Nicolas Ghesquière

Like a beacon of light, Nicolas Ghesquière has, since he made his debut as the creative director of Balenciaga in 1997, illuminated a pathway toward a far-reaching future of women’s fashion while still satisfying the unarticulated needs and wants of the present. There’s a reason why sky-high footwear, tech fabrics, and elongated, super-skinny silhouettes have not just endured, but have trickled-down the trend spectrum, reused and recycled, and it all started with Ghesquière.

The French designer spent a dreamy childhood in the Loire Valley, west of Paris, before assisting iconoclastic couturier Jean Paul Gaultier in the early ’90s and eventually signing on with Balenciaga. After 15 years at the helm of the Kering-owned label, his brusque departure in 2012 brought much buzzy speculation of what was to come next (an eponymous line?) for the designer. His appointment at Louis Vuitton, announced in late 2013, shortly after Marc Jacobs bid farewell to the brand, was an apt one: For the company whose heritage of adventure and discovery started with the construction of steamer trunks in the 19th century, who better to sail on with than Ghesquière, who has always possessed the power to bring us on voyages to other worlds?

At LV, the vision that Ghesquière showed at Balenciaga—hard-edged, armor-like, starkly geometric—has not changed so much as evolved into a new language. His spring collection, which bowed in October at the glass-and-steel Frank Gehry-designed Foundation Louis Vuitton, was prefaced by a video of young faces repeating lines appropriated from one of Ghesquière’s favorite films—David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s space odyssey, Dune. And one of Ghesquière’s obsessions, sci-fi, was in the mix as it always is, but the clothes had come down to earth in the form of plastic-heeled boots, sharply cut denim, and striped minidresses in the maison‘s signature leather. Filmy dresses and printed velvet pantsuits were in tune with the retro ’70s futurism feel. All served as a confirmation that Ghesquière has, even in his short tenure at the brand, provided a streamlined solution to what modern women want to wear.

As Ghesquière tells his friend, the actress Michelle Williams, whom he spoke to by phone in late January, his secret is a matter of finding the foreign in the familiar, and keeping one’s instincts and curiosity primed and ready.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: When I was taking my daughter to school this morning, I told her a little bit about you. I asked her, “What would you ask him?” She wanted to know if you always knew, since you were a kid, what you wanted to do.

NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE: That’s a good question. It’s a question that is coming up quite often, I have to say, so thank your daughter! [laughs] I think I was probably 8 or 9 years old. Today, kids are much more aware of what fashion means, but when I was growing up, it was popular, but not as popular as today. Like any kid, I was fascinated by drawing. But when some of the kids let go, I kept drawing and drawing. I think my parents were very curious about the fact I was not letting go. More and more, I was drawing women’s clothes.

WILLIAMS: She also wanted to know about your family and whether your parents were supportive of what you wanted to do.

GHESQUIÈRE: I grew up in a very, very small town in the center of France. Have you been to the Loire Valley, Michelle?

WILLIAMS: I know where it is, but I’ve never been.

GHESQUIÈRE: It’s west from Paris, and it’s very beautiful. It’s this region where there are a lot of beautiful castles along the river. It stays in time. Do you say that in English? It stays still. When you’re there, you have the feeling that time is quite protected. No one was in fashion in my family. They are very open-minded people and open to culture and very curious about things, but nothing, really, that was going to drive me to that world. When they realized that what I liked was fashion, they gave me good advice. I remember my father telling me that I should try to do an internship. They never said, “This is a world we don’t know; it might be something strange,” or “That is not serious,” or things like that. They always said, “Try. We’ll help you. We’ll send drawings to people if you want. We’ll write letters for you.” What I’m very thankful for is they never made me think that something was impossible. They were really, really supportive. They are still.

WILLIAMS: That’s good. I’m going to be very happy to go back to Matilda and tell her that. It will be good parenting advice, too.

GHESQUIÈRE: How old is she now?       

WILLIAMS: She’s 9.

GHESQUIÈRE: It’s really the age of curiosity.

WILLIAMS: So much. You can see, at this age, their natural inclinations and interests and talent. I feel like you can know so much about who they’re going to be as an adult from who they are at this age. She really enjoys whenever I have a fitting and it’s at our apartment. She loves looking at the clothes that come through and she loves touching them and even trying them on sometimes. She’s on that cusp. She’s still a child and still very innocent, but she’s also exploring her own selfhood and her own style. She’s just starting to be interested in how style can be a personal reflection.

GHESQUIÈRE: I believe there is a moment growing up when you build your own mood board. You do a collage—you collect a few things, a few images that will be so important for your future choices. Not only aesthetic, or what you like for dressing, but your artistic choices. The room where I put papers and pictures and posters on the walls when I was a kid, it’s still very strong in my head today. This movie poster or that portrait of a girl I took from a magazine, deep inside, is inspiration that comes back all the time.

WILLIAMS: Isn’t that interesting. There’s a time in one’s life that becomes the foundation for everything else, and it never runs dry. There’s a moment in time when you’re so porous and so open and so hungry, and the entire world is a turn on and an inspiration, and that seems to be the pool that one keeps drawing from for the rest of your life. Do you find you are still capable of being as inspired now as you were at that young age, at that crucial development time? Do you find there are things that still electrify you or inspire you in the same way?

GHESQUIÈRE: I do, but at the same time, I always have the feeling that my subjects are the same—I’m just changing my point of view. I’m going to move a little bit this time and watch it a different way. But at the end, I think I’m always fascinated by the same things, except I will express them over and over again, with different words, with different colors, with different shapes. But strangely it will always be the same topics or subjects that are so important to me.

WILLIAMS: And what are they?

GHESQUIÈRE: It’s hard to define, but for sure there is the movement of the body. I like the idea of women and men in movement. My fashion is not about being still. It’s almost sporty, sometimes. I like the evolution of sports clothes. I think they are very interesting in the cut, in the fabrics. Because I was doing a lot of sports as a kid, I got very inspired by the clothes. I’m still very curious about that. Science fiction is another part—I love reading science fiction. I like Philip K. Dick. I really like the French writer Michel Houellebecq. His writing is quite realistic and at the same time, a science fiction situation. I think his writing is really genius. At the end of the day, my inspirations are what most boys are obsessed with—as a kid you like sports, usually you like science fiction. But my way of looking at it is more specific, probably.

WILLIAMS: Do you feel like, in a way, that you are always working?

GHESQUIÈRE: Oh, yes. [Williams laughs] Are you the same? If you’re preparing to work on a character and you meet someone that will have an element that you are looking for, will you get inspired?

WILLIAMS: I find when I’m working on something, the entire seen and unseen world becomes material. Everything becomes important. Small gestures, small incidents, they all take on meaning, because you’re looking at the world and how to add to it or how to take from it and give back to it. When I’m working, I never really put it down. Sometimes that passive work, when you think that you’re not working, is when the best stuff surfaces, in those quiet moments, which is why, personally, I have this battle with technology.  I’m not as available and receptive to passive inspiration because now I’m looking at my phone all the time. The moments when you’re waiting or you’re quiet don’t really happen anymore. Do you find that you have to have a discipline to stay in a creative state?

GHESQUIÈRE: Absolutely. It’s a constant attention. It’s not something that I’m saying, “Okay, now I’m working.” It’s happens, as you just said, usually when you don’t wait for it to happen. It’s like I’m a vortex, absorbing information and emotions and sensibilities. Then I will express it later in the attitude and the description of the woman I want to express with fashion. Naturally looking at something will become so important in your aesthetic. For that, you have to be disciplined, too, in the way that there is a moment to catch and there is a moment to express. The moment to express has to be so pragmatic, because you have to build the clothes; you have to be very, very specific about how you want to describe to other people, for the color of the fabric, the way of sewing things, putting things together. People usually forget that fashion designers are not artists, but there is an artistic side that is very strong in my point of view. At the same time, you have to be so organized and so serious. There are two aspects that are quite big contradictions, strangely, in what I’m doing.

WILLIAMS: It’s like having two brains. One mind that is trying to express a feeling or a mood or a sensibility, and then another mind that’s able to technically break that down, translate it, be very specific about it. It’s a very hard balance to strike, I think. How do you manage that when you’re designing at Louis Vuitton now, for example? How do you adjust what you do to fit your vision of a specific brand?

GHESQUIÈRE: Well, I’m thinking that if they came to me, it’s because they wanted my point of view. A world like Louis Vuitton is so rich in terms of history, in terms of craft, also in imagination, because this story of traveling and exploration is so rich. What people expect from me, I think, is to really have a very personal vision on this world. I’m always trying to be very spontaneous with what I’m discovering. I start like an editor—if I’m looking at the archives of Louis Vuitton, for example, I will be very specific about what I want. “Okay, I want to make this bag.” I know there are these African masks that are quite fascinating in the story of Louis Vuitton [Gaston Vuitton, Louis’s son, collected African masks]. I used the mask as locks to close the bag for a line of handbags. It’s one example of how I process. I will bring back the story of the mask, which is attached to Louis Vuitton, but not directly from the archives of Louis Vuitton, and will bring them to a design that I will express today. I’m really like that—super spontaneous. What talked to me today? What did I notice today?

WILLIAMS: That sounds like a real ability to stay present. Are there ways that you can train yourself to do that?

GHESQUIÈRE: I’m very curious in many aspects. My curiosity drives me to things—”Oh, there is that book, there is that thing.” I will always look at things. So, suddenly there is something that speaks to me, and I’m like, “Okay, this is it. This is something I would love to follow, because this is a good story.” It’s very instinctive.

WILLIAMS: It sounds like you haven’t lost what you had when you were a child of 8 or 9—that curiosity and openness and vitality. Even though you’ve been doing this with such success, you don’t feel jaded or tired. Is it love? Is that the secret?

GHESQUIÈRE: I love what I do and I adore this whole world. I’m able to meet fantastic people. I was so happy we met; that’s just one example of what this life is in fashion. I got to have a collaboration with Cindy Sherman, which was amazing. I meet fantastic writers, I meet architects, I meet incredible talent. This is really a world, besides the creation, that I think is super interesting, super inspiring.

WILLIAMS: With your collections, it feels like a convergence of so many decades and so many time periods, and they’re pushed straight into the future. It doesn’t feel like there’s anybody that you’re following. The sense I had when I went to the show in Paris, I felt like I was watching memories that I never had.

GHESQUIÈRE: I love that.

WILLIAMS: I felt like I’d seen it before, but I don’t know if I was there. There was something familiar and then something completely unknown, kind of like a surrealist painting. There’s enough that’s familiar or concrete about it, and then something else that abstracts it, that takes your imagination out of the ordinary and into the future. That’s the experience that I had.

GHESQUIÈRE: Your words are saying exactly what I would love to express. It’s really what I’m looking for, Michelle, so thank you for putting words to it, because really, it’s that. I love this idea of being able to touch people with something quite familiar, something quite emotional, and at the same time, have the feeling that this is a new way of doing it, a fresh way of showing things. I like radical people. There are people who are very radical who are a strong influence on me—like Rei Kawakubo, who designs Comme des Garçons. At the same time, I’m fascinated by popularity, people who were able to have huge success and also keep their consistency—incredible designers like Miuccia Prada, for example. It’s quite strange in fashion, and it’s probably the same with movies and acting—the big choice is between being radical, making a choice that will be more specific that will reach less people but will be very strong and very directional, and making a choice that will be more popular and catch the interest of a large group of people. Sometimes people are trying to push you in one direction or another. Last year, I had this idea that I wanted to try to achieve both. That sounds very ambitious, but I was like, “Why is it that when I did a weird dress in the past, people were like, ‘Oh, it’s niche,’ and why when I do a pair of jeans that are super cool, it’s much more accessible, but I enjoy doing it?” I enjoy the mix of those two things. I realized that quite late, actually. I’m going to really try to express those two things at the same time, because this is me.