Mix Master: Parisian DJ Michel Gaubert sets the soundtrack for fashion’s most extravagant spectacles

An 80-strong Philharmonic Orchestra at Chanel Spring 2011. Photography by Peter Stigter.
An 80-strong Philharmonic Orchestra at Chanel Spring 2011. Photography by Peter Stigter.
An 80-strong Philharmonic Orchestra at Chanel Spring 2011. Photography by Peter Stigter.
An 80-strong Philharmonic Orchestra at Chanel Spring 2011. Photography by Peter Stigter.

By Laura deCarufel

Michel Gaubert has a laugh that makes you want to get him alone with a gin and tonic and a confidentiality vow, and ask him to dish about his three decades in the fashion world. Rarely in the spotlight but always in the vanguard (and on the guest list), Gaubert is an insider’s insider, the style set’s most trusted DJ. He’s partied with Thierry Mugler and Jerry Hall, collaborated with Longchamp, and created runway soundtracks for power houses such as Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten and—most notably and consistently—for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.

“I do love Karl,” says Gaubert in his husky Parisian drawl. “He doesn’t say, ‘The collection is like this, so how about this song?’ We’ll sit and talk about music and fashion for an hour, and ideas will emerge. He’s so open to trying crazy things—as long as they’re the right crazy things.” For Chanel’s Fall 2008 ready-to-wear show, models boarded a two-tier carousel to “Blind” by Hercules and Love Affair. For Spring 2011 ready-to-wear, Gaubert enlisted an 80-piece philharmonic orchestra to interpret soaring tunes by Björk and the Verve at the Grand Palais; perfecting the 19-minute piece took two months and eight rehearsals.

But Gaubert points out that the idea needn’t be très fou to work. For Chanel’s Cruise 2012 collection, shown at the storied Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, he delved into his “hundreds of thousands” of tracks to create a “Riviera mood” by way of Prince and Janelle Monáe. “Cruise should be very carefree,” he explains. “I’d recently watched Under the Cherry Moon [Prince’s 1986 directorial debut], and it turns out that some of it was shot at the Eden-Roc. Janelle is very warm, very jazzy, but there’s still something quite grand about her.” His favourite part of designing soundtracks is the preparation. “I love watching everything come together. Once the show begins, I’m on a different planet.”


The soundtrack at Chanel Fall 2008:  “Blind” by Hercules and Love Affair. Photography by Peter Stigter.
The soundtrack at Chanel Fall 2008: “Blind” by Hercules and Love Affair. Photography by Peter Stigter.

Gaubert’s star began to rise in 1990, after Lagerfeld asked him to create a runway soundtrack for his namesake line. “I was petrified,” Gaubert says, with that laugh. Up until then, he was best known to the fashion crowd as a top DJ at Le Palace, the Parisian club where the ambassadors of decadent glamour—David Bowie, Grace Jones, Claude Montana—spent their nights. “Getting dressed was very important,” says Gaubert. “After the club, we’d go to the flea market and get stuff for the next night.” He met Lagerfeld at Le Palace, then the two reconnected years later when Gaubert was working at one of Lagerfeld’s favourite record stores.

The first show they collaborated on was a sensation. “I mixed these outrageous hip-hop beats with Pavarotti, Neneh Cherry, really everything,” says Gaubert. Then, as now, his starting points are varied. A smaller venue calls for a more intimate sound; a morning show has a different auditory vibe than an evening one. Then there’s the influence of the collection itself. “I try to make a different sound for couture than for ready-to-wear, and I always like to know the backstory of a collection,” he says. “For a designer, it’s never just, ‘I wanted to do a blue dress.’ There is always meaning, and the soundtrack must reflect that.”

A Colette CD featuring the selections of Gaubert.
A Colette CD featuring the selections of Gaubert.

Like any collaboration, the designer/DJ relationship relies on trust, which can include having the guts to disagree. “Sometimes a designer will say, ‘I just heard this song on the radio—let’s use it,’” Gaubert says. “That’s where my job comes in. I don’t mind a crappy record if it suits what we’re doing—it can even be fun—but sometimes a bad record is just a bad record.”

Currently, Gaubert is working on an 11th compilation CD for Colette in Paris and mulling a move into film. It seems a natural step, since he speaks eloquently about the connection between what people hear and what they see. “Sometimes I use music like an image, to create a picture in people’s heads, or to trigger a memory,” he says. “More than anything, I want to make people feel something.”