The first thing you notice are his eyes. Like perfectly round swimming pools glistening like they’ve just been cleaned, they seem to burn right through you.
Nicolas Ghesquière is backstage wearing dark cashmere and denim, looking young and casual in sea of plush beige, not dissimilar to the stealth interior of a luxury automobile. The media attention is all directly pointed at him, but with his press team by his side he looks calm – and more importantly at this climatic moment of his career – in his element. “I enjoyed the moment,” he says. “And I feel that it’s a great beginning.” It’s immediately clear Ghesquière has pulled this off with disarming ease.
Less than an hour or so earlier, the scene wasn’t so halcyon. On this crisp and clear Wednesday morning, the final of Autumn/Winter fashion week, the courtyard of Paris’ Palais du Louvre was filled with unnerving anticipation of Ghesquière’s debut collection for the 160-year-old brand Louis Vuitton. One always arrives on time for a Vuitton show (his predecessor Marc Jacobs had made sure of it, it once started two minutes early), but today was different, we were all early. Not one of us wanted to miss out; in fact we could hardly wait.
A captive audience sitting in an ivory pavilion, dimmed by silver blinds blocking out the morning glare, the low benches in a steel-sheathed show space revealed a more intimate show format than ever before. On the seat was a note: “Today is a new day. A big day,” Ghesquière wrote. “You are about to witness my first fashion show for Louis Vuitton. Words can’t express exactly how I am feeling at this moment...”
Of course, as the blinds opened and the show began to Michel Gaubert’s sharp tunes, words were not needed. When the sun streamed in so did a new, decidedly more futuristic beginning for Louis Vuitton.
Freja Beha Erichsen returned to the runway after a long hiatus in an A-line coat, mid-thigh skirt and boots, delicately carrying a miniature LV trunk – now known as the Petite Malle bag – in just one look signalling that a new silhouette had been born. Ski sweaters, skimpy leather bodices, leather jeans and trim jackets in a pallet highlighted with olive and mocha brought the word ‘wearable’ to mind and through the simple loop of a belt placed high on the waist, the traditional dark monogram print was cool again.
This was Ghesquière, the futurist, the purist, not as we knew him but as a reworked and regenerated version of himself. Inspired by the past to look even further into the future, and managing to rustle up some nostalgia while he’s at it. “It’s not a fashion statement,” he said of the collection, which he sees as “one story, an evolution”. “It has to be something you desire because it’s new but at the same time you have to feel you already knew…
“I set up some rules today and the idea is to take apart that wardrobe in the future, and for it to breathe and to grow. I want it to be playful, easy, functional, nothing trying too hard. It’s Vuitton, it’s modern.”
While accessories have always been at the core of this heritage brand, it is in the building of the silhouette that he feels he’s bought his signature to Louis Vuitton. “Accessories are an essential as a part of the silhouette. It’s the dynamic between the look, the fashion and the accessories that is so interesting, it’s the way there is a conflict or a harmony,” he said.
“The way I love to cut the trousers, the way I love to give volume to the satin skirt, to give a shoulder to the jacket, I think it’s really about the building of the clothes but in movement at the same time. It’s in the construction of the clothes and clearly the approach to the history. What I enjoy is the authenticity of Louis Vuitton, but also this search for innovation and new ideas, and I think that’s my signature.”
It was in his 15-year tenure at Balenciaga that Ghesquière, through his revival of the brand, earned his reputation as of one of the industry’s brightest visionaries and the reason LVMH’s Bernard and Delphine Arnault reportedly came calling when it was time for Marc Jacobs to depart Louis Vuitton. At Balenciaga, he morphed into a Parisian demi-god of sorts; appointed as creative director at just 25, he was an alchemist of sport and street, with a cult-like following, a commercial sensation in the Lariat bag and Hollywood’s Kristen Stewart declaring that she would “totally run away with you” should he ever leave. Today Ghesquière’s rise may read like some kind of fashion fairytale, but the reality is a brave story of convincing people to support his dream.
Ghesquière grew up in Loudun, Loire Valley wine country and lived as a typical 70s French family with his father working at the local golf club. A summer internship at agnès b. led him to Paris where he was caught up in the nightlife around Les Bains Douches, a place where Catherine Deneuve would mingle with Grace Jones, the supermodels with Galliano and a young Charlotte Gainsbourg would sit in the corner. He’d made a promise to himself that by his 18th birthday he would work for Jean Paul Gaultier, and it happened.
With Gaultier for just two years he brazenly branched out into freelancing for the likes of Thierry Mugler until his friend Pierre Hardy told him about a freelance role at Balenciaga, a company which at the time was considered passé and dull. Intrigued by Cristóbal Balenciaga’s legacy of purism and technical ingenuity he took the role mainly designing wedding dresses, shoes and belts primarily for Japanese licenses, excited by the potential opportunity to assist Helmut Lang or Yohji Yamamoto who were thought to be coming on as creative director of ready-to-wear by the house. However this was not to be and Ghesquière produced Balenciaga’s 1998 Spring/Summer collection himself and in just four months.
It did not disappoint and, by the following season, there was so much hype around this young designer that he was being courted by all the global luxury brands. Ghesquière did a deal with the Gucci Group which then took over Balenciaga in 2001, keeping him on as creative director until two years later PPR (now Kering) took over and helped rebuild the company. The years that followed made fashion history. His eventual parting with Balenciaga wasn’t a sweet one, but from the first day of the announcement the industry had a compelling new mystery to solve. Where would this genius go?
It was 12 months following his departure that Ghesquière was appointed artistic director of womenswear for Louis Vuitton in November 2013. The brand, never afraid to go an adventure; just like they did with Marc Jacobs and his countless collaborations with artists like Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami, had made a bold new move. But what is unique to this journey with Ghesquière is that it is one that already feels undeniably French.
This is nowhere more obvious than in the spirit of Ghesquière’s women. He appreciates the gamine, the ingénue with that ‘je ne sais pas’ sensibility; basically the woman we all want to be. The show saw a mega casting of carefully handpicked come-backs like Maggie Rizer, girls of the moment Amanda Murphy and Julia Nobis and some very fresh faces like Rianne von Rompaey who he chose to close the show. “Oh well…”, he just smiles when I ask him about RUSSH covergirl Freja opening the show. “She worked with me very early and it was a real shock when I met her, she was 16. I really love her and how she defines a certain type of woman, sophistication and this easy-ness at the same time. I really like that attitude, she’s quite boyish and feminine at the same time so I really wanted her for the first look ever.”
Charlotte Gainsbourg, his long-time muse, his closest co-collaborator and stylist Marie Amelie Sauve, along with Chloë Sevigny, Kate Mara, Catherine Deneuve and Cindy Sherman were all front row at the show in expressions of friendship. “There is that type of girl that I love like Charlotte Gainsbourg – they care, and in the same time, they don’t care,” he admits.
“I have the vision of the Vuitton woman as not just one woman, it is many, many profiles, so I started to question the girls around me in the studio (all very inspiring), to ask what’s their definitive wardrobe … I didn’t want it to be a special story, but a large composition of the wardrobe.” This was further enforced in Vuitton’s widely anticipated ready-to-wear campaign for his debut, where the extraordinary club of Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz and Juergen Teller were charged with aiming their cameras at what Vuitton called four “contemporary heroines” – actress Gainsbourg of course and models Liya Kebede, Freja Beha Erichsen and Jean Campbell. Shot in Miami, New York and Venice the “Series 1” campaign reinvented the notion of campaign collaboration, crossed the realm of art and resulted in a curated selection of images inspired by the collection.
It could have felt like the pinnacle for Ghesquière but it’s more likely he sees it as only just the start. At 42, he still exudes a new guard attitude, reminiscent of someone never afraid to take a risk, and approach things in his own way. When Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaïa and Stefano Pilati came to show their support at his Louis Vuitton debut, those sharp and clever eyes couldn’t hide his sentimentality or sincerity. “I was really emotional because who knew I would one day have them at my show to be honest,” he said. “Sometimes it’s true fashion seems very superficial but it’s also a camaraderie and we all believe in the same thing – this search for innovation and beautiful things – and when the game is on everyone is enjoying it and that’s a beautiful thing.”
WORDS Jess Blanch
PHOTOGRAPHY James Nelson @ Company 1
FASHION Billie Iveson
MODEL Nicole Pollard @ Chic Management
HAIR Renya Xydis @ The Artist Group
MAKEUP Nicole Thompson @ The Names Agency
PHOTOGRAPHER'S ASSISTANT Toby Peet
SYLIST'S ASSISTANT Danielle Feigler and Emma Westblade
Furniture thanks to Shapiro and Mitchell Road Antiques & Design Centre
All clothes by LOUIS VUITTON