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All Eyes on Nicolas Ghesquière’s Debut at Louis Vuitton

The anticipation and curiosity about what the designer might parade is matched only by the degree of secrecy cloaking the collection.

PARIS — Nicolas Ghesquière is fashion’s man of the hour: 10 a.m. on March 5, to be precise.

That’s when one of the most anticipated events of this international fashion season takes place as the French designer makes his runway debut at Louis Vuitton, the leather goods powerhouse controlled by Bernard Arnault.

The anticipation and curiosity about what Ghesquière might parade is matched only by the degree of secrecy cloaking the collection.

His edict: No previews or interviews until show time in order to heighten the surprise.

Since being appointed to succeed Marc Jacobs as artistic director of Vuitton in October, roughly one year after ending a 15-year tenure at Balenciaga, Ghesquière has given scant indication about where he might steer the storied French firm, which is marking its 160th anniversary this year.

According to sources, his show is likely to reference Vuitton’s roots as a maker of trunks, a recurring prop in recent ad campaigns, and a key feature of its roving exhibitions.

Also expect a powerful front row. Word has it Ghesquière has extended invitations to a number of his designer peers, including Alber Elbaz, Jean Paul Gaultier, Riccardo Tisci and Raf Simons, although several may not be in town come March 5.

Even Arnault has been talking up the show. “We have a new designer, which in and of it itself is a major event for 2014,” he enthused at Vuitton’s results presentation last month. “The fact that we will have new collections with a new designer at Louis Vuitton, somebody with huge potential and exactly in line with the Vuitton spirit of creative audacity with extreme refinement — I mean, you talk about challenges and opportunities, this is on the opportunities side of the sheet.”

Equity analysts look positively on the designer change, which dovetails with a strategic effort initiated last year to secure Vuitton’s brand positioning via more expensive leather goods and by reining in space growth. The change in strategy partially stems from a slowdown in luxury brands’ growth in China, where some labels have been hit by the changing tastes of the Chinese consumer and the government’s anticorruption drive.

“Fashion and luxury businesses are based on creativity. I think that injecting new creative talent into Louis Vuitton at a time when the brand needs to ‘shift gears’ is a good idea,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.

He said the buzz around Ghesquière is sure to bump up media coverage, which can drive consumer traffic into the stores.

That said, analysts caution that ready-to-wear is relatively marginal to Vuitton’s fortunes.

Ghesquière’s show “will probably represent an important communication tool, but is not really meaningful to the LVMH investment case at this stage,” said Citigroup’s Thomas Chauvet. “While ready-to-wear is an essential category to drive brand visibility and image, as was clearly the case with Marc Jacobs, it accounts for only 5 percent of Vuitton sales and even less of profits. Vuitton is and will remain a handbags and small leather goods business.”

Chauvet noted that Vuitton already enjoys the highest operating margin in the industry at an estimated 40 to 42 percent, and it is “not reasonable” to expect much improvement during the slower, “more qualitative” growth phase ahead.

Management’s goal is to “try to keep Vuitton’s margins stable over time despite a possibly changing revenue mix and growth algorithm from lower space growth, greater focus on renovations and enlargements, and the addition of a leather handbags offering traditionally less profitable than canvas bags.”

Solca, meanwhile, spies upside potential for Vuitton to grow the importance of rtw, which in his view has “struggled for a long time in this category, not finding a clear identity.”

“When you look at other megabrands like Gucci, Prada and Burberry, for example, you see that rtw has the potential to become more relevant,” he said.

Hired by Vuitton in 1997 to bring the company into the modern fashion age, Jacobs introduced rtw, shoes, fashion jewelry and eyewear to a brand known primarily for luggage and handbags.

Solca estimates leather goods still account for 90 percent of Vuitton’s sales and argues that fragrance and cosmetics offer a “major opportunity” to diversify, especially given parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s leverage with its retail chains DFS and Sephora.

Vuitton hired master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud in 2012 and the fragrance is not due before 2016.

In the meantime, Ghesquière is sure to make a splash with the March 5 show and the fashion campaign to follow. It is understood magazines have been jockeying to be the first to shoot his Vuitton designs.

Behind the scenes, Ghesquière works with a close-knit group of collaborators, and seals himself off with his small crew to realize his collections.

According to sources, he poached only the most important of his former Balenciaga studio colleagues, principally his longtime right hand Natacha Ramsay as well as Jane Whitfield, a more recent Balenciaga recruit who had worked at Vuitton under Jacobs. Jacobs parted ways with Vuitton to concentrate on his signature fashion house and prepare it for a public listing.

Ghesquière also continues to employ as a consultant and confidante Marie-Amélie Sauvé, a French stylist.

It is understood footwear guru Pierre Hardy, part of Ghesquière’s inner circle and the maker of shoes for all of his Balenciaga shows, will not work on Vuitton. That’s primarily because Hardy designs shoes for Hermès, which competes with Vuitton and which has antagonistic relations with LVMH over its unwelcome 23.1 percent stake in the maker of Birkin bags and silk scarves.

Fabrizio Viti, an alum of Prada, has been footwear style director at Vuitton for 10 years.

Vuitton has declined all comment on Ghesquière’s design team. Julie de Libran, studio director of women’s rtw under Jacobs and one of his most visible deputies, is no longer working at the company, as reported.

An exacting, meticulous and decisive designer, Ghesquière generally conceived the concepts for his Balenciaga show sets six months ahead, sources said. Although he showed mostly at Balenciaga’s modest showrooms on Rue Cassette, he spared no expense redecorating the space to match the mood of the clothes, trucking in 13 tons of stone to create an authentic Versailles floor on one occasion; commissioning a floral carpet with 25 custom-woven colors on another.

The Vuitton show is to cap off nine days of shows in the French capital, with some 93 names on the official calendar. A low tent structure — currently gray with plenty of windows — is now under construction inside the Louvre’s Cour Carrée ahead of the event.

Ghesquière is said to be working with his historic casting director, Ashley Brokaw, but has switched up his beauty cabin, tapping hairstylist Paul Hanlon to team with makeup artist Pat McGrath, sources said.