Ghesquière’s innovative twist will save Louis Vuitton

Most designers at storied fashion houses are haunted by the past. Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton had become burdened by the future. During the 15 years he spent as the artistic director of Balenciaga, starting in 1997, he became known for his cutting-edge designs that popularized everything from rubber and plastic to scuba fabric.But Ghesquière’s references to the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga were conceptual, not literal. This created an expectation that he would inexorably push forward. “I’ve always been tagged as a futurist designer, and I don’t like the idea very much,” says Ghesquière, sitting in Louis Vuitton’s offices on the banks of the Seine. “For me, the future is now.”

Ghesquière comes to Vuitton with a coterie of style icons, such as Jennifer Connelly and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are drawn to his bold fashion statements. Gainsbourg has been a devotee of his since his early days at Balenciaga when he began dressing her. “I wasn’t very comfortable with the way I looked, and he made it fun,” says Gainsbourg. In early September, she wore it at the Toronto International Film Festival. “His big strength is that he’s able to be classic and at the same time completely futuristic in the fabrics, in the mix of colors, and quite daring,” says Gainsbourg. “But it’s all with very classical techniques. It’s not just futuristic, it’s based on something really solid.”

For the self-taught Ghesquière, Vuitton represents a kind of graduation. Ghesquière grew up in Loudon, in Poitou-Charentes, between Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, a region west of Paris known for its wine. As a teenager, he decided he wanted to go into fashion. But he resisted parental pressure to go to design school and instead began working at Parisian houses. His first big break came at age 18, when he got a job with Jean Paul Gaultier. Ghesquière credits Gaultier for giving him “my eye and my hand.”

“It was complicated, though, because all the people around me were just out of school or still in school at 18,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a complex about it, but I always had the impression that I was out of step. I already had a position that was in advance of my age.” Ghesquière did some freelance gigs, including for Balenciaga, which was subsisting on licensing deals since its founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, had died more than two decades earlier. That became his education. “For a long time I had a real, not frustration, but doubt” about not having gone to fashion school, Ghesquière says. “It’s a time for pure experimentation—for pure research, to refine your perspective and to create things and to materialize things as an exercise. I had it while working.”

Although his avant-garde designs were celebrated by the fashion press, Balenciaga began generating more of its sales through Ghesquière’s reinterpretations of the founder’s classic designs. “I developed commercial collections for Balenciaga, but I think the real challenge is that this catwalk clothing becomes reality,” says Ghesquière. He left the brand suddenly at the end of 2012 after 15 years at its helm. (Balenciaga and Ghesquière recently agreed to try to find an out-of-court settlement to a lawsuit that the brand filed against its former designer for comments he made about his departure.) “Balenciaga is a great tale even if it didn’t end very well,” he says.

Vuitton was a different play. Unlike Balenciaga, which had disappeared from the map after its founding designer’s death, Vuitton had never fallen out of the public eye. Louis Vuitton’s ancestors passed the house down within the family until the 1980s, when Arnault took control.

In his discussions to join Vuitton, Ghesquière kept coming back to the house’s classics. Part of his pitch was to design a new kind of bag. “I wanted to make a clutch that would be functional for today’s woman. It could be an evening bag or a little day bag, but one that carries the values of the brand,” says Ghesquière. “The simplest idea was the reproduction—not the reduction—of the unique design of the iconic trunks of Vuitton.” He came up with a proposal for a miniature trunk—boxy and heavy with hardware—with a thin leather strap.

The mini trunks were rushed out by Vuitton’s made-to-order workshop in the northern Paris suburb of Asnières, which usually makes much larger trunks. “Everyone had to change the scale of their vision,” Ghesquière says. The “Petite Malle” was made in several colors and patterns, including the much-maligned classic monogram, and it bears Ghesquière’s old-is-new-again pawn-style logo.

He tapped Vuitton’s expertise in other areas to develop ready-to-wear. First, there was leather—one of Ghesquière’s signature materials. Vuitton’s craftsmen can shave leather into an ultrafine thickness for bags; Ghesquière tasked them to do the same for clothing. For the first time, the leather workshop made dresses for the runway. Some dresses had leather bodices paired with skirts made of fabric interspersed with scale-shaped embroidery in an escargot pattern. “In bags as in clothing, lightness is super important. That’s something I was seeking a lot before, and here it’s coming to fruition,” says Ghesquière.

He began working with techniques that were new to him, such as thermo-shaping leather, or using ultrasound to create patterns. He recently got a new machine that fuses two materials with heat to create a perfect finish.

The silhouette hit on one of his old favorites—the ’70s. There were big collars and A-line skirts, waists accentuated by slipknot belts and vintage-looking leather coats. “I have a lot of affection for hybrid clothes, which I did a lot, more strange mixes, but I’ve digested that now,” he says. “Now I want above all else that the clothes be very recognizable and very functional.”

Ghesquière likes to work in the middle of the studio on the second floor of Vuitton’s headquarters overlooking the Seine. “I don’t have an office,” he says. “I didn’t want one. It’s open space.” One recent morning, he and Vuitton’s marketing team met in the spacious room with ivory carpet and mirrored columns to review the demand for his mini trunks. “It’s an enormous commercial success,” he says, adding that the bags were pre-ordered in substantial quantities.

The question is whether creating new classics for Vuitton will be enough to fulfill Ghesquière. He has long toyed with the idea of starting his own house. And joining the world’s biggest luxury-goods group hasn’t quelled that. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to do it,” Ghesquière admits. “I would like to do it, but each thing in its time. Today I dedicate myself to Louis Vuitton without forgetting that I have wishes, desires.”

adapted from Wall Street Journal, Fashion

Natalia Vodianova wearing Le Petit Malle Vuitton – with boyfriend Antoine Arnault, CEO Berluti