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Gurmit Kaur Campbell: An Unfettered Spirit

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gurmit-kaur-campbell-copyHers is a story straight out of a Bollywood film. Enwrapped in a poverty-stricken, humdrum life, GURMIT KAUR CAMPBELL, went on to become a supermodel and the muse of the iconic French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. A trained sculptress, Gurmit today is also an award-winning jewellery designer, who makes wearable “micro-sculptural” pieces that are defined by unrestrained, free-flowing lines that have their own design grammar.

You have had a tough childhood. Tell us about your rise to super stardom and artistic journey.

I grew up with eight siblings in a very conservative Punjabi family of 11 members living in a shanty, wooden house with a makeshift kitchen and one bedroom in a Singapore village.

The experiences of growing up with severe dyslexia and child epilepsy shaped me into what I am today – resilient and resourceful.

My desperate need to escape from my family was triggered when I was 17. In 1983, I got a proposal from a suitor for an arranged marriage from a boy in the United Kingdom. This glaze-eyed boy, not older than 19, barely uttered a word and didn’t look me in the eye. The matchmaker did not show any interest in me either. I was numb.

This seemed to be a sad, distasteful business, and the incident put things into perspective for me – this was not the life I wanted to live. From that day, I had only one mission – to stop any potential suitors coming my way; so I decided to blaze myself in the Singapore sun for three hours every day after school.  I wanted a dark tan so that match-makers would find me unsuitable.

The incident also forced me to think of an exit plan from Singapore. Because of my dyslexia, writing was a very difficult task. Instead, my visual skills were strong and I loved

to work with my hands to create things. So, I enrolled in the Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore to learn sculpting.

During our course, we were delighted to have a guest lecturer from Belgium, renowned sculptor Olivier Strebelle, who spoke about his inspirations and the numerous monumental works scattered around the world.

 

So how did you move on from studying sculpting to relocating to Paris?

I got through the course a year later, and by then I was ferociously rebellious, frustrated, and yearned for a better life. I had been quietly saving for a plane ticket from my earnings as a dressmaker while working at a fashion designer’s boutique – I had landed a job lying through my teeth to convince the boutique owner that I had learnt fashion designing. Fortunately for me, my clients were delighted with my outfits.

While there, Carrie from CalCarries, a famous modelling agency in Singapore, singed me on for modelling. I was the only Indian among the gorgeous bevy of stunning Chinese models. This is my chance, I thought. Out of sheer desperation, I called Olivier Strebelle in Brussels and asked him to help me escape. That night before my departure, I wrote a letter to my mother and entrusted it to my eldest brother who gave me his blessings.

The next morning, I packed up my little black bag, lowered it down to the ground floor from the window of my first floor room, so as not to trigger any suspicion. I walked out of the house with a mixture of adrenaline and haunting fears racing through my body as I headed off to the airport for Paris. I left with 15 Singapore dollars in my silk skirt that I sewed with my mother’s scarf. I still flush when I recall that I refused food on the plane because I thought I would have to pay for my food. I was so naive!

Eventually, I arrived in Paris with my heart racing with pangs of fear; I was relieved to catch sight of Olivier, who was my ticket to freedom.

At 59, Olivier was a highly creative sculptor, who had a magnetic personality and an insatiable appetite for life. Our relationship was a mystery to everyone. But we knew that we held the key to an extraordinary exchange. I brought him youth, he brought me the world. I was hungry to be imbued with what he exuded and represented.

 

So your intensive training as an artist in the world of sculpting and architecture began with Olivier?

Yes, Olivier introduced to me the hidden beauty of nature’s architecture and the art of making things that starts from a single thought. It was during these 13 years of being married to him that I developed a keen eye for form, balance and aesthetics. This was my first moment of understanding the inescapable relationship between subject and object within its space – this later became the focus of all my works. It facilitated me to create my own experiences in physical forms.

 

Is it during this time that you studied jewellery designing?

Yes, I trained as a goldsmith at Des Art Et Metier in Brussels, which has a long history of the craft. But I left it midway, as six months down the line, I was spotted by a modelling agency in Brussels which then introduced me to Elite Models in Paris. Like in a dream, I was suddenly striding the catwalks in Paris and around the world. In autumn of 1989, I was signed on to Elite modelling agency in Paris and opened the Yves Saint Laurent runway show after our first meeting in his salon at Rive Gauche in Paris. My career as a supermodel took off.

 

How was your meeting with Yves Saint Laurent?

My first meeting with Yves Saint Laurent was electrifyingly surreal. I introduced myself as a Punjabi Indian and immediately he nicknamed me Jezebel. Yves wasted no time. Like an excited little boy unwrapping his presents, he draped and undraped me in luxurious long, fluid, floral silk fabric attempting to tie a sari on me. After that Yves added a turban on me with a long trail…

I became his muse ‘Jezebel’.

Immediately after that show, I was booked for multiple shoots for Vogue and other glossy fashion magazines with top fashion photographers like Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Ellen von Unwerth and Arthur Algot.

My catwalk shows with Givenchy, Chanel, Azzedine Alaïa, and Emanuel Ungaro during that season followed, and I was flattered to hear that photographers had coined my ramp walk as “The Gurmit Walk”.

 

How did you manage to be a model and a jewellery designer?

I had to juggle my modelling profession and my passion for creating art and fine jewellery. As a young sculptor living with a famous and well-established artist, whose monumental commissions dotted the world, I found myself struggling to find my own person next to him. I went through an identity crisis.

I found myself making sculptures that were reducing in size and eventually becoming micro-sculptures for the human body – these were my first jewels.

 

When and how did you take up jewellery designing as one of your professions?

In the mid 90s, I divorced Olivier and a year later, quit modelling, and returned to Brussels to complete my course in jewellery designing. You may ask, ‘Why Brussels’? It is because they have traditional methods to craft jewellery and as a designer, this helped me to learn the properties of materials before I could try my hand at designing jewellery pieces.

In 1995, I moved to New York and launched my collection at Bergdorf Goodman. I remarried and had two boys and in 2000, moved to England, my husband’s hometown. I also enrolled in the Chelsea College of Arts to learn sculpture.

 

What is your design philosophy?

My design philosophy has always been based on the process of elimination. My work is tactile, witty and sensual, and mainly inspired by architecture and nature. This lends to the structured fluidity of my works – be they jewels, sculptures or residential interiors.

 

How different or similar is jewellery and sculpture making?

Both the mediums are about making objects, but have to be treated with different approaches. For jewellery making, one has to scale down the objects in accordance with the body, while sculptures don’t have those restrictions, except for where to place them.

All my works always pertain to the body and space relationship. Living in places as diverse as Brussels, Paris, New York and London over the years has taught me to appreciate the beauty of different cultures. In a sense, those experiences of balancing the Eastern and Western sides of me reflect who I am today, and inevitably inform my creative process.

Luck was on my side, I guess. My experiences or if you may call ‘street-smart education’ safely brought me home through great adversity in my life.

By Shanoo Bijlani
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