Time Traveling with Nicolas Ghesquière

Nicolas Ghesquière has transformed great fashion houses like Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton, respecting and revolutionizing their legacies while creating a new heritage to pass on.

DONATIEN GRAU You often use futuristic motifs in your designs, and you were involved in the exhibition “About Time: Fashion and Duration” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What role does time play in your work?

NICHOLAS GHESQUIÈRE It’s a kind of permanent desynchronization, which means we’re simultaneously in several time-spaces. Knowing how to keep up with different rhythms is an important skill in this line of work, while at the same time keeping in mind the need to do really in-depth work, taking the time to record things, having a long-term vision. It’s not about ambition, but the construction of a signature, of a spirit. The long-term nature of collections helps make you aware of your own obsessions and recurring themes. What you can’t always explain, you can express through clothes. That’s why I like to stay in one fashion house for a long time, but that’s obviously more complicated today, as everything seems to have sped up. Then there’s the pace of the collections. In any case, you can’t change that, which isn’t a bad thing since the whole idea of fashion is that it is of the moment. At that point, even if we’re not quite ready, we’ll see what comes out of it. I like the idea that you can work on a garment for the rest of your life; I didn’t invent it, but it really resonates with me. You take the same coat, jacket or suit and work on it for the rest of your life. I find that extraordinary, but fashion demands that you say to yourself, “I think I feel something at this moment, and I’m going to present it at this moment because the manufacturing and financial calendars are telling me that this is the moment.”

There’s another kind of time as well: the time of ideas, which is very uneven. There’s a kind of gymnastics involved: does an idea come quickly? Is it completely instinctive, spontaneous? A discovery is really a very strange collection of things, and, faced with a need for global communication where you have to put a name to everything, it’s sometimes very complicated to explain that an association of ideas may be contradictory or accidental. In the end, it creates something very concrete: a silhouette, a look.

Louis Vuitton Resort 2017. Photography by David Sims.

D.G. What is the Ghesquière silhouette?

N.G. I’ve always been told it’s quite sharp, which is true, although it has become a little more relaxed in recent years. It’s become much more relaxed thanks to Louis Vuitton because it’s a house that’s about movement. For me, the Vuitton idea had a more important function than anything I’d done before – the idea of the functional. The clothes were great archetypes of a wardrobe: I know it’s hackneyed to say that in fashion, but for Vuitton, it seemed obvious. And then there was this idea of a woman more in motion than the one I’d explored before. So, it’s still sharp; the lines aren’t necessarily curvy. Unlike Azzedine, who really had the idea of a silhouette, my lines are more geometric.

“I like to construct in order to deconstruct. If I make a softer garment, it has to go through a fairly elaborate construction phase, so that I can purify it afterward.” Nicolas Ghesquière

D.G. You relaunched Balenciaga and are now the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s women’s collections, to which you bring your imagination and your designs. Should we say “Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton” or “Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton”? How do you position yourself in relation to the houses you work with and their heritage?

N.G. It’s both “at” and “for” Louis Vuitton. You are invited to join a house, you become part of its history, and you pass it on. I like the idea of being part of a stylistic period that leads the house to transform and evolve. I think the system is in the midst of a revolution. The question of the lifespan of garments has become central today. We invest in a garment or a handbag just as we would put money in the bank. I know the value of the clothes I designed 25 years ago, and, for some of them, it’s very impressive. It’s really striking. We can see what’s going to happen with the new generation. They’re absolutely right: they’re very interested in the idea of a rebirth of the past. We’ve all been inspired by vintage clothes. Now we’re moving on to the next stage: the material transformation to bring that garment into a new century.

Louis Vuitton Fall 2023. Photography by David Sims.

D.G. You started playing with the confusion of time periods in your very first collections for Balenciaga, which put you in a space that was already a step away from the contemporary. You have continued to do so since then.

N.G. That’s right. With Vuitton, it was really the idea of the costume that interested me, the gray area between a costume and an outfit. A historical costume was once a regular garment, whether for formal or everyday wear; the moment it becomes a museum piece, it’s considered a costume, and the definition changes. I saw in this wardrobe a whole range of possibilities for travel, not only in space but also in time.

Many designers have approached the subject with great talent. John Galliano has done extraordinary things, but I thought the idea of time travel was relevant to Vuitton. I liked the idea of saying, “How are we going to accept pieces that are part of the vocabulary of costume in the wardrobe of today’s woman so that she doesn’t look as if she’s wearing a costume?” That was the case for a very special collection called “Les Redingotes” in 2014-15: the mix was really clear. They were morning coats, sort of reproductions of late 17th- and 18th-century frock coats, which we tried to reproduce by incorporating accidents and stylizations mixed with silhouettes. It was an exciting thing to do, and it opened up a whole new creative field for me, not just in fashion design but also in research.

At Balenciaga, we’d already tackled those issues with a collection called “Editions.” Martin Margiela had done “Replica,” which was extraordinary. With Balenciaga, there was such a fantasy about the origins, manufacture and techniques of the garments that I said: “We’re going to be surgical. We’re going to open the garments and spend a year redoing the grosgrain if we have to. We’re really going to try to make something that could almost raise the question: real or fake? A real period piece or a fake period piece? Not a fake piece of the present.”

With Vuitton, the next step was the idea of costume, of taking historically distant pieces, coming to terms with them and making something that resonates when worn today. I really like the idea of the “Vuitton trunk,” a kind of imaginary trunk that I’m constantly opening and in which I find registers of historical clothing that I like to rework.

Creative direction by Marie-Amélie Sauvé. Fashion by Xenia May Settel. Hair by Duffy. Makeup by Lucia Pieroni. Manicure by Aliyah Johnson. Model: Chu Wong. Digital operations by Luca Faccioli. Production by Erin Fee. Postproduction by SKN-LAB.

This feature is adapted from an interview originally published in Mastermind 14 – buy it here.

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