August 22 2014

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Nicolas The Nose: Ghesquière talks Fragrance, Fashion


It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that when Balenciaga unveiled Balenciaga Paris last year, the house’s first scent in almost 20 years, it was a huge deal. The violet-heavy floral chypre was an instant hit—partly because of the soft, woody scent itself, and partly because of its significance as Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquière’s first foray into beauty. It wasn’t something Ghesquière took lightly, either. “[Cristobal] Balenciaga closed the house in 1968 and he didn’t want it to exist anymore, but because of its fragrance licensing, the house stayed alive,” Ghesquière explains. “Eventually, they had to add a little bit of fashion for it to make sense. Fifteen years ago, when I arrived, they were doing a fashion show just because they had to entertain the fragrances. So in a way, I exist today and Balenciaga has grown again because its fragrance archive has traveled the time.” That archive just got a little bit bigger with the release of Ghesquière and perfumer Olivier Polge’s latest collaboration, Balenciaga L’Essence. A greener, slightly more masculine incarnation of the original, L’Essence focuses on violet leaves, rather than the violet flowers, for an earthy, more androgynous finish. It’s still inspired by women, though—one in particular: Charlotte Gainsbourg. “It’s her unique sense of style, the artistic choices that she makes, which are not always easy ones,” Ghesquière says of his muse, who is the face of both of his fragrances. Here, catches up with Ghesquière to talk perfume, his crusade to end “the manipulation of women” on the runway, and that rumored move to Soho.

You launched the critically acclaimed Balenciaga Paris fragrance last year—much to the delight of Balenciaga fans worldwide. Why mess with perfection?

It’s in the tradition of a fragrance house: Once you find a scent, you develop a stronger one in a very classic way. It may be a lighter interpretation with something more…not thematic, but stronger—or it might be to push one note and turn down some others. That was the idea with L’Essence. It’s the same family as Balenciaga Paris, clearly, but the character is pushed.

How exactly has the original’s character been pushed?

Well, it’s supposed to be stronger but it’s not actually that strong—it just has a different language. It’s all the same elements but we are saying something different than we were with Balenciaga Paris, which was so much about the violets. This one has a metallic side, it’s about the violet leaves so it’s slightly more masculine and androgynous, too. With the first fragrance, we had to say “we are back” and “this is Charlotte Gainsbourg”—introducing an inspiration, a friend, a muse. It was about getting everything out there in the same message, so it was a lot to say. But with L’Essence, we’re getting closer to the skin, to the character, to Charlotte herself. It is really about zooming in and focusing more on her personality. It’s not a lifestyle anymore. It’s a portrait of who Charlotte and the Balenciaga woman is.

The fragrance is almost an homage to Charlotte, it seems. What is it about her? Why does she “do it for you”?

I like the fact that you know she is multitalented: She sings very well, of course, but in the meantime she is quite discreet. She is not showy, she is not flashy, she does not want everyone to know what she is doing, and she is focused on her work. We’re also from the same generation, almost the same month, and I think there is something to that. When I met her, it was as if I knew her already. Out of all the beautiful, talented, and inspirational women around the world, she is the one that I always wanted to dress—her and Françoise Hardy! She kind of recognized me for my work and that is very special.

It’s interesting, because she is not a classic beauty, which seems to resonate with you even at your shows with the models you choose to send down the runway.

Yeah, absolutely. At fashion shows, we have the tendency to clone the girls and we want them to all look the same. I realized that there was a big hole in this regard. It’s not nice not to show the personality of each girl—even if there is supposed to be a coherency in the presentation. So the girls in my shows are never really in disguise. I always want them to be quite natural. Now, since I work with [makeup artist] Pat McGrath, there is much more going on. But still, they are really recognizable, you can really see who they are and their faces. It’s probably a reaction to what I don’t like, which is the manipulation of women. Sometimes fashion makes them look not very intelligent, honestly, and I am always trying to be very respectful of that. I push the boundaries to show women in power—sometimes maybe too much. But I have difficulties seeing “objectified women.” I want them to look as smart as they are and not just pretty or sexy with a display of flesh and skin.

How is designing a collection the same or different as working on a fragrance?

With fragrance you’re working with a nose, which is interesting. It’s a discussion: [Perfumer Olivier Polge] wanted to know what I like and what I was feeling and he also watched my work, which tends to go between a strong fashion element and something that people would wear in real life. It’s always a game to try and find the interesting element—the fashion part—and the reality—the wearability part. The best scenario is when you find the two elements together. So I asked him, “In your world, what is something that is surprising when you smell it, that gives a different emotion as a fragrance?”

And? What did he say?

He said that we should tone down the violet so L’Essence is more urban, almost. It’s for the coolest girl that is backstage at the concert, or something a bit like that. I’m not saying that clothes and accessories are not emotional, but because fragrance is related to the body it’s more about emotion. I am so used to material, textiles, objects so to work on something that was not really tactile was really fresh for me. The bottle is a very material thing, of course, so for that I had to source different textures, colors, cuts to find something coherent with my work. I always love green.

Were there any classic fragrances you looked to for inspiration for L’Essence��or any eaux that you yourself have always loved and worn?

These days I wear the Bulgari green tea scent. I think its a woman’s perfume actually! But I’ve loved many different things like Comme des Garçons—some shameful ones, too, like Acqua di Gio. I have a box of all of them.

What about designers? Whose work is exciting to you these days?

There are references: Azzedine Alaïa, major; Jean Paul Gaultier, major; Helmut Lang—Im still missing his point of view every season. I think he had a very specific place in fashion that nobody has really managed to replace. I love Comme des Garçons, of course, and Raf Simons. He is super-talented.

Any truth to the rumors that Balenciaga is moving out of its Chelsea digs and settling in Soho?

I was looking for another location but it’s not about moving the Chelsea store, it’s really about expanding it. I was thinking that it could be great to have something more central or in a more classical shopping area and in Soho, the space is amazing. I think we all forget that. I remember Soho when the galleries were still there and all the stores were just starting to open. The mix was fantastic. Now, it’s a high and low thing but there is still beautiful space. There’s also a strong idea of New York in Soho, when you walk around and see the buildings. The new location will be a second episode for us—and not the last one, either. There is a lot to come.

Photo: Courtesy of Coty Prestige

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