On November 5, 2012, Balenciaga announced that it was parting ways with its creative director of 15 years: the legendary innovator NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE, who for months following his departure remained quiet amidst endless rumor and speculation about his plans for the future – and, significantly, about those plans’ potential impact on the future of the industry. For 032c, Ghesquière not only comes back into view: joining his frequent collaborators and close friends (the muse CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG, the stylist MARIE-AMÉLIE SAUVÉ, and the artist DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER) he chronicles a legacy that has been in the making since his appointment to the label in 1997. THIS IS OUR MONUMENT to Ghesquière’s final season at Balenciaga.
You don’t know heartbreak until it happens in Paris. On the morning of February 28, 2013, after 172 months, 31 fashion weeks, a global retail expansion counting 161 sales points, a coveted bag, and two new fragrances, the grand French maison of Balenciaga offered its first collection without the nimble hand that so spectacularly resuscitated the label and hooked fashion’s fickle heart along the way – Nicolas Ghesquière.
From a quiet start as Balenciaga’s creative director in 1997, then 25-year-old Ghesquière rapidly collected billet-doux from the press. Within the first three years the “major curiosity” at Balenciaga became an unquestionable “bright star.” Not simply the toast of the tastemakers, journalists dubbed Ghesquière a generational hallmark, nothing short of a “messiah.” By 2006, Time magazine included him in their list of 100 most influential people, remarking, “he knows what you are going to wear before you do.” Clear-sighted if not clairvoyant, Ghesquière kept stocking the love, collection after collection. Yet, in November of 2012 the label, which belongs to the Gucci Group, a subsidiary of Francois-Henri Pinault’s tentacular multinational Kering (formerly known as PPR), announced a breakup, the terms of which have been widely speculated. Had the designer outgrown the brand? Had revenues been too modest? Had the brand been strangling its talent? Was it simply ignoring it? Was it too hard a sell? Were there disagreements about how fast to grow global, how far to reach down-market, how accessible luxury should become? The rumor mill spun with parole, parole, and parole. For those close to Ghesquière it seemed like a violent end to a beautiful affair.
When the fashion family speaks of itself it can sound saccharine or quizzically overstated. Yet, the conversation around Ghesquière has always been well-founded. Consummately civil, in Ghesquière, the profession’s typical self-aggrandizement gives way to an obstinate and secretive work ethic. He is, as one journalist remarked, “a perfectly ordinary young man.” That did not stop crowds of fashion insiders from flocking to him like vultures, remembers James Kaliardos of outings with his former boyfriend. For Kaliardos, co-founder of culture bible Visionaire, and a well-recognized make-up artist, Ghesquière’s magnetism was based, above all, on his talent: “Fashion needs its icons, it’s créateurs. They need it and all the people around them need it. There are so many things you can’t do without a designer and great clothes. There are so many bad clothes in fashion, more so now then ever.” Ghesquière’s tangible contribution to fashion is universally acknowledged, making any hint of an exit cause for alarm. Olivier Saillard, director of the fashion-focused musée Galliera in Paris, cherishes Ghesquière: “In the schizophrenic landscape of resurrected brands, he was the source of a true renaissance, possibly one of the greatest talents we have.” Actor Chloë Sevigny, who says she and Ghesquière synched like “gangbusters” from the moment they met in New York and already owns “a rack full” of his designs, has been on a Balenciaga shopping spree, “buying up as much as I can, because I’m so sad about him leaving.” Shortly before flying to Paris, Vogue’s U.S. creative director confided with winded distress, “I despair when I hear that he’s no longer working.” Grace Coddington, who wields a critical eye on fashion as choosy as her career is long, has reason to be upset: “What Nicolas does really drives fashion forward. It is very, very, inspiring; there are few people of his caliber around any more. Each time one of them disappears, it’s sad.”
The tectonic plates on planet fashion are shifting. Every generation may reinvent the way fashion looks but technology, resource management, and emerging markets are changing the way it works and so is financial speculation. The textiles, apparel, and luxury goods market will be worth nearly four trillion dollars by 2016, an amount that is six times the U.S. military expenditure in 2011. It’s a brave new world more avidly concerned with the bottom line than ever. “Nicolas’s departure from Balenciaga is one example of the heartbreaking sense that things can’t go on the way they have for so long,” according to New York Times Style reporter Eric Wilson. “You want a happy ending for houses like this, but designers no longer have the luxury of running a house with ultimate creative freedom without concern about every dollar and cent made off a handbag,” he adds. Naturally, this takes a toll on creativity even more so when the designer in question takes credit for an endless string of industry changing trends, blockbuster products like the Lariat bag, and wields an obvious influence on other labels – witness the “Balenciaga Did It First” Tumblr phenomenon.
The resistance faced by designers like Ghesquière goes beyond its corporate taskmasters. “It’s also magazines, editors, and online material. We have all this access and so much more information, but it’s turned into a sitcom rather than recognition of craft and the impact it can have on women around the world,” James Kaliardos points out. If Kaliardos is right and fashion is increasingly senseless as it gets tossed around the media commons, isn’t it at least way more fun? For investors, who pay for front row seats, it probably is. To be successful, designers must now compete internally for resources within a conglomerate. Luxury groups jockey for talent with less oversight than professional sports teams, but with equal zest. During his tenure, Ghesquière was courted and declined offers to leave his post, even as success was peaking, which demonstrates a steely dedication. “Nicolas had a deeply rooted desire to propel the brand to higher and higher levels of sophistication – an incredible intuition,” says Pierre Hardy, Ghesquière’s romantic partner during his early years at Balenciaga and a collaborator for shoe design on nearly every collection. “Going down-market is easy and there are so many brands that do it well and efficiently. Balenciaga is a national treasure, like Opéra de Paris or Notre Dame,” according to Hardy. “I am not sure the managers understood the depth of the potential and how far it could go.”
Cristóbal Balenciaga, a Basque Spaniard, registered his company in Paris on July 7, 1937, owning only five percent of the shares. From the well-heeled Avenue George V, number 10, the eponymous maison tailored a legacy that cultural historians, aficionados, and designers alike recognize as one of the most original, innovative, and faultlessly elegant of the 20th century, and thanks to Ghesquière, the 21st. Vogue’s International Editor-at-Large, Hamish Bowles began his now 3,000-piece collection of fashion artifacts at the age of 11, with 50 pence of pocket money, by purchasing a Balenciaga at auction. Just as Bowles’ navy boucle suit had once belonged to Lady Scott, Balenciaga’s creations have dressed similarly grand personalities, like Pauline de Rothschild, Mona Bismarck, Liz Taylor, and Doris Duke. Bowles, whose collection now includes a few items by Ghesquière and is actively looking for more, elucidates: “The typical path of a maison tended to be a constant return and referring to the work of what might be its glory days. Cristóbal Balenciaga was so much more interesting because his work was a constant evolution. As you follow his craft through decades it becomes increasingly abstract and more of an exploration of technique and fabric research. Until, in the 60s, he’s producing the most innovative and sometimes revolutionary designs of his career.” For Bowles, Ghesquière’s greatest strengths align with the master: “The constant research, the details, the sophisticated use of inspirations, even when he takes overt Balenciaga inspirations, it’s filtered through sensibilities that are uniquely his own and relevant to the age in which he’s working. I think Nicolas has extraordinary design authority, and is very much a designer’s designer.”
While Balenciaga was able to avoid mindless rephrasing of its own designs or anybody else’s, other luxury labels have not. Tony Delcampe who directs Brussels’ La Cambre-Mode[s] fashion academy underscores the crucial importance of an experimental method: “Maisons have forgotten to invest in real creation and research into new materials, volumes, and silhouettes. Today’s offerings are plumbing the DNA of aging houses and resurrecting the ideas of sometimes long-dead designers. For the last 10 years fashion has been feeding off fashion – no doubt connected to shorter production timelines and greater revenues – and it’s getting repetitive.” Delcampe considers Ghesquière, along with designers Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan to be the most notable researchers of recent memory and directly relevant to the next generation. Kyle Farmer, associate professor of fashion at Parsons The New School for Design, likens Ghesquière’s work to a form of techno-couture, hotly copied by students, where innovation with fabric, especially composites like bonding neoprene to a Harris tweed, can yield fresh silhouettes that hover around the body like vintage Balenciaga designs such as the box jacket (1949), the tunic line (1955), and the sack (1957).
As might be expected at coveted schools like Central Saint Martins, La Cambre-Mode[s], or the brash Royal Academy in Antwerp, from which the Balenciaga design studio has tapped young talent, spotting a number of Ghesquière-inspired student collections there in recent years was par for the course. By contrast, Ghesquière is an autodidact with a high school degree, an indicator perhaps of an unbridled intelligence and resourcefulness. When the two lived together and would complete their freelance assignments side by side, Hardy observed what he calls a relentless energy to learn by doing, “an incredible passion, and a will to do things well and thoroughly,” in the young Ghesquière. “Nicolas is a self-made man. As a child he had a singular vision of himself and went for it. He didn’t rely on people to get where he is. He relied on his own brain. He worked really hard. Night and day,” explains Kaliardos. For Coddington, Ghesquière’s consecrated efforts have paid off: “Nicolas always finds another way to see something and do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s never just a cheap fix. His clothes are beautifully made. They’re intricate and intriguing. They’re not always the easiest things to wear, but if you put them on someone who understands them and loves them, there’s nothing more beautiful. Nicolas was very respectful of Balenciaga too, I think. If Balenciaga had a son, I’m sure it would have been Nicolas.” A magnificent compliment that Ghesquière might downplay with signature modesty, like all healthy filial relationships it is part respect and part irreverence. No one questions that Ghesquière has skillfully evolved a century old name for a high-strung, socially wired, culturally fractured generation ready to invest extraordinary faith, if not cash, in fashion.
Balenciaga was once “dusty and annoying,” remembers Hardy. Hardy is no stranger to consumer appetites as Creative Director for Fine Jewelry at Hermès and the founder of his self-styled shoe label that has partnered with GAP and car manufacturer Peugeot on projects. “Today, Balenciaga is more what Nicolas made of it, than what people may remember of Cristóbal,” he adds. In May 1968, on the tail end of masterpieces like the four-point silk gazar dress and within months of completing an order of sporty uniforms for Air France, the famously recalcitrant Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his business. From then it languished surviving on a pittance of fragrance licenses, bridals, and golf gear for the Japanese market, such that at the time Ghesquière took over as creative director, the label was, some say, entirely irrelevant. 1997 marked a momentous year in fashion. Gianni Versace shot dead. Marc Jacobs appointed at Louis-Vuitton. John Galliano at Dior. While a moody and independent strain of Japanese, Austrian, and Belgian designers started to show in Paris, countering the stylistic exuberance of the 80s, LVMH, Gucci, and soon enough PPR were busy consolidating and whipping up the megabling commercial frenzy that is sine qua non today. At that moment Ghesquière worked freelance, designing among other things bath towels for Mitsukoshi Department stores, leather accessories for the South American market, and mourning dresses called Black Roses for a Balenciaga licensee.
“Nicolas is the sort of person who loves swimming in rough water.”
The flailing house suddenly pulled Ghesquière to design a Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection. The previous show had been, some say, a disaster and its designer, Josephus Thimister, was let go. Balenciaga’s owner at the time set sights on Helmut Lang or Yohji Yamamoto. Ghesquière began as no more than a stopgap (The company fired him after the first show but immediately retracted thanks to his critical acclaim). Olivier Saillard, who curated a thought-provoking history of contemporary fashion at the Louvre’s Les Arts Décoratifs in 2010, says of Ghesquière: “Nobody witnessed his arrival. Until, all of a sudden everybody thought ‘this is wonderful. This kid is fiercely creative and at the same time he isn’t weighed down by showmanship.’” According to Saillard, Ghesquière represents a synthesis of historical currents, reconciling experimental design like that of Rei Kawakubo, genuine authorship like that of Azzedine Alaïa, and merchantability, reassuring luxury brands in the process and becoming the most influential designer of the last two decades. There was a buzz around Ghesquière from the very first shows, Hamish Bowles recounts, and this despite the less than complete support of the management, tight budgets, and the braininess of his clothes, which were not “an easy paradigm.” Or were these trying circumstances a blessing?
Ghesquière’s farewell collection, Spring/Summer 2013, evoked strong reactions all around and for good reason. Members of the close-knit creative team at Balenciaga say it is one of the most technically proficient and sensual. Like many of the dedicated designers who strongly identify with their former creative director, firebrand actress Kristen Stewart knows a fellow renegade when she meets one; Stewart, an ambassador for the brand’s second new fragrance Flora Botanica, admires Ghesquière. She wore the opening look from Spring/Summer 2013 to the L.A. premiere of On the Road, days before PPR’s fateful announcement. Unhampered and lively on the phone, she sketched a portrait of Ghesquière worthy of the beatniks: “He is a reminder of how fucking annoying everyone else is. It’s not easy to walk a line that not every single person in the world is going to get in a second. Nicolas is the sort of person who loves swimming in rough water.” Stewart’s vision of Ghesquière, which she has gleaned from engagements like a joint appearance at the 2012 Costume Institute Gala, is as infectious as it is insightful. “He’s most comfortable when he’s terrified,” she tells me about her exchange with Ghesquière backstage at what was to be his last trip down the runway for Balenciaga, “I was like, ‘Dude, are you okay?’ and he was like (in a French accent), ‘Yes. Yes. I will tell you soon, but there are things happening.’ Before I left, he was like, ‘All right, I’ll tell you.’ I’m so fucking proud of him because what he was about to do would rock people’s worlds. He was just like, ‘Believe for me.’ I thought it was the coolest fucking thing.”
Ghesquière appears as blissful about this moment in his career as the 18th century salons overlooking the Seine, to which he decamped with a cadre of loyal followers, are light filled and ornamented. Over the years, Ghesquière has fostered a trusted think-tank around him, including Hardy, creative consultant Marie-Amélie Sauvé, and artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. He assembled one of the largest production teams in Paris with upwards of 30 people in the design studio and 50 in the fabrication ateliers, but when it all started the team was no more than a dozen, including the seamstresses, a simpler state he is delighted to have salvaged: “I had lost the sense of something humble but so pleasurable, more private. I’m very happy here. It won’t last, but I’m enjoying it, focusing on ideas in small groups.” We video-chatted while he was at this elegantly improvised headquarters; his voice polished, sprightly, and smart, a near French Paul McCartney with velvety overtones. He places words like a clearly intended stitch, asserting his focus with every thought. Ghesquière has been busy, on trips to Tokyo, London, and L.A., broaching conversations with the likes of textile magnate Alan Faena and archiving a mass of material accumulated over 15 years of practice but his focus, as always, is on reinventing the paradigm. “Many graduating students today are looking at smaller, quieter, local brands. They no longer want to go a corporate road. Working for a prestigious brand is no longer viewed in the same way,” Steven Faerm, Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design has observed. Once again, Ghesquière may be ahead of the curve. If anyone can synthesize today’s opposing trends it will be the master of radical fusion. But, where do you start reshaping the system? Could we start by outlawing the use of dead designers?