in plastic,” he says. “I don’t know how they were produced. And by posting on social media, I make people want to buy more clothes. I don’t feel comfortable with that.” But his gaggle of Gaultier does deliver endless joy. “I think because I was broke when I was younger, I’ve always tried to surround myself with stuff,” he shares. But upon reflection, he adds: “It’s just amazing to think about the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked on these clothes and that the items are still in use today. I’m just so proud to make them live again.”
Click through the gallery below for a glimpse of Karas’s Jean Paul Gaultier collection.
This article first appeared in FASHION’s April 2023 issue. Find out more here.