NICOLAS THE GREAT
NICOL AS GHESQUIÈRE, THE CELEBRATED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF WOMENSWEAR AT Louis Vuitton, INVITES ELLE TO EXPLORE HIS WORLD, DISCOVERING HIS INSPIRATIONS and MOST INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
Exploring the life and friendships of one of fashion’s most influential figures: Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière
When we meet, Nicolas Ghesquière is just days away from celebrating his sixth year at Louis Vuitton, the fashion house founded in 1854, which he joined as artistic director of womenswear in 2O13. It’s lucky, then, that he has offered unprecedented access to his world, inviting us to his celebrations in Paris, joined by close collaborators and friends. From Louis Vuitton’s headquarters on the historic Rue du Pont Neuf to his home in the city’s bohemian quarter, Le Marais, it’s clear that the spaces and people he holds closest are as wide-ranging and interesting as the work for which he is now known. When we speak, Ghesquière begins by reflecting on 2O18’s announcement that LVMH, the parent group that owns Vuitton and other starry (and hugely profitable) fashion and lifestyle brands, will renew his contract – something that isn’t common practice among luxury labels. ‘Moments like that are so important,’ he explains earnestly. ‘I’ve built such strong relationships and friendships with everyone in the team. They’re my family – a fashion family, true, but also a real one.’ The French designer’s professional and personal lives are deeply interlinked, with the line between them difficult to demarcate. ‘I feel so close to everyone. I have different relationships with all of them, but they’re all part of my world, all creative in their own particular way, and our stories have begun to merge. We can have heated debates, we can agree or disagree, and we still get on. I’m lucky to have that.’ Whether household names or studio colleagues, each of the people Ghesquière talks about is a crucial piece of the creative puzzle, essential to making his ideas a reality. Among them is Grace Coddington, the internationally renowned US-based stylist he has known for more than 2O years. ‘I see her regularly, whenever we’re in the same city,’ he says. Ghesquière credits much of his early success to Coddington’s support. There are also film stars with whom he has cultivated close ties, such as Jennifer Connelly, whose dress he designed for the 2OO2 Oscars (she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in A Beautiful Mind). Alicia Vikander, Léa Seydoux and the South Korean star Doona Bae are also ambassadors-turned-close-friends. The list of friendships Ghesquière counts as meaningful goes on: Marina Foïs, Justin Theroux, Ruth Negga, Stacy Martin and younger stars, such as Jaden Smith. ‘They’re so unpretentious, and easy to talk to,’ contrary to what some people might expect, he says.
But it’s the people Ghesquière collaborates with on a daily basis who really affect the details of his work, shaping and inspiring the collections we see on the catwalk. He pays tribute to the music-video director Woodkid, who was responsible for an extended mix of the spring/summer 2O2O soundtrack by Scottish artist Sophie (It’s Okay To Cry was regarded as the song of the season). ‘I met him recently and we’ve been having really inspiring conversations about music.’ Those who contribute to his designs constitute a broad team that includes Florent Buonomano, his trusted right-hand man. ‘We started working together when he was just 19 years old – he’s now 31,’ Ghesquière says, before crediting him for originating and executing ideas for everything from the development of collections to the set designs for shows. The acclaimed stylist and lifelong friend
“I am so close TO THE TEAM .They are part of MY WORLD, MY FAMILY”
“I see us as an INCUBATOR FOR YOUNG people starting THEIR CAREERS”
Marie-Amélie Sauvé is also a key player in both his personal and professional lives. And while Ghesquière is aware that these relationships are important for any designer, he is eager to acknowledge their significant contribution to his own success, following him in his various roles. ‘Fashion is all-consuming,’ he says with piercing but amenable blue eyes. ‘So having the good fortune to be surrounded by people I get on with, and can share my passion with, makes it all worthwhile.’
Two people have been particularly present throughout his career: Natacha Ramsay-Levi, now creative director at Chloé, and Julien Dossena, currently at Paco Rabanne. He remembers Ramsay-Levi when she was just starting out (‘She was 19 and had come to do an internship’) and recalls his impression of Dossena (‘Reserved, with a quiet confidence’). ‘I have to admit that I struggle to let go of people I love,’ he laughs, acknowledging how close they still are, always applauding in the front rows of each other’s shows. He is reluctant to be seen as a role model or teacher, though, despite both joining his team as interns. ‘They grew up with me, and I with them. We matured together. I’m only just getting to grips with the idea that I, myself, can build a creative legacy.’ He thinks back to his early years as an assistant designer to Jean Paul Gaultier, to whom he paid homage with his AW19 collection. Shown inside a recreation of the Pompidou Centre, a modernist Parisian landmark, it vividly captured the mood of 198Os Paris – a formative time for him as a young man. ‘It’s where I feel I come from. I didn’t stay with Jean Paul Gaultier for long and I only had a junior role, but I see my time there as significant. I’m proud to have worked for Jean Paul; he created something special. I work in the same spirit as him and I see myself as one of his descendants.’ Loyal to the network he has built, Ghesquière values the opportunity to speak with like-minded designers. ‘Natacha and Julien often come to me for advice, or I’ll go to them. We’ll talk about technical challenges – sometimes quite specific ones, things we’re obsessing over – or bigger strategic issues. We’ll discuss some of the difficulties of working in fashion and luxury, with all the politics and diplomacy it entails. We’ll reassure each other, encourage each other, question each other – we love a bit of competition! We’ll meet up, we’ll have a disagreement and then we’ll make up again. For us, there’s no such thing as keeping a safe distance. It’s a healthy form of imitation – a way of communicating that only we understand, and one that fills me with joy. I waited so long for something like this. It makes me very happy, and I’m proud to see them both expressing themselves creatively, making progress, developing their style. It’s a very special dynamic we have, and I believe it will continue this way. There are sure to be others who will want to spread their wings at Vuitton. Our challenge is always to maintain that spirit of evolution, of moving forward. It’s about being open to sharing success with others and creating an environment where you can collaborate, rather than staying in your ivory tower.’
It’s a spirit that Ghesquière works hard to foster in his own studio, where everyone is involved in conversations – including the models, with whom he consults about new collections. He is reviving the practice – now somewhat out of fashion – of having in-house models, which has been less common since the days of Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaïa, whose models became an essential part each brand’s culture. At Vuitton, there is Oudey, 22, who runs menswear label Sainte Sévère; Klara, 27, an actor and musician who is soon to release an album; Clémentine, 2O, who comes from Belgium and is studying photography; Mariam, 21, a chemical engineering student in Paris, nicknamed ‘the future Marie Curie’ by the team; 21-year-old Ambar, discovered by Louis Vuitton three years ago; and Krow, a 23-year-old Canadian model who recently released a documentary about the experience of transitioning from female to male. ‘They work exclusively for us; I’m very attached to them,’ Ghesquière says. ‘They’re wonderful people who are loyal to me, who grew up here and who play an active part in everything I create. It’s a pleasure to see them going out with our team, strengthening their networks. They’re all good friends. A lot of them are studying, and their contracts with us allow them to get on with their lives outside modelling, so I see us as a sort of “incubator” for young people starting their careers.’
He recalls feeling a little trepidation when, six years ago, he took the top job at Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury fashion house, with more than 4OO boutiques in 6O+ countries. It happened following a meeting at Vuitton HQ, which dominates the skyline of its stretch of the river Seine. It was a meeting with Delphine Arnault, the executive vice president of the house and daughter of CEO Bernard Arnault. They’re close, too (Delphine Arnault is often seen wearing his designs). ‘There’s a real sense of kinship between us. We arrived at Louis Vuitton at almost exactly the same time, so it was a new adventure for us both. We worked very hard to introduce a new approach to our range of leather accessories, and it’s been gratifying to see our efforts pay off in the success of new bags,’ he says, referring to the Twist, a sleek chain-strap shoulder bag, and the Dauphine, a classic structured box bag. Since Ghesquière’s appointment, there have been dozens of new collections. He hopes that he has been consistent. And he has. In his own words: ‘There is a signature style that connects them all’ – a shoulder-strong silhouette, with high, high hemlines and slimline tailoring, carried over from his days at Balenciaga, where he worked as creative director for 15 years before joining Louis Vuitton. ‘I hope I’ve helped to develop a vocabulary that is unique to me, but that also becomes part of Louis Vuitton’s essential character. Vuitton is a relative newcomer, in terms of making fashion collections – which go back around 2O years, when Marc Jacobs was the first to help create the house’s identity. I’m the second,’ says Ghesquière. ‘I find it especially appealing because of how new it is – it’s such an interesting role.’ What he means is that it gives him the meaty task of reimagining something unconnected to clothes, which has always been his USP, having reworked Star Wars references into futuristic – and uniquely covetable – visors and coats during his time at Balenciaga. That ‘something’ at Louis Vuitton is luggage, upon which its namesake founder built the brand, launching it as a leather goods house in 1858. ‘It’s all about how to evolve, and my inspiration comes from that,’ he explains. ‘There’s always an underlying emphasis on creating something that works in the real world, with a universal appeal, and all of my designs have to reflect that. So I try to create a classic wardrobe, then add varied, experimental touches to create a kind of collage that mixes influences from different eras. It makes for a very personal narrative’ – a narrative that has long excited fashion fans looking to engage with something beyond the clothes, making Ghesquière a designer’s designer.
The latest result of that approach was a collection that travelled back to the belle époque, the late 19th/early 2Oth-century period in Paris that was marked by its decadence. It was a cleverly chronological clash of intricate flapper-style dresses worn over modern, bright, kick-flare tailoring. (Ghesquière’s home in Asnières is also a mix of belle époque and art deco styles.) ‘Louis Vuitton has such a fascinating history,’ he explains excitedly. ‘It’s important to keep it moving from within, to celebrate its heritage while still being willing to look to the future. It’s about real-world travels – an idea that I love – but also journeys of the imagination.’ Ghesquière’s motto is: ‘Never forget that what appears classic today was once very modern.’ That was the thought process behind Vuitton’s Petite Malle handbag, his first bag design for the brand, which is a chic, shrunken version of Vuitton’s first uniquely designed trunk. That bag has since proved to be an extraordinary success, pre-empting – or rather, inspiring – the wave of mini-bags we now see on many other designers’ catwalks. Ghesquière is committed to the style, as he is with everything he does, reissuing it each season in bold new colours with different finishings. ‘When you stay true to that vision, it reaps its own rewards,’ he says. And it certainly does, as he is still king at the world’s most valuable fashion house.
“We want to CELEBRATE HERITAGE while looking TO THE FUTURE”