Why you should care
Because what Ghesquière designs now will influence what you’ll be wearing in the next year or two. Or three. He’s that far ahead.
Few of us get to make a splash and then have the chance to come back and make an even bigger one in a deeper pool. But that’s what Nicolas Ghesquière, the new artistic director at Louis Vuitton, gets to do.
Almost a year ago to the day, the fashion world was knocked off its Louboutins by the news that after 15 years as the creative director of the house of Balenciaga, which he revived from an inconsequential brand into an influential player, Ghesquière was out.
Now he’s back, and the size and influence Ghesquière can wield at Vuitton is an ocean of $9.5 billion in annual sales and 460 stores worldwide compared to the backyard pool that Balenciaga represents, with revenue and brand recognition that are a tiny fraction of that. It’s like going from playing for the Charlotte Bobcats to being the franchise leader at the Miami Heat.
Ghesquière was an unknown, toiling on licensed collections in the company’s back room when he was handed the Sisyphean task of reviving the musty house of Balenciaga. Once a beacon of international chic, the brand was favored by women like Barbara Hutton, Mona Bismark, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Back then, no less an authority than the legendary Christian Dior called Balenciaga “the master of us all.”
It is hard to overstate how irrelevant the once lustrous brand had become by 1997 when Ghesquière took over. The very act of installing an unheralded 25-year-old spoke to its lack of import.
It is hard to overstate how irrelevant the once lustrous brand had become by 1997 when Ghesquière took over.
But Ghesquière surprised everyone when he quickly showed his mastery.
Reviewing fashion for the New York Times at the time, I was riveted by the work of this sure hand and original thinker. Summing up the collection, I wrote, “He gave a dissertation on architectural cut,” one that harkened back in the most modern way to the glory days of founder Cristobal Balenciaga with great sculptural shrouds, precise pants with Obi-like sashes and lots and lots of black.
The legacy of Balenciaga, who hung heavy over the brand, could have easily stifled Ghesquière, as it had lesser talents before him. But instead his ready-to-wear designs and creative direction for the innovative Balenciaga stores over the next decade and a half were special enough, spectacular enough to establish him as a master in his own right.
He pushed boundaries with high-tech fabrics, lean sexy shapes and athletics-inspired sportswear and dresses. Ghesquière possesses a rare ability to pull disparate elements from the past with an eye on the future — and to make them hip, cool and covetable.
If you’re stomping around in strappy, platform shoes right now, you can thank Ghesquière.
If you’re stomping around in strappy, platform shoes right now, you can thank Ghesquière. You may have a handbag with multiple zippers and lariats dangling hither and yon (christened the Motorcycle) — and whether you bought it at Barneys in New York or Primark in London, you’re enjoying the Ghesquière influence.
Ghesquière also sparked a big debate about the nature of copying and referencing in today’s age of the mash-up when two of his influential collections contained a leather jacket and a patchwork vest that were heavily influenced by others. But what had to be acknowledged was the pulse-pounding modernity of the look.
Infusing the old brand with new blood, Ghesquière set cash registers ringing and put Balenciaga’s expansion in motion. He received the International Designer of the Year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America among other honors.
So when it was announced that he was leaving, his departure felt to us — and as we later learned, to him — astonishingly premature.
Francois-Henri Pinault runs Kering, the French luxury holding company that owns Balenciaga. In an interview, he said that it was time for Ghesquière to go, but that made little sense to outsiders.
Five months later, Ghesquière gave an interview to Paris-based System magazine revealing that there had been trouble in paradise. It wasn’t long before Kering said it would sue Ghesquière — apparently for mouthing off.
It’s like going from playing for the Charlotte Bobcats to being the franchise leader at the Miami Heat.
But was Ghesquière planning to defect to Vuitton all along? What is little known in America is that reports were circulating in the French press that parent company LVMH had been after the talented designer for some time — reports that LVMH did not deny.
Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, and Pinault’s father, Francois Pinault, have a long-simmering billionaire’s feud in fashion. Poaching Ghesquière would have been a delightful dish for Arnault to serve up to Pinault, who years ago beat him in an intense battle over Gucci. As it is now, he can take great satisfaction in bagging France’s most provocative designer — and at a time when the company can use the help.
Sales at Louis Vuitton have cooled recently and Ghesquière’s adroitness suggests he understands enough about luxury as well as the avant-garde to turn up the heat again. With his predilections, we may soon see Louis Vuitton absorb more influence from the street and pop culture while retaining the kind of savoir faire that cultivates exclusivity. Surely a new “it” bag and a must-have shoe are on the horizon.
In addition, look for Ghesquière — with LVMH’s blessing and backing — to start his own line eventually. It is something he has always said he’d like to do and no doubt it would further expand his sway over fashion.
Born in the small community of Comines, France, near the Belgian border, Ghesquière grew up in Loudun, a quiet, picturesque town a few hours from Paris. His father managed a golf course and taught swimming. With no formal training, he began sketching at 12 and soon won positions at two iconic French brands, agnes b and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
He understands well the French couture tradition, and his appointment has national implications.
A slight, good-looking guy with unusually sharp features and deep-set blue eyes, he is intense but has an air of humility and warmth, speaking precise English in a French accent.
For all his cutting-edge approach, he understands well the French couture tradition, and his appointment has national implications.
There is little that’s dearer to the Gauls than their haute couture and prêt-à-porter. They remember when the world of fashion was ruled by French names like Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, Rykiel and Gaultier. (It’s debatable if Balenciaga is a French or Spanish house, as he was a Spaniard who shuttled between Spain and France. But he was claimed by the French.)
At one point recently, most of the major French lines were headed by foreigners, whether it was American Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent or the late Alexander McQueen, a Brit, in charge of Givenchy. To accurately gauge how quelle horreur this was to the French, picture the Chinese buying Mount Rushmore, the Everglades and Central Park.
Now a Frenchman, a modern master of fashion, sits atop France’s largest luxury fashion house. As the popular French song says, C’est si bon.
Constance C.R. White is a style expert who has served as a New York Times reporter and as editor in chief of Essence magazine.