Makeup, Tia Rivers/Dior and Goldfaden MD. Photography by Nathan Sweet
For Steve Karas (a.k.a. Lordwarg), his JPG treasure trove is about celebrating his identity.
By Annika Lautens
Date March 22, 2023
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.
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.”
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.
Karas briefly met Jean Paul Gaultier at the French designer’s Fall 2022 couture show wearing this iconic tattoo print. After Karas thanked him for changing his life, Gaultier looked at Karas’s outfit and replied: “Oh yeah. I can tell you love Gaultier.”
In the Heights
Karas loves a platform, so as soon as he saw these boots — created in collaboration with Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing — coming down the catwalk at the Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2022 Couture show, he knew he had to have them.
Coco Chanel said you should always take one accessory off before you leave the house, but Karas argues: “You should add two! You can never have too many.” This explains why the collector has over 100 pieces of Gaultier jewellery.
With so many Gaultier garments, it can be hard to decide what to wear, but Karas reveals that his daily ensembles are all about how he’s feeling. “I love these pieces, but there are some days when I can’t go outside in a skirt — your confidence level needs to be really high.”
Karas is a walking Gaultier encyclopedia. He can not only name the year and the collection of each garment (Fall 1997 for these plaid pieces) but also recall the inspiration for it (in this case, the British skinhead subculture).
To the Point
There would be no cone bra without Jean Paul Gaultier. While the designer first debuted the piece in his Spring 1984 collection — and Madonna made it famous in 1990 — Karas purchased this pink velvet iteration in 2021.
It took Karas over 10 years to find all the pieces in this comic-book look. The first, the blazer, was purchased in 2011, and he bought the shirt in the fall of 2022.
Besides bustiers and sailor-inspired attire, Gaultier’s cyber-dot print is one of his most recognizable signatures. Though it made its runway debut in 1995, the pattern has recently had a resurgence, thanks to the Kardashian-Jenner family.
World Wide Web
Karas has met Gaultier fans all over the world. During a trip to Carcassonne, a small medieval town in France, he purchased this faux-denim shirt on eBay from someone who lived five minutes from his hotel.
Follow the Leader
“If too many people like me, I’m doing something wrong,” Karas says of his eclectic punk wardrobe. “I don’t follow fashion; the story behind the clothing is much more important. Just don’t ever tell me I look pretty.” [Laughs]
This article first appeared in FASHION’s April 2023 issue. Find out more here.