Leader of the Pack
A blank photographic studio, just beyond the demarcation line of Le Périphérique in the northern suburbs of Paris, isn't the most evocative place to interview the designer Nicolas Ghesquière. Although what is evocative in this place is his latest Spring collection for Balenciaga. His clothing is being worn by young models—carefully cast and dressed by Ghesquière, at this moment being photographed by Alasdair McLellan for Style.com/Print—who offer a stark contrast between their lively teenage selves and the restraint and austerity of the personas they assume in this clothing. But somehow the two things sit side by side, clearly visible, neither one precluding the other as they pose: classicism and youthful rebellion in one.
"Restraint, control with crazy collage, an unexpected collage of different worlds," says Ghesquière later when talking generally of how he works. "This is something of my normal process in fashion, to put together these worlds that are unexpected. I always try to lose the references: Those things are there, but they're transformed into something else. For me it is the definition of fashion: It's about now. It might last for longer, but you have to really work to witness your time; to say, 'This is now.'"
His latest collection conjures and collages the cerebral and the sexual; the wedding and the funeral; the sacred and the profane. Above all, at its heart there is an architectural austerity sliced through with something wild and wanton. Ghesquière has found a way to make something that is stark, sensual, and emotional. "This season is much more about self-confidence," he explains. He then literally drops his voice. "I wanted to say things more quietly." He defines his Spring collection as the start of a new chapter of his work at Balenciaga. There have been others: As a designer, he tirelessly and fearlessly moves on, creating startling collections. "That's the thing in fashion," he says, "because if you do not move, then you are dead." Yet, in many ways, this collection also sees a nod to where he began.
This year is Nicolas Ghesquière's 15th anniversary as Balenciaga's creative director, although, as he and his director of communications, Lionel Vermeil, chime, "We don't celebrate birthdays!" In the flesh, Ghesquière, 41, looks younger than his years, handsome but slighter and less serious than he seems in photographs. There is something youthful and infectiously giddy about the way he puts things, and he shows clear enthusiasm for what he does. In his time at the Balenciaga, he has restored the house's reputation, and in turn the reputation of Cristobal himself, while keeping to the founder's ethos—contemporary experimentation in form and feeling—even as the label has become inextricably linked with his own name. Ghesquière has revived and restored Balenciaga to its former glory in an utterly contemporary way: respectful yet daring, and without a trace of the miasma of nostalgia. It has become the standard by which other big house revivals are judged.
This was the label that was once so out of favor that it left some of the great Cristobal Balenciaga's gowns to rot in the flooded basement of 10 Avenue George V after his death in 1972. It was trapped in its own neglected history, a voice of the past as opposed to the present. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Ghesquière's ascent took place somewhat by accident. The designer was plucked from relative obscurity as an unknown working on the brand's Asian licenses—designing golf clothes, funeral clothes, "and wedding dresses," he helpfully adds—to act as a "stopgap creative director" after the departure of Josephus Thimister in 1997. "Yes, of course it was all a kind of an accident." Now Ghesquière is regarded as the most influential designer of his particular generation. He has few peers—Riccardo Tisci, Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, and Phoebe Philo are others around the same age with revived houses to attend to—and for most of the time Nicolas Ghesquière has been out on his own, unmatched in what he has achieved in womenswear so consistently since his mid-twenties.
Talking today, he is far from pretentious—which is an achievement, considering all of the expectations that have been poured into him over the years. This was evident particularly from the frenzy that developed around him after his Spring 2001 collection. "What we call 'The Clouds' collection was definitely a break," he explains. "I was quite protected, and then I was surfing on the desire that the fashion industry can give you sometimes. You have to take it, too; it is a moment that can be very exciting and push you on. It was in the summer of 2001 when Tom Ford phoned and asked us to be part of the Gucci group. I shook so much this thing that was Balenciaga; I pushed the walls, I tried to make it bigger. It was the chance to make it even bigger, and it was exciting."
At the same time, he managed not to fall into the cycle of corporate power games that ran rampant in the fashion industry at that time—and is still running now. Ghesquière has never forgotten the human element in his clothing, and what it means for women to wear it. That is why, no matter how experimental his work, he is ultimately so successful.
"You want the woman to put it on and not feel how hard you have worked on it, to not feel how complex it is, to let go of it," says the designer. "It is a faithful relationship I have with my customer, but every season you reset. You have to say, 'I am here, and this is what I am proposing.' But you want a woman to have a personal style, you want to participate in that." He later simply sums up: "I am happy to please people; that's what I like."
At the same time, Ghesquière is a daring designer, and he wants his female clientele to be daring, too. He never patronizes his audience, and as a child of the 1980s, he has a belief in "high art pop culture"—complex work that can span all sorts of reference points and democratically appeal to all sorts of people. "You want the point of view to be stronger than the context," he says. "So you drive, you go. It is your choice, and it is where you want to go, it is a risk—and that I like—because it is honest also."
Ghesquière believes in honesty and a certain unpretentiousness in fashion. What he does might be received as the coolest thing in the world by others, but this defeats the point for the designer himself. "Making fashion is not about being cool at all. Instead it is intense, you have to be very honest," he explains. Ghesquière is more concerned with being true to his own ideas than in trying to impress his peers, even when that means referencing humdrum office workers (as he did last season) or something as clichéd as a flamenco dress (to be found in this collection). "To be surrounded by cool people, people who have a certain voice, is inspiring," he says, "but yes, they are not trying to be cool either!" This means that his inspirations can come from anywhere and can be turned into anything, as long as the result has the feel of the now.
In this way his vision for women can sometimes be lighthearted and humorous, but it's certainly not for the faint of heart. He's essentially designing for heroines, although they can come in many shapes and forms. They can be people he knows in real life, such as his close friends the actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marie-Amelie Sauvé, the stylist of the Balenciaga shows, or they can be people he doesn't know, such as princesses Stephanie of Monaco and Leia Organa of Alderaan—yes, the one from Star Wars—both of whom made an appearance as references in his early collections.
In fact, science fiction is a preoccupation of Ghesquière's. He talks enthusiastically of Ridley Scott: "I was amazed to see Prometheus. He is the most incredible science-fiction director of all. And I like the writer Philip K. Dick, he's of the same world…" A stylized, cinematic view and a science-fiction influence have featured in many of his collections. "I believe in anticipation," he says. "It is also about the vision of a heroine that can be found in sci-fi. Somebody that is strong and complex. There is an idea of an everyday heroine that can come through—and that's what I try and do with my clothes. Probably in referring to sci-fi there is a balance that I have had to find; a balance between history and anticipation for Balenciaga. Because the house has such a history, I have had to look to the future and respect the past for my own moment." At this point Ghesquière has been at the house long enough that the past he references is now his own.
Nicolas Ghesquière grew up in Loudun, a quiet medieval town in the Loire Valley in southwest France. But its peacefulness was not always so. In the seventeenth century, Loudon was the site of a mass demonic possession—or, viewed another way, a wild outbreak of mass hysteria, religious fanaticism, and sexual repression the likes of which the fashion industry has not been able to compete with. Aldous Huxley wrote a book about it, The Devils of Loudun, that was published in 1952. In 1971, Ken Russell's film The Devils, based on Huxley's book, was released. This, coincidentally, was also the year of Ghesquière's birth.
It might be true to say The Devils haunts Ghesquière and his work—"The devils are still here!" he cheerfully admits. Growing up in such a religiously and supernaturally charged place was significant for him: "As a teen, I was quite mystical in a way—and it is probably still there, even if it is just aesthetically." The film features the remarkable production design of a young Derek Jarman, where austerity and wildness accompany each other in a way that would look familiar to someone with knowledge of Ghesquière's work. The Ursuline nuns of the convent are possessed by the devil and breaking free of sexual restraint, particularly their leader, Sister Jeanne, played by the young Vanessa Redgrave. Ask Ghesquière who is the woman that personifies his latest Spring collection, and he answers, after a pause, "I had not thought of it before, but it is Vanessa Redgrave's character in The Devils."
"The first collection I did for the house was for Spring '98," says Ghesquière. "It was an all-black collection, very austere. And there was something in the first one and this Spring's that is related. Something of the nun, the psychotic nun!" he laughs. "There is definitely an idea of a religious imagery with a certain perversion."
And yet, as the older Nicolas Ghesquière revisits the younger one, there is something else that has crept into his conception of the house of Balenciaga: "Sometimes I have a tendency to build something that is more like an armor and I lose a little emotion," says the designer. "And sometimes it is what people feel from the show—not the collection, but the show—and they can say it feels quite mechanical. So I am working on emotions for quite a few seasons now. For me this was the most emotional show I have ever done." No matter how conceptual, there is always humanity at the core of Nicolas Ghesquière's oeuvre: It's why his clothes are more than just a cerebral exercise—they have the presence of a human being at their heart.