He spent 15 years turning a sleepy couture house into one of the world’s most fashion-forward labels. Now, just one season in at Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquiere revisits the meaning of timelessness for the French luxury house.
In early March 2015, the fashion pack in Paris trotted into the Louvre, as they have done for seasons, for the unveiling of Louis Vuitton’s latest collection. Unlike before, when the sets always charmed with drama – the latest space was quiet and minimal, with just a flat runway and moleskin-covered stairs for seats. Right as the show was about to start, shutters were opened to let in natural light, signaling a new dawn, perhaps.
Nothing could have been more symbolic of the debut of Nicolas Ghesquiere (above) in his role as the label’s creative director. In fashion circles, the 43-year-old Frenchman’s name is synonymous with the future. He’s as much defined by his directional, innovative designs for Balenciaga (which had been under his watch since 1997), as they have redefined the once-ailing couture house. During his tenure, he produced one trend-setting collection after another, turning it into one of the most exciting brands, and him into one of the most-watched names. When he announced his shock departure in November 2012, the fashion press inevitably asked why – and, more importantly, what’s next?
Helming Louis Vuitton is no enviable task. For the 16 years before Ghesquiere was ushered into the position last November, the French luxury house had been run by Marc Jacobs – American, fun-loving, with an affection for story-telling and pop culture. Under him, the brand introduced ready-to-wear, those memorable catwalk presentations, and a continuous stream of museum-worthy artist collaborations: Richard Prince, Stephen Sprouse, Yayoi Kusama.
Originally a heritage leather goods company, Vuitton became – and remains – one of the world’s most powerful fashion players, valued by Forbes at US$28.4 billion dollars (S$35.4 billion), and the crown jewel of the LVMH group. Jacobs quit in October 2013 to focus on his eponymous labels. Giant shoes… Who to fill them?
According to Michael Burke, Vuitton’s chief executive officer, Ghesquiere was the obvious choice. “The funny thing is, unlike most situations like this, we did not go through a long list. It was a very short list with only one name on it: Nicolas,” he said. “He’s always had a view like an architect in the way he builds, sets the foundation and builds upon it. He has the courage to go against general wisdom, stick to ideas that are iconoclastic and not part of the mainstream, but he does not change for the sake of change.”
Ghesquiere’s method of reinvention had given him the reputation of being a visionary. At Balenciaga, he displayed a knack for referencing the late couturier’s legacy while coming up with pieces that looked remarkably new; he brought the same light touch to Louis Vuitton’s Fall 2014 collection. For the first time, the artisans from the brand’s leather goods atelier were involved in the making of the clothes. Silk sheaths have been given an armour-like edge with leather yokes and plastrons, and coats, bodice dresses and high-waisted skinny jeans crafted from a variety of skins – glossy, patchwork, croco.
The designer described his vision as one focused on “the transition between leather goods and ready-to-wear”. If predecessor Jacobs had made handbags the main draw, Ghesquiere has made the clothes equally important.
The overall look and feel of the ready-to-wear marks not only a new chapter for the maison, but Ghesquiere himself. While fashion forward, his work for Balenciaga was often deemed hard for the average woman to pull off. There would be no such critique of his Vuitton debut. Yes, there’s his signature use of high-tech, novel fabrics – for example, what looks like fur panels are, in fact, made up of glittery embroidery.
Yet, there’s an ease that runs throughout the collection, from the sober colour palette (mostly browns, black and beige) to the way belts are worn cinched in a knot, not fastened at the clasp. Take the looks apart and the ’60s-influenced separates could be integrated into any wardrobe; the sporty zip-up dresses being the new slip-on-and-go look.
Post-show, he described the Vuitton woman he had created as possessing “a new casualness, a way of mixing the clothes – casual with formal – who carries these codes in a very cool and functional way”. In a way, he could have been describing Marie-Amelie Sauve, his stylist at Balenciaga whom he brought over to Vuitton.
Always makeup-free with her shaggy mop, she’s part of a media-shy coterie of French It girls who have the ability to look edgy yet understated, experimental yet approachable. Goodbye to the showgirls that permeated the Jacobs era, it’s all about sensible chic now. Meanwhile, he’s made the accessories as playful and desirable as Jacobs did. On the runway, models wore a single – yup, one – dangly earring of geometric charms.
The classic Speedy Boston bag has been given a fresh twist with just one handle (it’s supposed to make fishing out contents easier). The star, however, is undeniably the Petite Malle, or “small trunk” in French – the brand’s historic case has been shrunk into a shoulder handbag that’s destined for It status, and ought to be made a staple for its clever design.
A month before the Fall/Winter show, Vanity Fair’s contributing editor Ingrid Sischy prodded Ghesquiere for a hint on what to expect. His answer: “Never forget that what becomes timeless was once truly new.” It’s only the beginning, but Louis Vuitton’s latest chapter is already making fashion history.