When French designer Nicolas Ghesquière was plucked from relative obscurity in 1997 to become the creative director of Balenciaga—which, though one of the most esteemed houses in fashion history, had remained slightly adrift since its namesake died in 1972—no one was quite sure what to expect. And no one was prepared for what they found. Within a few seasons, Ghesquière had developed a reputation as the designer who would lead womenswear into a new dawn: His work consistently managed to be hard-edged, geometric, and rigorously precise, while still allowing for a free play of the feminine. In other words, women inGhesquière’s designs looked like masters of and not slaves to their clothing. Perhaps some of Ghesquière’s success can be attributed to his frequent nods to Cristóbal Balenciaga and his architectural silhouettes (plus having access to the exclusive archive). Or maybe it’s due to Ghesquière’s training in the early ’90s with the radically imaginative Jean Paul Gaultier. Or it could be the fact that, while so many designers of the ’00s tried to turn themselves into instant household names, Ghesquière held back and worked with singular focus on his collections for Balenciaga. More than a few have wondered just how long it will be before Ghesquière launches his own eponymous label, although he seems perfectly content where he is, having now spent nearly 13 years at the helm. As the next decade strikes, however, the 38-year-old designer does have a few new missions. His spring/summer ’10 collection has a rougher, tougher sense of the street. And this month, in collaboration with his longtime friend and muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, he also helps bring the entire house of Balenciaga into a larger demographic, launching the brand’s first-ever fragrance.
Tom Ford, also a notoriously focused designer (and now film director), is, in many ways, very different than Ghesquière—although Ford did help Gucci Group acquire Balenciaga in 2001, largely because of the interest in Ghesquière’s talent. The designers spoke recently by phone—and, somewhat paradoxically for two men who have done so much to define fashion, Ford conducted the interview entirely naked.
TOM FORD: I want to ask you about golf.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE: Really?
FORD: Because I was reading somewhere about you playing golf. I don’t think people ever imagine fashion designers doing something like playing golf. You are probably going to hate this question, so we won’t print it if you do not like it—
GHESQUIÈRE: [laughs] Okay.
FORD: But you play golf?!
GHESQUIÈRE: I don’t. [laughs] No, I’m really bad. I grew up in a family that played golf, and my brother was much better than me, so I kind of put that aside. I had to be good at something other than golf. So, no, it wasn’t really my thing.
FORD: So golf clothes have never been a big inspiration?
GHESQUIÈRE: Actually, I love golf clothes! I think this is the most interesting part of golf! [laughs]
FORD: I love golf clothes too! Especially for women! There is this great movie, Ordinary People, with a scene with Mary Tyler Moore . . . . I don’t know if you know that movie. It probably came out before you were born, in ’80.
GHESQUIÈRE: I was born!
I have no idea what I would do for my own collection. . . . I give so much of myself for Balenciaga that today if you put me in a room and said, ‘Okay, let’s try to do a Nicolas Ghesquière project,’ I wouldn’t be able to do it.Nicolas Ghesquière
FORD: And she is wearing an incredible golf outfit. Okay, I will get off golf now. And we don’t have to talk about horseback riding either—even though we both ride. I want to talk about your work. First of all, I want to say that you are my favorite contemporary designer.
GHESQUIÈRE: Thank you. Coming from you, that’s really special. You are a reference, so it’s important for me to hear that.
FORD: I guess I am old enough now to be a reference.
GHESQUIÈRE: No, I think you defined a new way of working. You probably don’t know this, but people say there was a before and after Tom Ford in fashion. Designers are more like artistic directors now. Before, there wasn’t this idea of supervising the artistic direction of the entire house. The old way was to think you could be this couturier or designer or stylist. You transformed the job and the way people practice fashion today. That’s one thing I want to say, and the second is that the day you called me to propose that I be a part of Gucci Group was a huge surprise for me. I can’t thank you enough. I remember this meeting we had in your office. It was right after my sixth or seventh collection, and people were starting to talk, and suddenly every big group called and I was receiving a lot of attention. And then one day, I couldn’t believe you were calling me. Everyone else was saying, “Okay, do you want to design for this house or take over that brand, or do you want to design under your own name?” You were the only person to ask me, “What is your wish? What is your dream? Where do you see yourself in a few years?” I remember I answered that I wanted to keep going with what I was doing, and you said, “Okay, let’s try that. It might not work.” That was because Balenciaga was owned by another group, and we weren’t sure they would want to sell it. But you gave me a new way of thinking. And here we are today.
FORD: I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but it has been wonderful to watch you develop and grow up and to see your confidence increase. How old are you now?
GHESQUIÈRE: I’m 38.
FORD: How does it feel? You seem so confident. But how does that feel as a designer?
GHESQUIÈRE: We’ve developed the brand. I probably feel more solid because the brand is solid and I feel stronger than my years. But I put so much pressure on myself, which makes me very insecure. With my designs and my ideas, I want to please myself first. I’m always very stressed about making a new proposition every season. But in a way, it’s a kind of addiction. [laughs] In another way, it’s a crazy pressure. I try to stay quiet about the whole situation, because fashion itself can be crazy, and everyone wants a part of you.
FORD: This is something I realized after stepping away from women’s fashion for the last five years. When you are inside, it is such a tiny group of people who think that this is the most important thing in the world. But when you get a little bit of distance, someone will say to you something like, “Don’t you think that shoe is blah?” And I will be like, “What shoe? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It is very, very inside. How do you keep your balance?
GHESQUIÈRE: It’s true that fashion is looking at fashion all the time, and this is quite boring.
FORD: What else do you look at besides fashion?
GHESQUIÈRE: I love art. I love music. It’s more about the lifestyle you yourself have—that’s the most inspiring thing. The way you share relationships with the people around you.
FORD: Do you work all the time or do you actually find time to do other things?
GHESQUIÈRE: No, I don’t, really. This job is full-time, and it’s true, sometimes it’s a little bit suffocating. But I’m inspired more by situations than materialistic things.
FORD: How do you feel being French? I am asking you that because I wonder if you consider your style to be French.
GHESQUIÈRE: I don’t feel French at all. That was never really a concern, and it’s limiting to think that way. When I first started, I wanted Balenciaga to be international. I thought the focus should be more on the United States, because that was where people were more welcoming of my work. I think Paris is more of a playground for international designers, so I don’t really feel French. And I don’t really want to feel French.
FORD: Funny, your clothes to me look international.But maybe because I know Marie-Amélie [Sauvé] and all the girls in Paris, there is also something very French about the cut. When I lived and worked in Paris, I never understood when people said, “It’s French.” I would say, “What is French?” Maybe it’s the kind of girls you cast, or the way they move. . . .
GHESQUIÈRE: I prefer to think about what you are saying as urban fashion. It’s a woman who lives in the city and has a certain lifestyle—
FORD: She is skinny!
GHESQUIÈRE: She’s skinny. [laughs] She walks with confidence. She’s a bit masculine, even if she wears quite sexy clothes. All the clothes are very fitted. So there is that silhouette and attitude for that urban type of woman. I prefer to speak to those women, more than just the ones who live in a part of France.
“She’s skinny. She walks with confidence. She’s a bit masculine, even if she wears quite sexy clothes. All the clothes are very fitted. So there is that silhouette and attitude for that urban type of woman. I prefer to speak to those women.”Nicolas Ghesquière
FORD: When you are designing a collection, is the concept of shape or form more important than making a woman’s butt look good? Or do those things all go hand in hand?
GHESQUIÈRE: The fit and the booty have to look good, this is true. And it’s never been about caricature in my fashion.
FORD: But you do create shapes. Sometimes your shapes are very inspirational and directional and architectural. I guess I am just saying that I admire your clothes beyond what you are doing conceptually. Like when you pad over the hip. You always make a woman’s body look beautiful. For me, that is the key to your success. You have concept—and you can make a butt look really good!
GHESQUIÈRE: It is essential at the end of the day.
FORD: Everyone wants to have a great butt.
GHESQUIÈRE: Absolutely. It’s true. The only time I did big volumes was when I was trying to evoke the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, on those collections that were more of a reference to his work.
FORD: How much do you actually reference Balenciaga? He was very handsome, by the way.
GHESQUIÈRE: He was really elegant, Spanish, and handsome. But for designing, I have this retreat. I can say, let’s go to the DNA of the brand and find something that I can introduce into my work. It’s part of the patrimony of fashion. His work is so influential, that it’s everywhere. I think everyone references Cristóbal. I’m lucky to be in the house where I can use it without any problem.
FORD: I remember I asked you nine years ago where you would see yourself in 10 years, so what about now? Where are you going to be? Are you going to be playing golf?
GHESQUIÈRE: [laughs] Sure. I’ll have to start, so in 10 years maybe I can have a good handicap. Honestly, I think I will be here at Balenciaga. Maybe not only. I have no idea what I would do for my own collection if that does happen one day. I give so much of myself for Balenciaga that today if you put me in a room and said, “Okay, let’s try to do a Nicolas Ghesquière project,” I wouldn’t be able to do it.
FORD: You would figure it out. I felt the same thing. When I left Gucci, I thought I would never, ever, ever—
GHESQUIÈRE: You found it quite fast.
FORD: That is just with men’s. I haven’t found it with women’s yet because I haven’t started women’s, but I thought I would never figure it out. Do you worry about your ability to keep a fresh eye as you get older? Have you noticed your eye changing and your woman changing? Do you worry your eye will move or that you will lose it?
GHESQUIÈRE: I do think about that. But don’t you agree we have to think about that every season anyway? It’s so quick. We live with a future where every three or four months, we have to question everything. You think you could be the best, or that you’re nothing and you don’t know what you’re doing. It is exhausting.
FORD: Fashion is ruthless the way every three months you have to think about everything all over again.
GHESQUIÈRE: It’s true. But you found something you really wanted to do for a long time—to be a director. If I were to find something that is going to be more important to me than fashion—that would be work and love—then I probably would let go. That’s a possibility. But fashion is an addiction.
FORD: How do you start a collection? What is your first move?
GHESQUIÈRE: I draw a lot. It’s quite classic, you know. I do those drawings at the Balenciaga workshop. It’s really a big mess at the beginning. I take a lot of different things that don’t work, and then I make an edit. Actually, I don’t know if it’s a classic process. It’s a mix of drawing and atelier work.
FORD: Do you panic?
GHESQUIÈRE: Yes, I do. I make the whole house panic, for sure.
FORD: At the beginning of every new collection, do you feel like your career is over?
GHESQUIÈRE: Of course!
FORD: “Oh, my god, I will never think of another thing. What will I do?”
GHESQUIÈRE: That’s what I think when people do their “best stuff” collection. [laughs] When you start to think, “Oh, I will just present my 10 years of work,” that’s not a good sign.
FORD: I did that for my very last collection.
GHESQUIÈRE: Did you? No! You didn’t do that!
FORD: I did it for my final collection at Gucci, because I thought, “Whoever comes in is going to eventually take the work I did and make modern versions of it. Why don’t I do that myself first, before I leave?” So I took all the work from the past 10 years and did a “best of.” It was my last show.
GHESQUIÈRE: In that case, it was for a very special reason, so I understand. For me, I go somewhere for three days, and then I come back and I want to change everything, and so it’s a fight with everybody. I’m transforming and convincing. It’s more than designing. It’s shaking people and trying to give them direction. I’m a bit of a control freak. This is a problem as I get older, and it’s something I should work on. I should be more confident—learn to trust people and give them freedom and delegate.
FORD: I think you can only delegate if you are happy with what they are doing. I am great at delegating when someone is doing great work. The problem—and this sounds terrible—is that there are very few people who are strong enough for you to be able to delegate to. If you are a designer, sometimes it is better not to delegate, because someone pays money for something that you, Nicolas Ghesquière, designed, so it should be exactly the way you want it, exactly the way you would have chosen it. People call me a control freak, and I say, “Well, my name is on the shoe.” It means the heel needs to be the way I want it and not the way somebody else wants it, and the toe needs to be exactly the way I want it, and the fabric and the material have to be exactly the way I want it. It is not a democracy—it is a dictatorship.
“I grew up in such a small city, I had to be popular or I’d be dead. So I had to be popular! I had great friends. Most of them were girls, and I was already commenting on the way they were dressing. It was really like a small village.”Nicolas Ghesquière
GHESQUIÈRE: It’s a dictatorship, absolutely. But I’m starting to find pleasure in working with someone who brings back an elaboration to your direction that is quite fresh. I used to be very angry, but I try to be more quiet now.
FORD: Do you have temper tantrums?
GHESQUIÈRE: I did, but I’m much better now. I think it was because I was so scared. I was so scared to miss it with Balenciaga. I was so scared that I would not be able to put the brand back on the map. I think the most beautiful thing for me is to revive this brand and to make sure one of the most incredible names in fashion is alive. That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s a feeling we share.
FORD: The hard part is, once you do it, you have to keep it there. If there are a few collections that are not as good, it starts to go away. Were you popular as a kid?
GHESQUIÈRE: Yes, I was. Yes.
FORD: [laughs] I love that! Most people say, “Oh, no, I wasn’t.”
GHESQUIÈRE: I was! I grew up in such a small city, I had to be popular or I’d be dead. So I had to be popular!
FORD: So you had lots of friends, everyone liked you, and you were very beautiful.
GHESQUIÈRE: Maybe not all of that, but I had great friends. Most of them were girls, and I was already commenting on the way they were dressing. It was really like a small village.
FORD: Are you still in touch with those friends?
GHESQUIÈRE: Some of them, yes. Not all of them, but a few, absolutely.
FORD: It is hard when you go home because usually everyone else looks like hell, and you still look good. [laughs] You don’t have much in common with people anymore.
GHESQUIÈRE: Yeah, it’s hard to keep a normal relationship with them—they are very nice, and they kind of understand what my life is about—
FORD: It is a very different world, though.
GHESQUIÈRE: Yeah, it is. And sometimes you never feel lonelier than when you are always doing tons of things and traveling all over the place.
I’m sure you are still very busy, but now you are dedicated to your name and directing. There is a real feeling of loneliness sometimes.
FORD: I think loneliness comes with being creative, because you are obsessed with creation. And it is so satisfying that sometimes, I have noticed, I completely neglect my friends and my family, and they fall away. That has happened now. I have worked so hard on my film and my business that I need to take the next six months and spend time with Richard [Buckley, Ford’s partner] and friends. Most of them have just sort of forgotten about me, because I have not been there for them. If you are creative, sometimes you give up a lot of things that other people have.
FORD: You worked for Jean Paul Gaultier earlier in your career. Aside from you, he is one of my favorite French designers. He would have been brilliant at Yves Saint Laurent. I do not know if he would have wanted to do it, but for me he would have been the natural successor to Saint Laurent. I can see some of his influence in your work. What did you take from that experience? Are you still friends?
GHESQUIÈRE: Yeah. We had dinner very recently. I hadn’t seen him for a long time. I was there when I was 18. It was my first job. I was a little assistant doing the coffee and the photocopying.
FORD: But that is good for you. I interview these people all the time who come to my office and say, “I want to be a fashion designer.” I tell them where they should start, and they say, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to get anyone coffee.” Don’t they know it is great to get people coffee?
GHESQUIÈRE: It’s great because you have a chance to look at the way people work. You know, I never went to fashion school, so in fact, my school was the studio of Jean Paul Gaultier in ’91 and ’92. I remember seeing this great designer working, and he would say what his collection was going to be like, and you’d think, “Oh, my god, that is never going to work. What is this chaos? That’s going to be awful.” And he was the only one with the solution. He’d mix things up and put it together, making sense, making it fresh. It was very influential for me. We are both French. I’m not of the same generation as Jean Paul, but there is a natural influence, probably. Jean Paul changed something in fashion.
FORD: When I was a young fashion student, Jean Paul Gaultier was just it. And he is still doing his couture collection. I wanted to ask you—and I have always hated this word myself—about the idea of the muse. You know, the women in your life and how you work with them. The reason that word annoys me is this whole stylist thing. I remember when people actually thought the stylists were the designers. You would hear, “So-and-so does this collection.” Like the stylists designed it! But how do you work with women?
GHESQUIÈRE: Marie-Amélie is very important. We’ve worked together since the beginning, but that has more to do with the way we live. We spend a lot of time together in and out of work. Marie-Amélie is major in my process. But there is also Charlotte Gainsbourg. I just did my fragrance with Charlotte, and we’ve been friends for more than 10 years. There came a moment when I realized, I’m thinking about Charlotte when I’m designing. So she’s very influential. In a totally different world, there is the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who designed my stores. She and I can see the same thing, and then she can show me a new angle where I see everything differently. And there is Nathalie Marrec, who has been there since the beginning too. She has great style. So there is a group of women who are influential just because they are around me. I don’t know if there really is one muse.
FORD: You worked with Charlotte on the fragrance. How did making a fragrance go?
GHESQUIÈRE: It was really fun. As designers, we do so much with material and construction. It’s really architectural; it comes close to building. A scent is so immaterial. It’s really about emotion and sensation. Clothes are too, but it’s not the same. Working with a scent was actually very relaxing for me.
FORD: I think it gives more emotion. This is going to sound crazy, but the first thing I do when I get home is take off all my clothes—at home, just around the house. Like, right now, I am sitting here completely naked. [Ghesquière laughs] I take everything off. I can’t stand clothes! I take everything off—my shoes, my socks, my watch, shirt, everything. I am completely naked.
GHESQUIÈRE: [laughs] Do you wear your perfume?
FORD: That is what I was going to say. I stay this way pretty much 24 hours a day. Richard is very funny. He is usually completely dressed. He does not like to be naked. So he is in the house; we are having dinner. I am sitting there naked; he is sitting there completely dressed. [Ghesquière laughs] I also take, like, three baths a day—it is not to be clean, it is because I like to relax and lie in the water. It is the way I calm myself down. But every time I walk past my bathroom, I go in and I put on some perfume. I use different perfumes for different moods. If I feel that I need to calm down, I put on certain fragrances that are more sensual. If I feel that I need to energize, I put on something else. Fragrance for me is so important. How did your fragrance begin?
GHESQUIÈRE: It’s a friendship story. It started with a conversation Charlotte and I had years ago. I said, “You know what? The day I do a perfume, I’d like to do it for you.” We started like that. I could have done something very exclusive and expensive. But what I like about this perfume is that it’s the first thing most women can access from Balenciaga. That was a challenge for me.
FORD: [laughs] Because you don’t care about real women! We talked about that.
GHESQUIÈRE: In this case, I care.
FORD: Did you work directly with the perfumers?
GHESQUIÈRE: Yes. I worked with Olivier Polge. I wanted to do a floral, for sure. It’s a violet perfume. Made of violets.
FORD: I love violet. Oscar Wilde used to wear violet.
GHESQUIÈRE: That’s why I like it, because it has a real masculine vibe. It’s not timid.
FORD: Well, your clothes are not timid. So, lastly, do you get panicked five minutes after showing a collection? The moment I left the runway, I would always think, What the fuck am I going to do now?
GHESQUIÈRE: That’s exactly what I think. Exactly. And sometimes people write some very mean things.
FORD: Do you think the press is getting meaner? I think some journalists and bloggers want their articles to be clever, and the way into that is by writing nasty things. I think our culture likes to be mean. I don’t just find this in fashion—I find it in the news. More and more, it is about ripping people apart.
GHESQUIÈRE: Strangely, meanness pays more than offering constructive and interesting commentary. Every season I think, “This is the last season. I’m not gonna read tomorrow morning. Forget it.” The first thing when I wake up—quite late, usually—I am craving the newspaper.
FORD: Do you take it personally?
GHESQUIÈRE: There are the blues you get. I usually think, I have to go back to the studio and chose fabrics. Or I like to go quite far away—
FORD: And play golf.
GHESQUIÈRE: Yeah, play golf. Exactly.
Tom Ford is a fashion designer and the director of A Single Man.