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INTERVIEWS: NICOLAS GHESQUIERE

Nicolas Ghesquière, the flight

19 September 2015

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Photo: © Patrick Demarchelier for Louis Vuitton

This gifted fashion designer was named as the artistic direction of Louis Vuitton in November 2013. Four years to build a new vocabulary and draw a silhouette in perfect balance between extravagance and timelessness, between architecture and fluidity. And to connect with growth. Back on an extraordinary journey. - Isabelle Cerboneschi

The world of fashion is governed by rules of its own, with its revolutions, its eclipses and its stars. Among those serving as North to those who have lost their course, or inspiration, or fire, there is Nicolas Ghesquière.A self-taught, a gifted child of fashion, who spent his childhood drawing clothes and sending them tirelessly, from the town of Loudun where he grew up, to all the studios of the fashion capital. Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, found in his offices in Paris. Is it because he is self-taught, has learned by doing, has not been taught by schools, has not enrolled in any lineage, that he manages to inspire an environment that has many worried - particularly economic - and which is very much prone to be shaken up?

There is absolute unanimity among his peers around the work of Nicolas Ghesquière, this gifted man, talent, his vision is challenged by no one, not even by the greatest. Azzedine Alaïa is among those who recognize him, who know that the artistic director of 44 years is one of theirs. It's rare.

He took over the role of artistic director in Louis Vuitton in November 2013 and began to write a new alphabet. Rather than walking in the footsteps of Marc Jacobs, the man who invented Vuitton's fashion from scratch for sixteen years, not leading on from this bewitching journey, he decided to follow another path. He leads the construction of a wardrobe, season after season. An architectural fashion leading to the collection's deconstruction and to the discovery of confidence.

Nicolas Ghesquière's career is one of those stories in which we want to believe in as they are fantstical. Imagine: a teenager from Loudun, the son of a golf director and a swimming teacher, who draws dresses tirelessly. And this 15-year-old, fed by the fashion images he sees on TV and in magazines, decides that's his journey. And nothing else. He sends his drawings to all Parisian creators. What was the percentage of chance that these envelopes find their recipient? It is Agnès B who answers She is the deus ex machina of Nicolas Ghesquière. Corinne Cobson and Jean-Paul Gaultier will follow one after the other. When Nicolas Ghesquière enters Gaultier's home, he is 18 years old. At 22, he is at Balenciaga. At 26, he is entrusted with the reins of creation. He will keep them for fifteen years. Fifteen years to build a legend around his silences and brief appearances; around a work of extraordinary constraint, precision, vision. He invented a stylistic language at Balenciaga, while knowing the codes of the house in his fingertips. These fingers who, when he speaks, flutter as in demand of a fabric to be caressed, to bend to his desires.

Nicolas Ghesquière has gone from a confidential and a secret house to the first luxury brand worldwide whose turnover is in billions of euros (7,2 according to analysts). In the second quarter of 2015, the brand achieved double-digit growth (+ 10%), which had not been seen since 2011. To what extent can it be attributed to the work of Nicolas Ghesquière? Repositioning up the leather goods? The market has responded very positively to the stylistic shift undertaken by the new artistic director. To believe that his vision, again, is right.

In May 2015, he presented in Palm Springs his second cruise collection, in the former property of Bob and Dolores Hope, a madness brutalist space by John Lautner. An inspired parade, revealing powerful women, strong, magical, and a little shaman. They carried along, these beautiful metaphors, ready to face the times ahead. Want to know more. Want to know everything besides.

IC: It emanates from the land of Palm Springs a particular energy. In what way did the cruise collection that you presented in May 2015 take inspiration from this energy?
Nicolas Ghesquière: This is a special place indeed; the desert gates, the Pacific Ocean, is not far away. It's a place where you feel a lot ... I do not know if it's magnetism, but in any case the mineral side. It's a spiritual place, but there are parties too. We take refuge in this environment.

How did you translate this perception through your collection?
I imagined a community populated by women living in this place where the contrasting climate is not always easy, but where there is a kind of sweetness to life. Palm Springs is a contradictory mix of modernism - with its architecture, lifestyle - and the memory of Hollywood glamor. Many actors and big stars took refuge in Palm Springs since there, apparently, everything was allowed. I also thought that everything was allowed too. The architecture of John Lautner - the home of Bob and Dolores Hope - influenced me; It played a big role.

Because the collection was not yet drawn?
I had already started. I wanted mostly long lines. The weight of the materials was decided. The spirit was there, but I brought elements to this collection that came under the gaze of a stranger in the United States. There are very light quotes of Native American culture, other things more glamorous, others a little hippie. I started to integrate some images I had of California in a very natural and very free way. The fashion intention was there, the silhouette existed, but I was able to define it thanks to the environment that was settling around me.

Desert boots, chainmail shoulders, leather dresses treated like lace: there is a paradox between strength and lightness in all the looks of the collection. Can one read it as an ode to the woman who is in full possession of her power, of her magic?
Yes, absolutely! I think it's probably the most "moving" collection I've done. There is a lot more freedom than in some of the more architecturally designed clothes I was able to do in the past, which was armour. The clothes are very deconstructed, with an ultra-feminine side. With this collection, I found myself in a comfort zone all of a sudden, a kind of flight. I did not hide that initially, it made me a little afraid. I wondered if it was not too personal a job, if I did not go away a bit from the Louis Vuitton road that I started to trace over several season;: the notion of wardrobe that is built, some timelessness. And everything showed me the opposite: I had to be even more free. It is an important collection.

The scenography, with these women who evolved from room to room in the house with music by Chris Roman was special and added another dimension to the show, almost cinematographic.
I do not pretend to be a director at all, but it was the scenography of a moment and not just a fashion show. This magnificent brutalist house is uninhabited. It needed a touch, of emotion, that people feel something, that they say to themselves: There are strange characters living there. Yes, it's a fashion show, but it's also something else: it's an atmosphere, it's the sunset in Palm Springs, it's a special moment. By the way, that's the magic of fashion: it's a moment, it can not happen before or after, and it's the memory we have, or the projection we have in fact that is the most stimulating.

Why did you want girls to wear long lines?
I think that it allowed me to express, with a different architecture, with more matter, this idea of ​​movement. When you walk with long clothes, they are animated, especially when the fabric is rather light, or has a nice fluidity. Even the leather was fluid! It's very Louis Vuitton, by the way: it's a woman in motion, the Vuitton woman! And then there is a certain romanticism in this collection: it's probably the most romantic work I've ever done.

You worked for Balenciaga, a house that fits with its history of fashion, with a precise stylistic vocabulary; archives. Louis Vuitton is rather a history of luggage. Marc Jacobs created collections that were different every time, like another trip every season. Where did you go to get the Vuitton fashion spirit?
To return to Marc Jacobs, he is the founder of ready-to-wear Louis Vuitton. I read, analysed his career. He built a vocabulary and gave great credibility to Vuitton fashion in sixteen years, which is a very short story compared to a lot of houses! He cleared, he proposed a new trip each time and it was necessary to do it. I came here and said that today's Vuitton is a lifestyle. It's luggage, but it has evolved over time. Louis Vuitton made absolutely beautiful wrappings for crinolines, then there were the trunks with which people travelled. And one day, we slipped into the trunk a bag extra, made with this coated canvas. And then the bag was even more modern and better suited to the weather than the trunk. It was very innovative for the time! I thought about that. It is a house that completely accompanies the life of its customers and this in a global way. There is an emotional bond that is created with the brand, even if it is the biggest house in the world, that it is scary, and that it can be very cold and a little institutional. I thought that if I approached Louis Vuitton only emotionally, it would not be inspiring enough.

Did a particular woman inspire you?
I remembered Charlotte Gainsbourg's mother (Jane Birkin, editor's note), who wore clothes that were a bit generic if you can say, totally detached, a little hippy, but that mixed them with Vuitton bags. symbolic of the bourgeoisie, of luxury.
It's an effective formula: not necessarily the hippie side, but being just cool, not always playing on the same bourgeois codes.

That would be your definition of luxury?
Luxury can be everywhere, I think. It is defined by the fact that one thing is extremely well done, with indisputable quality, and lasts a long time. And it's one of the fundamentals of Louis Vuitton. A good style gesture well done is the definition of luxury. This is not necessarily exclusivity and price. It is important for clients to be aware of the brand's heritage and history, but also to be a little cool. As are women elsewhere. It is not an invention: it is enough to look around, to observe what they desire, how they mix things.

That's how you approached Louis Vuitton fashion?
Yes, I approached it with continuity, like a thread: I did not want to create a break in the development of the collections that I make, and that I will do for Louis Vuitton. There is a notion of a wardrobe, of clothes having a precise function: a trench coat, an A- line dress, a crochet dress, all that one can imagine in a dressing room which one would explore or that we would discover each seasons, almost with an idea of ​​timelessness, even if it is fashion. And in parallel, I had this concern that tells me that it is necessary that this woman is a little detached, perhaps of the fashion itself.even in fact, quite oddly. Feel that the way she combines her clothes is unique, personal. An individual fashion.

I have the impression that you created an alphabet as and when make a collection. You started with the A and since then you always add other letters.
The first collection was much more structured. The A-linecould be my A? In the first season, there was an idea of ​​shift, with these associations of pieces that are mixed in a wardrobe. And then there were also references to the 70 years. It was a good way for me to approach Vuitton, to bring the twist to the seventies. This is not a great invention but that time inspires a lot of people. There were also sports clothes, made in my own way. I started distilling codes, with a much more structured garment. I think I'm breaking down these last seasons.

For the 2015-2016 fall-winter collection, you've designed leggings jackets embellished with the famous Monogram but that was unrecognizable, almost like a secret language. Was it intended?
The Monogram exists, but it is always integrated, sometimes hidden, sometimes more visible. For this collection, it was totally deconstructed: as if it was falling in the rain. We called it The rain, by the way. We played a lot with it. I do not forbid myself. The worst would have been that I do not like it. Besides, I was asked the question very early, even before I started.

The translucent little trunks that the dummies wore at arm's length reveal what is usually hidden. Are they like the images of Instagram where people reveal their intimate self?
It's interesting: do I start with the trunk or Instagram? Instagram reveals the intimate of course, but it puts it on the stage. I started Instagram and finally I get a lot of fun from it. I go there sparingly: I do not reveal too much pf my private life. But I like the instant reactions of people. When we do this job, I would not say we are isolated, but there are a lot of filters. With Instagram, it's quite interesting to communicate directly through images and to have feedback, appreciations, or non-appreciations.

And the little transparent trunks?
They are called ice cube trunks. We have recreated what is called the mallet, which is the lining of the trunks. This is one of the elements that had not been explored until now. When I arrived, when I was shown all these beautiful trunks in the archives and I discovered the ribbon work, all these lozenges that lined the inside of the trunks, I was surprised that it was not never used at Louis Vuitton. The house had been quilting for a long time, but it was enough to look inside the luggage. We extracted this element and started to work it in leather, in different ways. I asked the innovation department to make an icicle trunk with this mallet. We can see pretty much what's going on inside, but not completely: we filter.

When you left Balenciaga you took a sabbatical year. How does one live the void that follows the overflow?
This void has been filled up rather oddly. I made a kind of initiation course in Japan, extraordinary! I settled things that I had to settle, I took the time to see people that I like and that I had left a little, it calmed me a lot. I'm not saying that there was not a lack, but after all these years - my first Balenciaga collection goes back to 1998 - I felt like I had to do some sort of detox. My body, my brain was used to this rhythm, to present a collection every month 6. The fact of not putting myself in the mood before a show I missed physically! All this stimulation, all this work to give. At first, it was quite complicated to manage. But after that, I really enjoyed having this break time so I could think better about what happened next. I could also explore different projects.

Which?
Vuitton in particular, which arrived quite late. And there was this retrospective moment where I took stock of what I had achieved. The range of possibilities that opened up to me was extraordinary! I then asked myself: What do you want today? I realised that I was finally ready to speak a little louder and to more people. Until then, I had absolutely blossomed in a work a little behind what corresponded well to the story of the house Balenciaga, the house spirit, rather mysterious, secret. I had been in this role for years but I'm not the niche creator which you could lock me up. I can talk to a global audience. From the moment these desires were expressed, things proceeded rather quickly. I had the choice between working for a house or developing a personal project, which is always an idea that I reject every time; maybe one day. It was all in that year.

You evoked this desire to develop a personal project, or during a lunch in the kitchen of Mr. Alaïa, who was quite reactive against the groups that engaged at Pharaonic awards of talented creators, when they would do better, according to him, to invest money so that the same designers create their own house. And by saying that, he quoted you as an example. Why didn't you make that choice?
The question arose long before Vuitton. But finally there is always an exciting project happening and I like to focus on one thing at a time. As for Azzedine, it's a living legend. I admire his talent, his integrity, his personality, his humor, his generosity. He amuses me a lot because he always says
that in fashion you have to start after 40 years - he had to tell you, right? - because after 40 years we are ready. It's very encouraging to think that he gives this kind of advice: it means that I have life in front of me! Thank you Azzedine! I never thought, when I was a teenager in Loudun and I was watching his collections on TV one day he would tell me such nice things. With him, I become an absolute fan and admirer.

You say that you are ready to talk to as many people as possible. Louis Vuitton is indeed a house that allows your voice to carry far, but is there less freedom?
No. This is a discussion we had very early with Bernard Arnault, Delphine Arnault and Michael Burke (the CEO of Louis Vuitton, Ed)
. Fashion was already important to Louis Vuitton, but they decided that it was the part to lead the rest of the business. They wanted to give it the place it deserves because today is unavoidable. When they explained this to me, I understood that it was far from being a carte blanche, but that it was a very free field of expression. And it is, really. What is more complicated is that there are so many possibilities that you have to make the right decisions, not just about ready-to-wear but also leather goods and shoes. This freedom to express, it seduced me, but I am very careful with each decision so that there is a consistency.

Consistency in a collection plan?
Of course! Collection plans with functions, with price positions. When I have moments of doubt, I always say to myself: You've been asked to do that, we're waiting for your point of view, not someone else's. If we came to seek you, that you were entrusted with this mission, it is because it is about you that it is and your eye. It helps me to refocus on my true intentions, to make the right decisions, to be able to say to myself: This time, I do not want to be reasonable, so what I'm going to do is going to be totally extravagant, completely out of the ordinary. Or: I'm going to do some type of piece that fulfils its function of relatively timeless clothing, well positioned in terms of price, with a fit that is OK. When you are given these responsibilities, it is because at one point you have been able to arbitrate. It's instinctive. I think that the ideal garment is absolutely gorgeous at the same time - the woman who will wear it will be beautiful inside, it will excite curiosity - but at the same time, it is an ultra-commercial piece, which everyone wants and who is accessible. The ideal garment is not haute couture, one of those things so far from reality, even if the execution is extraordinary and it is a fairy garment and that is dreaming. My thing is to find this balance, sometimes this ambiguity, between a hybrid piece a little strange, but that will excite the eye, and a great classic renewed. It's this stylistic quest that interests me.

You always knew that you wanted to be fashion designer, but what attracted you as a child to this world?
I think it was seduction. I think we do that to seduce, be seduced, create things that can seduce themselves, help people to be seductive, all thats dynamic. I'm not jaded for a second. I'm still marvelling. I am the best fashion public person that exists, even for other creators - well, I can be very sharp - but when it's good, I'm ecstatic. I think that since the beginning, I had this curiosity. And I also realised that it was the crossroads of a lot of areas of artistic activity: it intersected music, cinema, theatre, dance, sometimes technology. There was a real emulation in this world, I'm talking about the Mitterrand years. At the time, television played a very important role: there were high quality fashion programs on television, in the press as well. I have also been nourished by all these images, by the emergence of creators like Azzedine Alaïa, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and many others who are also quite extraordinary, Issey Miyake, Anne-Marie Beretta, people like that. All these images stimulated me.

Which ones in particular?
I remember a film by William Klein, Mode in France, where there was a quarter of an hour on Azzedine, a quarter of an hour on Jean Paul in the street, Grace Jones and Linda Spierings who quoted Marivaux, Farida Khelfa who was of a beauty, who was always a beauty incredible, a new kind of woman ... all that fed me. I remember a show called The Oscars de la mode (which were held at the Palais Garnier in 1986 retransmitted on TF1, ed), the creators arrived with their muse, it was extraordinary. There was Audrey Hepburn with Hubert de Givenchy, Catherine Deneuve with Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine came with all his daughters, there was Rita Mitsouko ... It sounds a little nostalgic, but it excited my imagination. We felt that it was very free. Things have changed a lot, but I keep these images very strongly in memory and the integrity of the creators of that time. That's what made me want to do this job.

You mention the great creators of the 80 years. But this is also the time when we discovered Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, but they had a different intention, that of deconstructing fashion and doing something else. When I look at your collections, I see you more in line with the Mugler, Alaïa, who created clothes close to the body, while the Japanese were considering independent constructions of it.
Yes, completely. What I could have in common in all humility with the Japanese is the hybrid clothing, the collages. But you're right, it's always done with some body awareness, with a structure.

You are an autodidact of fashion. What do studies bring more or less?
Since I did not have the chance to study, unfortunately I do not know! And besides, it hurt me a little at the time. When I found myself sitting with people who had studied at fashion schools, even though I was very proud of not having followed but being an assistant. But I realised how much they had had a sort of field of action where everything is possible, where we can express ourselves, where we can make mistakes, very beautiful things too. And I, as I was studying at the same time as I was working, I was not always entitled to make errors. I did it yet. This moment when one has a freedom of action to try to refine his gesture I had it, but while having to be effective and fulfil a role. It's a big difference. I really wanted to express myself, but I did not know too much at the beginning if I would have this possibility. I remember at Balenciaga there was a moment when there was talk of appointing Helmut Lang. At the time, I was not creative at all. And when I learned that, I thought: This is the dream of my life, I will be Helmut Lang's assistant! It was the year just before I was entrusted with the collection. I do not want to play the little studio rat: when it was entrusted to me, there were reasons for it and I threw myself into the mission with passion. What's different about being self-taught? I do not know. I think, because there are trainees who arrive today, very young, but there is no autodidact among them. There is no room left! How could we leave room for them? I never thought it was impossible and I was never told it was around me. It was a little over twenty-five years ago now.

When you're passionate, you really want to do something, life manages to put a facilitator on the road. Who was your leader?
I had several: there was Agnès B. It was she who first took me on in training because of my drawings. I was not even 14 years old. There was Corinne Cobson, the daughter of Jacqueline Jacobson, who was essential because it was at home that I made my transition: I prepared my baccalaureate at Loudun the week and I came to Paris on weekends to work in fashion. It was a special life for a teenager. Then, at 18 years, I returned to Jean Paul Gaultier. I did not go to school, I had a book that I had tinkered at a friend's house at night and I had left a safe job at Corinne Cobson to try to go home to Jean-Paul. It was my first separation too. After that, there was Pierre Hardy. It was really decisive in my arrival at Balenciaga, It was also, I won't hide, my boyfriend for almost ten years, it's someone extraordinary. In life, there are ways, there are people. I met many people who from very young, supported me, who protected me too. I had a fairly smooth course, without too many accidents and I think that's what also preserved me and gave me all the energy to move forward. I really like Jean-Paul Goude. I took a picture with him for a project. I had not seen him for a while. But he remembered me very well, when I was 17 years the teenager in Paris, hanging out with us. I was surprised he remembered it. He helped me in building my aesthetic at a time. And then there was Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, who came to pick me up to create my own line. I told them: No, we must try to buy Balenciaga, that's what we have to do. There was Marie-Amélie Sauvé, there is always Marie-Amélie Sauvé. She has always been there, she supported me a lot at the beginning of Balenciaga and even now ...

When we talk about Marie-Amélie Sauvé, it is customary to use the word muse. What does her role actually consist of?
It's a bit peculiar with Marie-Amélie: it's a dialogue, it's a woman's point of view. Do not forget that I am a male designer and it seems essential to me to have an almost immediate woman's opinion, with which I agree or not. Sometimes I say to her: Yes indeed, it does not really correspond to a reality, it is not goodBut sometimes I fight, I say to her: You will see that I am right, I will continue to make this spirit of clothing and you will see that you will wear it and that it will work! It is a hyper-constructive exchange because she is sharp and she is not afraid to give me her opinion. I am not surrounded by people who say yes to me. I am rather surrounded by people who often say no to me, because they have great demands. Marie-Amélie had given me a job before Balenciaga: I did a collection with her for Trussardi in Milan for two seasons, but in secret of course. I had the job of Head Designer and I was 21 years old. It was still very fast: at 18 years I was at Jean-Paul's; around my 20-21 years, I was doing heaps of different collections in freelanceand Marie-Amelie arrives at about this time in my life. She was absolutely decisive.

If no one had received your fashion drawings that you sent as a teenager from Loudun to the creators, what path could you have thought to follow?
Wow! I can not imagine anything else! I would have come ringing at every door with my drawings under my arm!

A version of this article was published in the Hors-Série Mode du Temps the 19 September 2015