The story of NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE and how BALENCIAGA became 21st Century Fashion

The story of NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE and how BALENCIAGA became 21st Century Fashion


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.

Portrait of Nicolas Ghesquière by Karim Sadli for 032c issue #24. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013.

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.”

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

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.”

M/M (Paris), Balenciaga F/W 2007–2008 injected plastic and metal colored high heels, 2008. Courtesy Deste Fashion Collection

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.”

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

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?

I. System Reboot

NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE: In a way it’s true. They take up space. Since business, banking, and groups have taken the upper hand today, decision-makers follow finance more so than creative direction, even if they are sensitive to it. Obviously to ensure the longevity of an investment, a brand has to carry a stable value. A designer has to materialize that brand name. I don’t know how long it will last, but people still need and want a creative voice and face, an embodied presence. The creative director has to be someone “promotable.” I’ve heard this a lot: “This one is promotable and this one is not.” It’s probably the same for actors. Brands reassure everyone, the consumers and the investors. But it’s a challenge for an individual perspective. I remember Jean Paul Gaultier saying, and he may have been referring to the grands noms – signature brands – like Dior and Jean Patou, “We should assign one designer for a year to develop their interpretation of one of these signature brands. We would get a different interpretation of the legacy and repertoire every time.” I thought it was such a smart and powerful idea. Anti-business but also not entirely crazy.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Discover Pictures VI, 2012

PIERRE ALEXANDRE DE LOOZ: You interned with Jean Paul Gaultier in the early 90s, and then assisted him in his studio. What did you learn and how did it affect you?

It was droll in every sense of the word, being in Jean Paul’s studio at that time. You felt like you were at the heart of a nuclear reactor: it’s where things were happening, where you wanted to be. I was 18. I played a minor role, but it enabled me to see so much. It showed me that everything was possible.

I’m really happy to have had a small taste, things were already changing, of the era of les créateurs before the advent of the megabrands. It was very important for me to have witnessed these designers build their own maison, express their own ideas, their individuality. I never worked with Azzedine Alaïa, but now I am close with him and for me, people like this are models. At the time I didn’t really understand the consequences of working independently, but I find it absolutely commendable today.

What is Gaultier’s historic place in French fashion and fashion in general?

He was not merely concerned with making handsome garments, because Jean Paul’s clothes are extremely handsome, well-crafted, and of extremely high quality. He was also not just an eccentric dreamer. One thing I learned was that it’s okay to have fun with clothes if you make them beautiful. Actually, Jean Paul was able to make an extraordinary, classic wardrobe on the one hand and season defining, purely fashion oriented pieces on the other. It may be a cliché, but one of his major contributions was métissage – crossbreeding. That is, the ability to mix things freely, with an open mind, high and low, where the commonplace and cheap merge into a luxury wardrobe with a sense of humor. He managed to make them luxurious by their realization and intriguing, by inventing and mixing silhouettes in a new way.

Would you say, Gaultier redefined what we accept as the beauty of fashion? Did he help change the basic terms of what can be beautiful?

Absolutely. We are so much more conformist today. There is a sort of nouvelle bourgeoisie that has taken hold.

Karl Lagerfeld wrote to me, “In the 60s, Paris was Chanel and Balenciaga. This confederacy suits me quite well today. Welcome.”

What was Balenciaga when you started?

It had more or less been forgotten. Yet, the most contemporary designers like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander still found something relevant in Cristóbal Balenciaga’s universe, referencing his abstraction in their work. In couture, Dior had defined incredible volume and constructions over a short career. Chanel embodied a path to freedom, democratizing the wardrobe, bringing sportswear to the fore but mixing it with luxury, and addressing the female condition beyond fashion. Balenciaga really corresponded to abstract art, to architecture, and a form of intellectual fashion, austerity mixed with a graphic quality. Today there are many examples of salvaged names, but in this case the power of the house outstripped its founder’s wishes. The maison survived thanks to the perfumes licenses, but also because Balenciaga’s legacy remains vital. Thierry Mugler, for example, who was all about body conscious shapes, might appropriate Balenciaga for a suit with an interior of contrasting panels, like Cristóbal’s petals, but fitted his way. Where Yves Saint Laurent might pay literal homage, the Japanese leaned ultra-conceptual, oversize, and radical. You can see it in their constructions and the way they work materials. Their work helped reveal something more contemporary in Balenciaga then a direct couture interpretation. It was so interesting and timeless that it would have resurfaced in any event, with me or anybody else at the helm. He can be endlessly reinterpreted by other talents who have bold styles and that’s how he is a common denominator, everyone has a version of his oeuvre, because he has entered the collective unconscious.

How did the reaction to your Fall/Winter 2006 collection, widely considered a masterful homage to Balenciaga, affect your thinking? You had had no access to the archive until then.

It was the collection for which my peers decided to recognize me: “That’s it, he’s ready; we’ve been waiting for this.” I received so many letters, which basically said “Welcome to this world!” Karl Lagerfeld wrote, “In the 60s, Paris was Chanel and Balenciaga. This confederacy suits me quite well today. Welcome.” I didn’t really know Steven Meisel at the time and I received a massive bouquet from him. It was like my first communion in the Church of Cristóbal. It was defining collection.

With a little hindsight, how is Balenciaga viewed today?

I regret that it is seen as a house of bags, though I am implicated, because I’d like it to remain a maison de mode. In any event it’s part of our shared fashion heritage. Miuccia Prada reinterprets it every few seasons. Marc Jacobs does too, and Jil Sander. I cherished the idea of a laboratory. I’ve been told – and was also criticized for it – that Balenciaga can appear overly avant-garde, perhaps even elitist. My answer was firstly that the label deserved no less. If you ask me, there is only one place where there’s real research and that’s Balenciaga. I’ve also been criticized for not being commercial enough, which is rather amusing. When I arrived the garments weren’t even being produced. I had to invent how to market them and we never stopped pursuing merchandising, and becoming more and more commercial. I hope people will recognize that over the last 15 years I was able achieve the balance between a house that preserves and evolves its values in real-time and a healthy, successful, genuine business.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

Why are fashion’s perspectives narrowing when over the last 15 years we’ve witnessed an incomprehensible explosion in its markets?

Fashion has never been so in fashion. All of a sudden we’ve arrived at a place television, music, media, and advertising have enjoyed for a time; fashion has been vastly democratized, which is excellent, but it’s also become pop culture. Everyone wants to be part of it, to own a piece of it, to appear interested and aware. The fashion world used to be relatively marginal. It could be prestigious, but it was also considered to be a toxic world of crazies – was it not dangerous and unwholesome in a way? People only slightly older than me saw a lot of their friends disappear with the emergence of AIDS. Consciousness of the syndrome was growing in that small community, when I arrived. It was nevertheless a golden age of serious experimental work and independent designers. I’m not saying it was better before: today there are so many more possibilities, the profession is structured, there are established training programs and it’s appreciated. The shift has generated many new possibilities, at the same time everything’s been somewhat devalued and many brands and creators have had to worry about being politically correct and addressing the widest market. Naturally, there will continue to be opinion leaders and forward-looking research, and things will have to level out, but for me it’s not a defining moment in fashion. Globalization has brought many things, including the internationalization of a feminine aesthetic that I boil down to the character of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City. Whether in Japan or China, in the U.S. of course, and in Europe, there is a cliché of the fashionista whose primary concern is achieving that girlie, stiletto look, never mind if it’s fashionable. It did nudge a number of women, and girls, to risk wearing clothes they ordinarily would not have but it has standardized things and I’m not sure it’s all for the better.

Ironically, aren’t the accessories that enable this international cliché the lifeblood of fashion brands?

Indeed, today it can seem most important to have a good expensive pair of shoes or bag. Garments, on the other hand, can simply be a bargain item. The large retail brands have positioned themselves in unbelievable ways to do this, which has thrown the status of ready-to-wear into question.

Do the H&M’s and the Zara’s of the world scare you?

Their process and production speeds are incredible, and I think they have the big bosses of luxury drooling because everyone fantasizes about achieving that level of efficiency. Yet, for some of these brands the creative aspect gets completely short-circuited; they are clearly waiting for the runway shows to snatch and sell silhouettes as quickly as possible. It can’t be great for the designers there who probably spend their time adapting what someone else has invented. There have been some very successful collaborations between designers and multinational retailers, especially by H&M, but it questions everyone’s future. These companies will all need strong talent at some point. They are all hedging against this investment and the fact that without an original idea you might make tons of money but you still need a creative source to survive, either to sustain your visibility or, in a more basic sense, to create clothes. Will these brands be the next multinational luxury goods groups? Perhaps. We might be in a transformative moment. They are, in any event, increasingly competitive with luxury retailers.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

As far as the bag and bobble blitzkrieg, when you started at Balenciaga, resort, men’s, and pre-collections didn’t exist and now there’s everything from dog collars to what you’ve tailored for the runway – how did you experience the pressure of having to be creative on so many different levels?

It’s one of the reasons I wanted to stop. As long as the production schedule kept sight of the creative side, it felt human. Then it accelerated to such a degree that at a certain point I was totally miserable. I simply didn’t have enough time to search for new, sufficiently interesting ideas and I had to keep churning out proposals, meeting deadlines, taking up gigantic studios that required interacting with greater numbers of people and in the process I realized I would loose what defined me. The pressure was really gratifying when it was about a new project or collection that could grow the house. But when they became absolute necessities, when the runway shows became less important, because they were too late in the calendar, when some of the more exclusive and luxurious elements that propelled the house became less of a priority, the pressure was no longer acceptable. I didn’t want to play the game anymore, at least in that way. It’s true that for everyone it’s accelerated to a frantic speed over the last few years. When I started, there were only two seasons, we had the runway show and a few extra commercial pieces, but by the end there were 15 collections per season, which is more than 30 collections per year. There are days when frankly you don’t know what planet you are on after work. When I do something I want to get involved at every level. It’s always strange delegating to other designers and later to sign the product – my name is on there. Even if it was all under the same Balenciaga label, I had a hard time pretending I had done something if it hadn’t – let’s say I had to be involved to the greatest extent possible. At the same time, it can be a great pleasure once the machine is assembled, and the ideas are flowing, and you are feeling generous. I created many things, but it can’t last. It’s unhealthy. You lose your identity, which is priceless and I didn’t want to jeopardize it.

It would appear that brands are less interested in developing a creative identity, and more interested in fueling their machine; Over time we’ll end up with a terribly generic playing field. The picture you paint does not seem sustainable.

We’re told the market is hungry for novelty, but I am not sure it’s as desperate for fast-fashion as we might think. Perhaps down-market labels can afford to work this way, but in luxury, quality takes time. Right now people are possessed: they’ll present n’importe quoi – whatever – everyone has got to walk or show because it gets the most visibility. Apparently, we’ve got to do all this because the market demand will absorb all this information and all these goods. I am far from convinced. People know what they like and don’t like. They aren’t dumb. You can’t force them to swallow just anything, because the backlash will be brutal. It reminds me that though the 60s, 70s, and 80s luxury brands plied the Japanese market with products and labels, among other things, triggering an unbelievably radical response in Japanese fashion. Not that this will happen again, but it’s unclear whether the market is an ogre ready to consume whatever we throw at it.

You’ve left Balenciaga, but are you taking time to breathe?

Ideally, I’d like to give myself a six-month break, to travel and discover things. I’m not sure it’ll happen because some interesting projects are on the horizon. Ever since I started at Balenciaga, I’ve had offers and until now I declined. It was important to have 15 years of collections and shows. I am proud of the fact that at Balenciaga I followed a straight line, almost from beginning to end, that was extremely focused and coherent. I was very free. It was my perspective on Balenciaga and I am very proud of what it is today. It would be a mistake to try to reproduce what I created there. I’ll never ape it. Given the projects and the offers I have on the table, the trick is to think about what is most inspiring, what can become a new way of working. It is not a question of inventing, but identifying a new way to make things, to present them, the rhythm of selling them. There are many questions to answer, but not with the classic Balenciaga format.

What was that format about?

Rigid seasonal structure, presentations, delivering collections in the classic sense, developing a retail and distribution system that starts with wholesale, to have enough funds to set up our own stores that can take over from wholesale, perfume licensing at one moment, eyewear licensing at another; all these actions are part of a classic luxury goods format, even if we did it our own way at Balenciaga. These are the steps of large-scale brand construction. Today, it’s essential I think differently.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

Azzedine Alaïa famously prefers to practice his own way, as an independent couturier. Has he offered any advice?

Azzedine’s advice is “Do what you want when you want!” There are fundamental questions to ask about how to practice today and we do talk a lot. He’s really interesting, having done things so differently from others. He was already well-respected but now he is at another level: he controls his distribution perfectly without a thousand stores and they are just right. His work is clean, coherent, and of great quality. The finishes are always amazing and you can tell he hasn’t compromised on the complexity of his dresses, on the prices. You can tell that he hasn’t sacrificed a thing, nothing has slipped, and he’s been able to build a brand image that keeps rising. Even if he decided to be a tad off for a few seasons, I think I’ve never seen more Azzedine Alaïa worn as today. He’s never been so relevant. He’s a free electron. At the same time, Prada has financed him in the past – and created a foundation; he is now with Richemont. He hasn’t rejected the corporate system, but he has had them adhere to his methods. He really is a beautiful example of autonomy and I do listen to his advice.

Alaïa welcomes his close friendships with patrons and models directly into his process and his brand image, something you also do. At Balenciaga, what have been the personal relationships that have influenced you the most?

A character fault I have is working with my friends. I love it. It may sound incestuous, but collaborators have become friends and friends have become collaborators! Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster is really important and we will keep doing things with her. Marie-Amélie Sauvé, we work together but it so much more. We spent so much time together. There’s Charlotte Gainsbourg of course. There’s Pierre Hardy. It’s a family. They are people who are part of my professional framework. I love sharing things, building things together. For example, Cindy Sherman and I did a great project that started out as a friendship. I get along really well with Catherine Deneuve. We haven’t collaborated yet, though she has worn Balenciaga. So one day we’ll get to do an artistic collaboration, I am not sure what kind. I do have these icons, who are not necessarily in my immediate work sphere, but with whom I have important connections.

The role of imagination in your work is essential. Of course it’s a bit of a trick question, but are you at all interested in realistic fashion?

Yes, of course. But not in a commercial sense: reality interests me much more than merchantability. When I am drawing a garment, pursuing an idea, I am thinking of no one in particular at first – I might veer off in more extreme directions; but what often brings me back to reality are images of women around me or people I might imagine wearing the clothes. Then suddenly it becomes real. In this sense, this reality seems essential to me, and moreover it makes the garment more accessible, and therefore salable. But it’s not about making the garment as marketable as possible. No. It has to be embodied by someone.

II. The Aesthetic of Seduction

More often than not, Ghesquière admits to clinching his vision through a magic keyhole known as Charlotte Gainsbourg. Since the two connected – Gainsbourg says her agent got a call, but that Ghesquière thinks it was the other way around – they have befriended each other, little by little, meeting in the quartier, over dinner, at public events, and of course collaborating. On a break from the rehearsal for this year’s César ceremony, the French National Film Awards, Gainsbourg explained how meeting Ghesquière altered her career because until then fashion had been uninteresting and posing for photographs a “nightmare.” Gainsbourg and Ghesquière fell into a kind of mutually beneficial tango, where one coaxed something remarkable from the other: “At first I dressed with his clothes, but it was more about the image I made of myself and he more or less adapted to me. It was as if I had finally found clothes that suited me best. Little by little he pulled me into his vision, and in a new direction. We started with the androgynous side that I already knew, but then he brought me somewhere more feminine and he did it without betraying either one of us. He helped me discover and dare things. Red carpet events have always been more of a pleasure with him.”

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Discover Pictures V, 2012

Out of deference to her dear friend’s departure from Balenciaga, Gainsbourg did not wear the label to the awards ceremony, but she keeps Ghesquière around in her closet, she has promoted the smell of Balenciaga Paris on her nightstand or in her hand bag, and has tried to place at least one garment in every movie she makes. “I always try to bring him with me but without his knowledge because it’s just my wardrobe,” she explained with a sparkle of poetic license. In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), she plays a well to do character – une femme bourgeoise – who wears Balenciaga, but even in Todd Hayne’s portrait of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There (2007), she couldn’t help wearing a Ghesquière jacket although, she admits, it was a total anachronism. At the heart of a hard-knock, commercially driven business, Gainsbourg is reassured to have found such an authentic person who is clearly uncompromising and courageous. At Balenciaga under Ghesquière – chez moi lui – you could find an entire wardrobe she declares: “A classic coat that you could wear everyday or an incredibly unique dress that you might wear only once. At the same time, I could throw on my old jeans and boots with one of Nicolas’ jackets and with little effort, it changes everything.”

Ghesquière is known for unleashing a narrow, aggressively urban, and at times, robotic silhouette, loose on runways that has been widely influential. “It’s Patti Smith, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jeanne d’Arc, and [Ellen] Ripley in Alien (1979). It’s not a couture silhouette, since there’s little volume. It’s also androgynous, because if the silhouette were a shadow you wouldn’t know if it’s male or female,” explains the designer. Ghesquière likes the image of a replicant, hints Pierre Hardy, the lifelike android imagined by Ridley Scott for the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner. Through its varied embodiments the replicant is always true to itself, dispassionate, beautifully engineered, and as a result, menacingly sexy. Critics have often labeled Ghesquière a futurist and he undoubtedly shares a Generation X fascination for science fiction (he also likes horror movies), yet his garments manifest less the wistfulness of fantasy than a technical discipline of material, structure, and self. Every collection, in that sense, offers a hypothesis about a woman’s identity in the contemporary world. “I’ve felt the happiest I’ve ever felt wearing these clothes. I’ve also felt androgynous and rigid. Sort of like you’re wearing a fucking building,” says Kristen Stewart. Thanks to Ghesquière, Stewart has learned that fashion doesn’t necessarily conceal like a mask but can spark aspects of one’s personality that are otherwise sedated: “You can play any character you can imagine in these clothes.” Renowned make-up artist Pat McGrath, who has created everything from organic to alien effects for Ghesquière on recent shows and campaigns, accentuates the fact that, “There is always a touch of reality that has to remain through the make-up. It’s important for Nicolas that the girls look like themselves.”

To assume there is only one kind of Ghesquière woman is to miss the picture. “His designs can in turn be austere and then audacious and there’s something about the tension between the two that I’ve always found really interesting,” explained actor Jennifer Connelly. She contacted Ghesquière in 2002 for a gown to wear to the Oscars. As if upstaging the event’s over-dressed, pumped-up glamour, Ghesquière created a gown of ethereal, skin-colored rags. Connelly described it to me: “It looked like a beautiful artifact that had been locked in a trunk. I liked that it had a slightly destroyed elegance. The embellishment was just a scarf. Nicolas is the epitome of chic, in my opinion.” Ghesquière’s crisply drawn-features could easily be the subject of a Renaissance portrait by Jean Clouet, but his steady hand is perhaps a greater sign of innate gentility. “There’s nothing really frivolous about him. Everything seems to have a purpose and is thought out,” she says. Connelly had two fittings for the dress, one of which was in Paris and, while her kids had free reign of the space, she remembers: “Nicolas was very meticulous and detail-oriented with his work, deeply invested in what he was doing. Personally, he was very gentle with me, kind and funny.” They are now good friends and casual asides while socializing led to Connelly starring in campaigns for Spring/Summer 2008 and Fall/Winter 2009, two of Ghesquière’s most noted collections. Connelly – who has lost count of how many Ghesquière pieces she now owns – knows that her daughter Agnes Lark “is going to be a really lucky girl if she likes fashion.” But, if Agnes Lark borrows from her mother’s wardrobe, what vision of femininity would she be taking on?

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Discover Pictures III, 2012
“The Balenciaga approach to femininity is a boyish attitude, confidence, intelligence, a demand for quality, and an avant-gardism in the sense that you are courageous enough to look different.”

GHESQUIÈRE: I like a masculine attitude in a woman, which can be very sensual and sexy. Her femininity should go unquestioned, but at the same time it shouldn’t be obvious. Femininity is more interesting when it’s intimate and modest. It’s more interesting to veil than to flaunt, to evoke the body than to mold it. Mostly, I think, fashion today likes travestying women and it’s a caricature that truly disturbs me – the bimbo. There are bimbos that I find inspiring and amusing, when they are completely in control. It’s true of men also. It can happen, but I try to nuance it in my shows. As a result the girls may seem robotic, dehumanized, lacking sensitivity and people have called me out on it. But I’ve been trying to address that, especially in the last collection. Of course I want a woman who wears my clothes to feel feminine but also confident. Cristóbal used to say, “One must deserve a Balenciaga!” I say you have to be courageous in the morning to put one on, especially what I’ve sent down the runway, because it’s a sort of armor. It wasn’t made for everyone nor meant to be easy. I have my predilections for the motion of the body, showing leg, lengths, and décolleté at the shoulders or on the back, which is so much better than a bad décolleté on the front. When a garment makes you look smarter, it’s wonderful. The Balenciaga approach to femininity is a boyish attitude, confidence, intelligence, a demand for quality, and an avant-gardism in the sense that you are courageous enough to look different. I just don’t get the bimbo thing. You can say anything if you do it with talent. Wong Kar-wai did it with 2046 (2004) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Fassbinder’s bimbos are more interesting than what you see on catwalks today. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) is not degrading at all, even if the subject was radical for the time. I just don’t understand that you can put a scantily clad 16-year-old on the catwalk and call it normal.

What is the role of vulnerability or even trash in feminine seduction?

Trash is a form of provocation. It’s an unexpected encounter between something commonly understood as low-end and what’s considered luxury. It’s that slippage. The Mario Sorrenti and Joe McKenna photos of the Spring/Summer 2001 collection we did for W (January 2001) are good examples. The models are porn stars but they are commanding their sexuality in these clothes. There are people who can convey vulnerability in their runway presentations, but my shows are not about that. Fragility happens in the clothes when they are worn and some of the best compliments I’ve received are on that order: “My partner thinks I am so sexy in Balenciaga.” Of course, I think about it when I design. The moment you trigger an emotion while you are designing, it’s a good sign. Those working around you are also not simply commenting on the textile or the idea; they feel something and express it. It happens again at the fitting. The more you can inject emotion into the garment, the more it gets charged with a message that will last and translate.

How do the fragrances play into your concept of seduction?

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

It was very personal, which is why I asked Charlotte Gainsbourg to represent the first new scent, Balenciaga Paris. I really respected the old Balenciaga fragrances; after all, the house survived on them, Fleeting Moments, Quadrille, Ho Hang, and Le Dix. We canceled the old licenses and stopped production for five or six years. I spent 12 years materializing ideas and all of a sudden I had to do the opposite and dematerialize an idea to create a fragrance. My collaborators were key. I suggested we work with Coty to develop the first perfume; Olivier Polge was the nose. I learned it had to crystallize the heritage of the house, but people expected it to be modern. It couldn’t be a gimmick or the hit of the season; it had to be a classic. I wanted something floral but a sort of floral decoy, nothing nice or precious. All the original perfumes were floral. Le Dix was based on the iris – it could have been the other Chanel No.5 of the period, although it came out later in 1937. We went with violet in this case, which can smell a bit decrepit. At the same time I told them I loved the smell of gasoline and gas stations; it’s a smell that we all know. I am not saying its suitable for a fragrance, but I liked that it was urban and captured life as we know it. So we ended up with a metallic and floral smell. Following the marketing laws we then launched a concentrated version, L’Essence, and this spring will see the launch of the light version, L’Eau Rose. Flora Botanica was the second fragrance and with this one I asked them to name the target: They said, “It has to be very young and to relate to your fashion, Ghesquière for Balenciaga.” I met Kristen Stewart on a Bruce Weber shooting when she was 13-years-old and we got along well. I loved her. A few years ago I did her dress for the Twilight (2008) premiere. We weren’t friends, but we had a connection. She’s perfect for Balenciaga if you want a younger audience, I told them. She’s totally sensual and sexy but she’s tomboyish. She’s not afraid to be popular, even commercial but she’s also punk.

Poet Charles Baudelaire would probably have loved your seductive strategy, or at the very least your “evil flowers.” Historically, women’s fashion has garnered a lot from men’s tailoring. What’s your favorite men’s garment?

I love jackets. You never really finish it. It’s the hardest thing in the world. The shoulder is never perfect, as Cristóbal said. It’s structured but you have to be able to move. It has to look good closed, but it also has to look good open. It’s intergenerational, because a young boy with a vest is as elegant as an old man in a vest. I take a particular pleasure in making vests.

Your pants are a coveted item. How did they happen?

There were pants in my first collection. We worked on them right away. The only one who I thought did them well was Helmut Lang. There were very few handsome pants on the market. I wanted to reconstruct them to look good from all sides to give women nice behinds! Editor Polly Mellon, who I respect a lot, once paid me the best compliment by saying that “a Balenciaga pant looks as good coming as it does going.”

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

How many pieces does it take to make a Balenciaga pant?

Ha! We must have made pants with up to 50 pieces! We have been much more reasonable with an average of perhaps 15–20 pieces including everything from the pocket to the belt loops. For some of the more accessible collections, I intentionally limited myself. I’d think “Stop, stop, stop!” It’s not necessarily about complexity, because that’s what it takes to construct the pants, especially the insides, so the behind looks good, so the zipper doesn’t bulge, so it presses against the body or stands out where it should, regardless of who is wearing them.

Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable complexity in your work. Is it a sort of defensive strategy against plagiarizers? After all, being replicable is the central problem of ready-to-wear.

I am not saying it’s a motivation, but it has crossed my mind that something complex might be harder to copy. It is of course less profitable in the short term. I knew we wouldn’t sell as many $8,000 items as we would $500 items, but I made a point of seeing that the runway clothes would go into production even in small quantities. What we observed at Balenciaga is that super strong elaborate pieces often enabled defining a matrix of more accessible, easily producible items that could become bestsellers while retaining the original signature. All the bestsellers evolved this way and it encouraged me to pursue this strategy. It’s a bit like industrial design. You need a prototype. One example is the biker, a leather perfecto I completely retooled but, of course, didn’t invent. I started with a flea market or a vintage find, which I reconstructed in one afternoon with two assistants and some patches of leather before handing it off to the atelier. That Spring/Summer 2007 collection – what we called the “robots” – was a very stiff show, with embroidered, metallic leggings. It was as anti-commercial as possible. Balenciaga continues to live off money made by the jacket today. I created its little brother for the Spring/Summer 2011 “punk” collection, a micro-leather jacket, with padded shoulders to which I added stretch cloth down the back and under the arms and it became a bestseller. There were pant shapes I created for my second season at Balenciaga that are still bestsellers. A parallel wardrobe has emerged over the long run. With every season, even though you have to innovate, one or two pieces join that wardrobe which actually constitutes the core of the business. I think it’s a good formula. Every designer and every consumer wants garments that will become new classics and will survive – I myself want clothes like this in my wardrobe. At the same time designers want something bold and successful that defines the zeitgeist – the right thing at the right time. Think of your parents or grandparents: consumers want iconic pieces that say, “I was there, I wore and lived it.” There’s a duality that I aim for, to create and rework generic elements on the one hand and to reach for the beauty of pure fashion, on the other.

III. Post Couture

At Ghesquière’s level, success requires rapid-fire reactions and 360-degree surveillance, managing the previous collection while planning the next one and shaping what’s immediately on the worktable. It’s a mental origami that folds space and time, yesterday and tomorrow, macro and micro together into a densely packed workday. “He was at every meeting, the shape of the heel, the proportions of the shoe, the size of the laces, the diameter of the eyelet, the color of the lining, the length of the stitch. It was all him,” says Pierre Hardy of work sessions with Ghesquière, who is known to attack every item from every line, capsule, or accessory, with equal acuity. Within the studio he has a reputation for an unerring rigor, polite and firm, able to pick out a faulty stitch almost instantaneously. In unison with a swarm of designers and stylists, pattern and sample makers, technicians and seamstresses, fabric, leather, and trimmings specialists, Ghesquière moiled away at what he proudly calls the Balenciaga laboratory. Hardy says the bricolage behind the design of a simple heel was, “Apocalyptic. Madman’s work.”

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Discover Pictures IV, 2012

Ghesquière’s astonishing shoe designs for Balenciaga have become a sort of design talisman, condensing a hyper-postmodern penchant for referential montage, for the clash and fusion of powerful images into unconventional hybrids. They also encapsulate Ghesquière’s overall practice sprung from a world of mediagenic stimulation and not from couture alone, as was the case for an earlier generation. According to his current and former design staff, Ghesquière reacts favorably to what’s weird, unusual, and surprising and will dismiss the obvious and commonplace. A young, excitable Florent Buonomano holds the unprecedented position of iconographer within the designer’s reconstituted design team. Buonomano, who says Ghesquière’s work “hit like a Tsunami” when he was 14, combed the Internet and the media for catalytic images at the pace of 20–30 a day while at Balenciaga, a job which started by documenting work sessions and cataloging books, and has exploded into a massive visual library. An ever-changing database, it supplies what Buonomano calls the “chromosomes” behind every collection. The process that leads to the runway is a long and arduous form of Darwinian natural selection. Fanciful propositions, sketches, shreds of a historic Balenciaga fabric, a chair, or a vase may ignite an idea. Concepts and details, silhouettes and materials, are then ceaselessly produced, questioned, and tested, combined and recombined, constructed and deconstructed until only the fittest survive. Though the genetic metaphor is overused in fashion language (e.g., the DNA of a house) it seems particularly relevant to Ghesquière who engineers a near molecular collage between the organic and the synthetic, the human and the inhuman, couture and street wear, all coded within the minutiae of his garments. Ghesquière has turned the metaphor into a genetic accelerator.

Artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, whose very first conversation with Ghesquière lasted three hours, is astonished at how prolific her collaborator has been at Balenciaga: “He weaves ideas from one collection to the other. It was so incredible for me to see that after a few collections he could repeat certain things, like a genetic evolution of forms. It’s very inspiring. There are so many levels of thinking in his clothes.” Gonzalez-Foerster collaborated with Ghesquière on the design of every Balenciaga boutique in which she aimed to avoid duplicating the standard white-box environment and create what she describes as a natural habitat for the garments, “as if they were a bird or an insect that builds its nest.” Some memorable fashion shows have also resulted from their collaboration, like Fall/Winter 2012 on the 27th floor of a 1990s tinted glass tower where they painstakingly mirrored the drab fluorescent-lit office ceiling on the catwalk below. The sets uncanny resemblance to the hallways on Stanley Kubrick’s Discovery One spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), alludes to the artist’s love of 60s and 70s culture, its obsessions with the military industrial-complex, hallucinogens, and organic modernism, a love she shares with Ghesquière. Details speak volumes and on Ghesquière’s garments, which tend to eschew everyday zippers and buttons for space-age magnetic clasps, they tell us that some unseen force field emanates from within.

In their conversations, Gonzalez-Foerster tells me that together they revisit hypnotic terms like “micro-architecture” and “the space of possible futures,” loopy phrases that take on meaning within Ghesquière’s studio practice. According to Buonomano the studio exhaustively explores every possible option for any one element that may go into a collection, until an innocuous fabric turns into a dazzling micro-architecture of craft, culture, and industry. A guipure lace comprising the final looks of Ghesquière’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection, for example, was hand-stitched, color-printed, perforated, and embroidered before being incorporated in the final garment, tracing an assembly line across four countries, from France to Italy to Germany and back. Ghesquière laughs thinking on the contraptions he introduced at Balenciaga, acrid smells that emanated from specially installed ovens, laminating presses, and fusing machines, and how it all started by dying cargo pants in a friend’s bathtub. With Spring/Summer 2009, Ghesquière explored the absorption and reflection of light. Solar panels inspired the final looks of that season, some of Ghesquière’s favorites, constructed of candy-sized metal panels, cut, glued, cooked, and pressed on horsehair ribbon. It was laborious and there are countless stories like it, Ghesquière says. Gesticulating on my video-chat screen with spindly, vein-lined hands, he helps me understand what lies at the heart of his laboratory work.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Discover Pictures IV, 2012

GHESQUIÈRE: We can all have great ideas. But how do you give them volume and material? How do you make them, as we were saying, real? I took my role to be a technician, to be extremely precise and surprising without losing my initial creative intention. Ultimately, this transformation underpins whatever recognition we get. Every designer has to know how to transform ideas, and once they are cut, three-dimensional, worn, inhabited, and embodied they are arguably more interesting than a drawing or initial intention. That’s where it was really important for me to surprise Marie-Amélie and Charlotte. So I would start by explaining my ideas and then when they saw what came later, Marie-Amélie might say, “I didn’t think you’d actually do this, because it seemed really ambitious.” I prided myself on working with the studio teams and the atelier to materialize the garments. It’s a key step in which I invest a good part of myself. I cut, pin, and construct on tailor dummies. I quickly learned to throw myself into the materials and not to be afraid of altering them. I clearly remember who made that suggestion a few years ago, and it has really helped me actualize ideas. It really makes a difference. You have to be very demanding on finishes, on draping, the choice of materials, how they are glued or stitched together, how they embed, how they clash or merge. I try to have the same precision at every step.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

What are you searching for?

In fashion you’ve got the big picture with which to elicit an emotion, an attractive silhouette seen from afar that may look pretty or different, some unusual combination of a pant and coat length you’ve never seen before, for example. The more you zoom in, the more you discover something that makes the difference. For me, it means having both a micro and a macro vision. Each time, it’s as if I start by considering a silhouette from afar and then I zoom to the deepest fiber of the material and I want the same exactitude as I had in the volume and the emotion of the silhouette at that deeper level.

You are describing a sensibility of our digital age. We consume images at very different resolutions, with varying degrees of information.

I remember when I started there weren’t all these fashion sites and very detailed images of clothes on the Internet. We realized as soon as it started that there were close-ups of the runway shoes that weren’t the best. You are always aware of the blemishes and all of a sudden they were screaming out loud! With the digital lens, you are right, I got even more demanding!

What techniques do you use in your laboratory that may not be common in other studios?

It’s very hard to invent new textiles. Everything’s been done. But, I love transforming existing materials. I started off with a simple idea of a double-faced material made by Cristóbal Balenciaga. I wondered how do you reinvent a double-faced material that acts like a shell, where you no longer need a lining? I wanted to maintain its shell and architecture, but also lighten it by removing any interior armature. It was a long search. We made certain luxury materials like silk “technical” by applying foam, or doubling the face, or through laminations. A few seasons later of course, others were showing foam-backed materials while it took us entire seasons to get it right, using foams that blistered or didn’t combine well with certain textiles. It was research that started early. By the time of the “scuba” collection Spring/Summer 2006 – diving suits as dresses – we were already gluing foam to jersey – using off-the-shelf neoprene would have been too basic. This approach has become totally accessible and reproducible now.

What, if anything, is haute couture today?

I myself have never really done it, so I’m not sure if I’m in a position to speak about it. There are very precise rules. They tell us, for example, that it has to be entirely handmade. What interests me is the combination of industry and handcraft; some things are simply done better by a machine. Should it even be called couture? Perhaps a category of extremely luxurious ready-to-wear would enable lifting the six-piece quota, only six copies are allowed internationally. Today, unfortunately it doesn’t make sense. It’s very nostalgic, always honoring its past. I really like Raf Simons and I am happy that he expresses himself through couture. He’ll surely propel things with his modernist vision. Paradoxically, I think John Galliano shook up couture when you think of his techno-futurist moments at Dior. It was rather arrogant and crazy. I would really like it if we invented a new term for a new type of collection that applied the rigor of couture and could also be highly technological. It would be very expensive and exclusive, but at the same time we’d know why and we’d know that the women who can afford it are – much as they were when they dressed like they collected art and design – opinion leaders. The image of money was that of exclusivity, new ideas, and the pleasure of innovations. Today it’s the pleasure of what is big, sparkling, and loud and not necessarily about new thinking. I am also sometimes nostalgic for the 60s, of Courrèges, of Claude Pompidou at the Élysée Palace dressed in Cardin or Françoise Hardy in Paco Rabanne. I am not saying we should go back, but couture at that time had a logic that was really very interesting.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

The stakes were actually much higher in the U.S. in terms of quantities when there were “big beautiful” orders as we say. The American market is contradictory. The brand image there was relatively well-preserved. American buyers told me at first that they would not buy the stronger pieces, but in the end they did and it was fairly balanced. The American myth that anything is possible is really true. I felt that I was incredibly welcome, without prejudices, that a label like Balenciaga should experience a revival. It was amazing, and I was only 25 then. On the other hand the large department stores wanted me to do evening gowns in the beginning, which I hated. I found it so tacky. I didn’t understand whom they were addressing, but for them, Balenciaga was formal. I remember Bergdorf Goodman was determined that I make evening gowns, so I tried to do it my way. The late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy bought the first one. Naturally, the retailer got very excited, but I was upset. I only really wanted to do urban daywear and let them know as much. We had a bumpy transition, but they stuck with me. American support was amazing and I am so grateful. In Paris I can quietly go out to a restaurant or a coffee shop, but in New York people openly express their admiration and appreciation. When I need an ego-boost, I visit New York!

What about the Asian market?

It’s not a market I know as well, but their approach was similar to the Americans. They began by requesting the lower priced items, but in the end they also wanted the robust pieces. It’s not El Dorado as everyone says. It’s amazing to think you can address such massive audiences, but at the same time I’d like to start by communicating to those who are able to understand the brand and spread the right message. I think people are moving too fast. We should take time with Asia, and avoid provoking rapid consumption that leads to cheapened, quickly obsolete brands. Many labels have gotten mired there and it’s dangerous. There has to be a sort of apprenticeship phase, where we talk about how things are made, about luxury in the Western sense. It’s a bit of a cultural shock. The “flowers” collection did well, but so did the “punk”. It’s still mysterious.

To understand where we are in fashion today, you have to understand the history of Western fashion and of course Asia has different references. For example, in China, for complex reasons, there is little historical sensibility. History is fabricated in the way the French have always reconstructed the Ancien Régime.

Yes, novelty there seems to trump any idea of conservation. It’s easier to destroy and start again, then to restore.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

Seeing an archival Balenciaga dress next to one of your creations has to have a completely different effect in that context. The way you work with materials seems to be a way of counteracting wannabe luxury with non-luxury, which in the end revitalizes the industry’s end game.

Luxury is the art of transformation, handling, and adding value to even the most commonplace material. You are right, it’s a message that is harder to communicate in Asia. But the big question about the Asian market now is “does everyone want to look alike?” We’re told they want the safety of uniformity, so when something clicks, apparently they’ll all want it, like with the Japanese. But, at the same time, we are told that they’ve had enough of repressive codes and are seeking individuality. I couldn’t tell you what’s really happening.

Do you look at Japanese designers, like Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe; there are clear resonances in their work.

Of course – with almost every season they open doors to new possibilities. Without resorting to plagiarism, these designers are really models to which one can aspire. At the same time, they’ve dipped into a fashion’s shared heritage. We can identify ourselves in their work because of a totally idiosyncratic use of that heritage, from Chanel to 60s Balenciaga for example, and at the same time because the way they handle it takes us to new horizons. They give us a sharper and more discerning eye. Rei Kawakubo is not only exemplary for her uncompromising and radical design but because she really is the queen of merchandising – from leather accessories to the satellite collections. Miuccia Prada also has an amazing knack for merchandising; Prada managed to translate a robust idea into an accessible one. But, Rei Kawakubo is a tremendous businesswoman, in the noble sense. Like Azzedine, it’s inspiring to see that there are several paths to success. They tell us you need so much money to do fashion and luxury, but then again maybe not. Rei Kawakubo obviously has great means now, but it all starts with an individual’s determination and individual perspective. We’re not in the fuzzy realm of finances, corporations, or merchandising where it’s unclear who decides, corporate or creative. Of course Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli are a very effective duo. Rei Kawakubo works with her husband, but it’s fundamentally a creative vision. It’s all very encouraging for someone just getting started.

What would you advise young designers today?

Be self-reliant but also understand how to secure financing and organize logistics. It’s particularly true in France, where entrepreneurship is discouraged in comparison to the rest of the world, and yet our cultural values inspire enterprising by sheer contrast. That’s probably why we pay dearly for success here. Stay true to your identity; know how to figure things out yourself; don’t get stuck at roadblocks; and get a rounded education, which I no doubt lacked in matters of business. You have to be all-terrain.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

As a young designer, you took an unmistakably unique approach to retail expansion at Balenciaga, not surprisingly. Your New York store for example shifted the traditional context of luxury retail to a gallery setting, in an emerging arts district. Your L.A. store picks up on the same idea. What was your strategy?

Comme des Garçons was already on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. But, it all started with Paris, where we wanted to take a stance against globalization, the game of having the same dress at a moment’s notice all over the world. While Prada, Gucci, and everyone else were deploying carbon-copy stores everywhere – Prada shifted of course – Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and I wanted our boutiques to be varied, to integrate the local urban context. Starting with Avenue George V in Paris we rejected the idea of a standard reproducible display so you might have different experiences, like going to a local museum or a restaurant when you travel. At that time, Balenciaga was with Gucci Group. They found a very lovely space on Madison Avenue. “You’ll be very happy”, they said, since it’s surely a fantasy for a designer to have a store on Madison. I remember when I walked into the location, I immediately spouted, “I’ll never show my clothes here!” It just wasn’t for me, especially not for our first U.S. location. With some assistance, I found a couple of old warehouse spaces in Chelsea that I showed the executives. Domenico De Sole was the CEO of the group at the time and he rather brilliantly agreed to give me the same budget for the space and carte blanche on the design, except that in Chelsea we had 1600 square feet versus 230 square feet on Madison Avenue! Dominique suggested we keep a lot of the rough existing details, and we worked with what he had, which wasn’t so bad. In a year the store was pulling in several million dollars, which far surpassed the projections we had for the Madison Avenue location. It gave me great credibility vis-à-vis the group to continue developing spaces in that vein. The L.A. store is one of the best; it’s incredibly beautiful. It was a 40s timber frame building slated for demolition by the city. We completely re-built it from the inside out, with a plant and mineral garden. London and Milan are great. I have to admit that this saddens me a bit. Dominique has decided not to work for them in the future and I am not sure how the company will handle the stores.

The stores may have been varied, but your identity is crystal clear. They all have an incredible effect of transforming the clothes into alien works of art.

At the time, Dominique refused to play the speculative game of the art market, so she had no gallery representative in New York. We were tickled by the fact that with the store, she gained tremendous presence in the heart of the Chelsea gallery district. Hurricane Sandy unfortunately destroyed the store and I don’t think it will reopen. I am not at all superstitious, but I took it as a sign that I should leave. It was strange. In French we say, ‘Après moi le deluge’.

Going back to Mario Sorrenti and Joe McKenna’s 2001 W photos, plastic surgery lends the models some of their commanding appeal. Do you foresee a future when plastic surgery is part of a designer’s repertoire?

Of course, I am sure of it. Even for big spenders what’s available today is bottom-of-the-line, the standardization of faces. Whenever plastic surgery becomes bespoke, and design enters the equation, it’s a license I’d sign immediately. I’m much more interested by that than a global distributor of down-market clothes. One would have to review the classics and go through a couture phase, for sure. It will be amazing, morphing and transforming the body and inventing new criteria for the body. We’ll have to create a chamber of commerce to oversee everything!

Would you say your interest in smuggling material and cultural trash into the world of high fashion is a form of futurism?

Yes. Historically in fashion, being trashy was being provocative. These elements took on value by the simple fact that it wasn’t clear what value anything had anymore. My work integrates these elements, to ennoble them through the quality of fabrication. Trash is future luxury. For example, the German shepherd graphic was lifted from a fireman’s calendar. We made it in cashmere and created a new icon. I’ve always remixed elements from different aspects of our culture like this. When I did Spring/Summer 2002 with stonewashed patchwork cargo pants, the colors were based on Hollywood Chewing Gum. The pants were stonewashed in a friend’s bathtub and in the washing machine at the office. In France, cargo pants were totally exotic. I wasn’t aware of the connotation they had in the United States, but we transformed them. They became an item people purchased at $1000 each, and we must have sold 2,500 pieces, which was enormous and an immediate success for us. You’d never seen cargo pants like this, a real mixture of high and low.

Charlotte Gainsbourg by Karim Sadli. All clothes Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2013

It reconciles what is possible for some and impossible for others. It’s a utopia. It demonstrates to someone with money that what is popular and amusing can have promise, and for those of limited means, that what they enjoy will one day become luxury, and that’s the direction in which things have always evolved.

Fashion today, because of its unprecedented scale, raises tremendous ecological, social, and economic questions, not to mention creative ones. What goals should the industry set in the coming years to be sustainable on any of these levels?

I think it does start with sustainability and no one has found a solution. No concrete actions have really been taken, whether it’s the sourcing of materials, working conditions, or dying which is incredibly toxic. Some labels have an organic label now, but the chains of supply and production are unmonitored. There’s so much work to be done. It starts with a certain discipline, and we are very far from achieving it. The whole industry is based on timing. The faster the production, the more money comes in. To be sustainable you have to take the time to make it happen. There’s also a huge hypocrisy around out-sourcing and working ethically in other countries, while entire areas have been disenfranchised locally as a result, whether it’s in France, Italy, Spain, or Eastern Europe. It’s not enough to simply have an iconic address. There are fundamental questions to ask and I myself have to be very vigilant. We can all do a little something, but I think we’re all waiting to see which group will pull ahead and lead on this issue. Sustainability is a very taboo topic. I remember being very concerned about a certain product I was developing, because it required substantial manufacturing and packaging. I was extremely concerned. I was told the consumer doesn’t care and neither did the group. It should be moving faster. “What does it mean to be sustainable in fashion?” was the theme of Suzy Menkes’ 2009 luxury business conference in New Delhi, which I attended. My lecture topic was how to reawaken an old house while coming to terms with sustainability. I asked her recently if we shouldn’t reprise the discussion. Fashion weeks are more concerned with visibility then sustainability, that’s for sure.

What does the immediate future look like? Are you considering anything outside of fashion?

It’s been a while since I’ve been in a position to build and visualize an idea – thinking and conceptualizing, doing workshops – without having to materialize it right away. It’s a real pleasure. I am preparing something, but I have choices to make. I will announce something when I am ready. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. Now is my time to question inter-seasonality – it’s always the opposite season somewhere else in the world – and fashion’s need to be global while respecting the environment and local cultures and of course the usual six-month cycle for collections. I may decide to fulfill that mission again and I’ll enjoy it as I always have. Another part of me, absolutely wants to break these rules. I may be putting myself in danger, but that’s what I want today. I enjoyed years of extreme comfort with Balenciaga. It’s fantastic to harvest that status to explore in new ways, rather then sticking to a routine, even if it was the most comfortable and incredible, I couldn’t be in a better position.


Photography KARIM SADLI

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