In a rare Interview, Nicolas Ghesquière— arguably the most powerful fashion designer In paris— tells Melissa TWIGG about his childhood, his creative challenges and his compelling aesthetic for louis vuitton
Nicolas Ghesquière, arguably the most powerful fashion designer in Paris, opens up about his childhood, the creative challenges he has faced, and his compelling aesthetic for Louis Vuitton
She is desirable and recognisable. She has multiple facets. She is straightforward, cool and casual. She is confident with her classics but she also breaks the rules and mixes genres. I see her as having a subtle freedom,” says Nicolas Ghesquière when asked to describe the woman he imagines wearing his clothes. But swap the pronouns and the artistic director of Louis Vuitton could easily be talking about himself.
There has always been an aura of cool about Ghesquière. He is incredibly handsome, which never hurts—a living embodiment of every teenage girl’s fantasy of a dashing Frenchman, with thick black hair and piercing blue eyes. There’s the accent, a thick Burgundy lilt, and the almost stereotypical way he peppers his sentences with an oh la
la, or a mon dieu. Then there are the girls, his staunch coterie of muses, who are all intimidatingly chic—charlotte Gainsbourg, Jennifer Connelly and Alicia Vikander, to name a few. But that bankable brand of Ghesquière cool mainly comes from his work—in just four seasons as artistic director of Louis Vuitton, he has revived the logo, created an era-defining silhouette and brought out a range of accessories coveted by the kind of women who wouldn’t have been caught dead carrying a monogrammed It bag four years ago.
Ghesquière’s appointment to the top job at Louis Vuitton was the talk of autumn 2013. The news was announced a full year after his 15-year tenure as creative director at Balenciaga ended and, due to his somewhat acrimonious departure (he accused the owners of Balenciaga of having no vision or sense of creativity), fashion pundits started questioning whether Ghesquière’s seemingly stellar career had crashed back to earth. But the timing was actually spot-on. With so many of the defining talents of the past two decades no longer in the picture—helmut Lang’s resignation; Alexander Mcqueen’s death; John Galliano’s self-destruction; Martin Margiela’s disappearing act—the fashion community breathed a collective sigh of relief when news broke that Ghesquière was back.
And back with a boom. Artistic director of Louis Vuitton is probably the most powerful creative job in fashion. Vuitton is a giant, a
Us$10-billion-a-year, 460-store monster, and this career-defining appointment must have been daunting for a designer with no formal training, whose previous experience had been at much smaller houses. Luckily Ghesquière’s knowledge of fashion is profound, the result of an obsession (his word, not mine) that first developed when he was a teenager living a seemingly bucolic life in the Loire Valley in the early ’80s. “When I was growing up, fashion was popular, but not as popular as it is today. Like any kid, I was fascinated by drawing. But when some of the kids let go, I kept drawing. More and more, I was drawing women’s clothes. When my parents realised that I liked fashion, they supported me. I admire them for not saying, ‘It’s a world we don’t know; it might be strange,’ or, ‘It’s not a serious profession.’ Instead they said, ‘Try. We’ll help you.’ I’m so thankful to them for not thinking it was an impossible dream.”
The 16-year-old Ghesquière sent his sketches to dozens of Parisian fashion houses and eventually struck gold—agnès B, who to this day remembers Ghesquière’s intelligent eyes, asked him to join her summer internship programme. Next came a weekend job with French designer Corrine Cobson, although this was still not enough for the precociously ambitious teenager, who swore he would be part of Jean Paul Gaultier’s team by the time he turned 18. Whether it was down to persistence, luck or raw talent, Ghesquière got his wish and was hired by the designer a few months before his big birthday. “My parents wanted me to go down the conventional route and get a degree from a fashion school. But my career has proved that this is not the only option. I was lucky to meet the right people along the way, like Gaultier. People who took a great deal of care of me.”
Ghesquière—striking, stylish and very talented—was soon mixing with the jeunesse
dorée, or gilded youth, of Paris and caught the eye of the bigwigs at Balenciaga, who thought he might be the man to revive their tired fashion house. He was hired, made creative director at the tender age of 25, and went on to transform the once flailing brand into one of the most innovative and respected houses in Paris. A star was born.
Hundreds of column inches over the past 18 years have been dedicated to dissecting Ghesquière’s talent. How does he know exactly which silhouette will spark the public’s imagination? Why does he have such a cult following? How does a man with no formal training make such beautiful clothes? Ghesquière has always catered to a certain breed of cool girl, but along with the rock ’n’ roll look that has served him so well is an appeal that is harder to define. Male designers have often been accused of being too idealistic and not pragmatic enough about real women’s bodies, but Ghesquière has a seemingly uncanny ability to create clothes that are both cutting-edge and wearable. This may be
where his real skill lies, in allowing women to achieve that holy grail of dressing—looking and feeling beautiful, with high fashion elements that enhance their personal style.
Paris-based actress Charlotte Gainsbourg— Ghesquière’s most trusted friend, confidant and long-time muse—agrees. “Nicolas drew me into his world and made me feel very close to what he was doing,” she says. “He made me feel at ease, never anything other than myself. I’ll always have my own look and my own way of doing things—the notion of effortless, go-anywhere dressing is very important to me. But, with Nicolas, I’ve learned to mix new pieces into my everyday wardrobe and I’ve started to enjoy dressing for the red carpet but still feeling like me.”
It’s a sentiment shared by American film star and Louis Vuitton muse Jennifer Connelly. “I always feel at ease in his clothes,” she says. “Nicolas is a lot like me. We’re both highly sensitive, but very honest and loyal towards ourselves, towards others and towards our work. If I’m standing in my closet asking myself what to wear, I take one of his pieces and I know at once it will be just right. Nicolas plays with contrasts better than anyone else. He mixes colours, shapes and textures that really shouldn’t go together, and yet somehow they do. I think it’s because he has an amazing sense of proportion. I love being constantly surprised.”
Ghesquière is certainly a visionary, but he has somehow managed to synch this very personal aesthetic with the Vuitton world. His familiar tight silhouette, with its trademark narrow coats, cropped jackets, A-line skirts and skinny trousers, is still there, but he has also brought in new elements since arriving at Louis Vuitton. His autumn/winter 2015 collection is a clever blend of the rock ’n’ roll fashion we knew and loved in his Balenciaga days with peekaboo décolletage details and leather miniskirts with bold cut-outs. However, he has integrated sleeker, more sophisticated designs—thick fur coats, satin trouser suits, embroidered dresses and jackets, and chunky chain belts in the signature Louis Vuitton monogram—and the result feels very Parisian and very luxe, and a powerful departure from the showier Marc Jacobs era.
ghesquière Is certainly a visionary, but he has somehow managed to synch this very personal aesthetic with the vuitton world
“I wanted to bring Vuitton into real life,” Ghesquière says. “Vuitton is about daylight and daywear, even if there are some evening pieces in the collection. It’s about something familiar and at the same time extraordinary.”
Accessories have always been the core of Vuitton, and Ghesquière has also launched endless covetable designs, from sculptural lizard-skin jewelled pumps to monogrammed mini-trunks, clutches and tote bags that have waiting lists around the world. “I’m constantly thinking about how I can transform all the traditional accessories of Louis Vuitton, including the Speedy, the Lockit, and the Petite Malle—but at the same time I want to innovate and look for new essential shapes. When a bag is good, it should last longer than a season, so that’s the most important thing I am looking for,” he says.
And Ghesquière’s vision has quickly translated into sales. LVMH’S 2014 results showed revenue was up by 6 per cent to ¤30.6 billion. Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of the conglomerate, personally credited his star artistic director for some of this success, saying, “For Louis Vuitton, 2014 was characterised by a strong creative momentum, dominated by the enthusiastic reception of Nicolas Ghesquière’s runway shows and his new products.”
Ghesquière is modest about his extraordinary success, but even he cannot ignore the creative power that has been unleashed by combining his compelling vision with the clout of Louis Vuitton. “I knew early on that I didn’t want to make a trendy fashion collection because I wanted to get deep into the wardrobes of lots of different women,” he says. “In the fashion game you have to constantly challenge yourself, but that’s exciting because I’m not scared any more. I always say, even the grande classiques were once new. They were totally innovative and maybe even shocking, but with time, they have become classics. The challenge for me is to look for things that can stand the test of time. Perhaps the classic pieces of your tomorrow are in my head today.”
behind the seams All images are from the Louis Vuitton Parisian atelier during the making of the autumn/winter 2015 collection. Clockwise from above left: the base of an embroidered dress; lizard and python skin jewelled shoes; attaching a strap to a leather boot
detailed design Above right: Sewing the back of an embroidered coat. Below: The intricate process for making a jewelled metal belt