Nicolas Ghesquière has been one of fashion’s most influential voices for more than a decade, his futuristic, haute rock n’ roll aesthetic for Balenciaga all the more fascinating for its deft allegiance to the work of the house founder. Ghesquière’s impact on the accessories arena cannot be overstated. Here, he talks about shoes gone wild, the “it” bag that almost wasn’t, and the pros and cons of extreme experimentation.
This story first appeared in the August 15, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Let’s first address the importance of accessories in fashion right now.
Nicolas Ghesquière: Accessories have been important for how long, 20 years? When was the big boom? I remember when you really didn’t care what handbags [you had]. When was that, 18 years ago? I don’t know if it’s because of the whole movement of ready-to-wear getting more and more accessible with all the big distribution brands. Strangely, the access to luxury goods became accessories. I wouldn’t say ready-to-wear fell, but it became less of a priority for customers.
WWD: Do you think that’s because designer ready-to-wear became so expensive?
N.G.: I don’t know if it’s the reason, but it was the moment [accessories became] so important. I remember four or five years ago, everyone was saying how, at the end of the day, people like to dress anonymously and get a great accessory. The great shoes and the great bags were important to [wear with] the black T-shirt. That is changing now again, which is good. And from Italy, there was a proposal of a new way of accessorizing. Those little nylon bags; honestly, it was major status.
WWD: You’re talking about the Prada explosion. And then, the “It” bag took off, and fashion houses became obsessed with the concept.
N.G.: Yes. That’s when we did the Lariat. The group that owned Balenciaga in the old times—licensing blah, blah, blah—they heard that accessories were hot and they asked me, ‘Would you do a few bags with a license? We think it could make a little business.’ And we did this prototype and nobody cared; we had a couple of prototypes for a year.
WWD: One was the Lariat.
N.G.: Yes. Every girl who was walking [the show], including Kate [Moss] came in and was like, ‘What is that? Is it vintage? Is it something that you found at the flea market?’ I was like ‘No, it’s a handbag that we prototyped but just didn’t produce.’ We didn’t produce it because I think when I showed the prototype to the people who asked me to do it, they weren’t happy with it.
WWD: Too fashiony?
N.G.: Accessories [at the time] were rigid. Luxury leather, especially, was about rigidity. So they were not really happy, and they decided not to produce it. Then when it was in the studio and the models noticed it, I said, ‘I think we should just do 25. Let me just give them to the girls because at least some people will be happy.’ And that product started from a very, very fashion point of view [and extended] to a very, very large, global audience.
WWD: Why do you think it resonated so dramatically?
N.G.: No logo. Very light. Very effective. There is something familiar with the vintage side. Women and girls thought it was something they’d always have. It was a new fresh thing, but it looked like an old, good, friendly thing. And I think the brand also was becoming desirable. People had desire for my goods and [the bag] was the most accessible piece. You could be a Balenciaga girl with that bag.
WWD: Whatever happened to the “It” bag—is it an old concept?
N.G.: Fashion is back again. People want to dress, they want to show who they are, a culture thing. Remember when people used to think that my shoes were high and very difficult to walk in? Ask so many girls today; it’s not a problem anymore. Superluxurious, very crazy high heels. I think shoes took part of the attention.
WWD: Your runway message is always very specific and bold in terms of clothes and accessories, particularly the shoes. When you’re designing a collection, which comes first, clothes or shoes, or is it a simultaneous process?
N.G.: I have to start the shoes very, very early. We have sessions of work with Pierre Hardy. The jewelry too, I start very, very early. I just did my leather order for shoes for my spring show. For that, I have to know exactly where I’m going to put what to be able to order the right balance of color. So [the shoe is] not a final point, it’s almost a starting point. Strangely, with Balenciaga, shoes have been very important since I started, but there is no history of shoes in the house.
WWD: How did your shoe aesthetic develop?
N.G.: We used to say, ‘The shoes should be a twist.’ If we’re doing, say, scuba as we did years ago, the shoes would not say scuba at all. They would say something that would be in another world. A few years ago, we saw it change, and now the shoes are more about the world that you set. When you look at all the different collages of color, it’s another whole story in the shoe. This has to match with the look you’re preparing. It’s funny how shoes can define the modernity of the look.
WWD: What is the design process like?
N.G.: Shape; the heels. Then, is this pointy? Square? Round? Is this flat? High? I think we have five people on the shoe team at Balenciaga. We do everything by the group; there is amazing talent there. When I do my inspiration [boards] and I look at the documentation of stuff for colors. I’m not always sure how I’ll use something. A texture might be intended for a jacket and then, hmmm, not working. Suddenly, of course, it’s the shoe! There is a lot of challenge, too, a lot of technical things. Once, we used Formica [fall 2010].
WWD: How did that come about?
N.G.: I looked at this Fifties design moment from America, Googie. It’s the design movement around the diners and the gas stations. No one fabric really gives you that story. We looked at Formica cards to get the color and found the texture was interesting. So we called the Formica people and asked, ‘Are we able to mold this?’ They said, ‘Try,’ and we worked with the Formica factory.
WWD: Talk about working with Pierre Hardy. Are you an easy collaborator?
N.G.: Yes. I’m very stubborn, though. It’s good we’ve known each other for 20 years now and we’re very close. It’s a big game. People laugh a lot because we never agree. We agree at the end, but we disagree always at the beginning. I’ll take his thing and say, ‘I don’t think this is right. We don’t want this. We don’t want that.’ I’m always like, ‘Don’t take that for your collection.’ And he will tell me, ‘You are doing what I did five years ago right now.’ So there’s much between us and it’s very joyful to work in that way.
WWD: What season is credited with starting this whole sculptural shoe thing?
N.G.: The big thing was what we call the Lego Shoes, [fall 2007]. We did very complex shoes before that, but this one was really like, ‘What is that?’ Drills and plastic articulation, the mold was exploding. It was very challenging, something that people were very surprised to see. The collection was a mix of high and low streetwear.
WWD: I remember: the girl in her little schoolboy jacket and pants, boho-ed up with those scarves.
N.G.: Remember the flower collection [spring 2008]? Those gladiators were really amazing. The heels were done in enamel. We colored everything. It’s a piece of jewelry, very refined.
WWD: At some point, were you aware that you were changing the shoe landscape, the shoe business?
N.G.: No. I realized the bag thing just a few years ago. This business helped us at Balenciaga to pass many difficult times because we were operating so fast, the handbag business was and is a great element of growing the business. But honestly, we never advertised it properly. We never did an accessory campaign. At the time I didn’t realize about the bags; I realized it later. And for the shoes, I think I realized when I saw all the copies.
WWD: You noted that women today wear big, high, sculptural shoes. Last spring, you showed flats that could be called clunky. Were you at all afraid to do that?
N.G.: I was afraid. At the same time, I was looking at some Balenciaga archive [materials] and the girls were walking with very small heels. They were so comfortable and it was so modern. I get bored with what the girls were experiencing.
N.G.: We want to have beautiful pictures [of the shows]. After, when I saw the show and I saw how it makes them very mechanical, I understood sometimes the pain on the feet. There is a lot of emotion. I was like, back to the ground. We wanted something easier. It’s old to have those girls walking like that, so I tried to stop that craziness. The idea was to have this crazy casting with Gisele [Bündchen] and Amber Valletta and Carolyn [Murphy], and they said no for high heels. They were not used to walking with heels anymore. Gisele was worried; she would not walk with my heels.
WWD: I’ve heard that from other designers who’ve asked supermodels who have been off the runway for a while: “Yes to the show, but no to the shoes.”
N.G.: I was already thinking flats and I was already preparing the flat shoes. I came back to high heels last season, and they were a bit too high. They were beautiful.
WWD: Too high for walking?
N.G.: The reality, the commercial thing. Being in the studio and trying the shoes, I make the girls walk. But during the session when we put things together, we’re like, ‘A little bit higher.’ We always work in a small size. Our prototypes are always 37 French. It’s quite small, and it’s beautiful because it’s so small. Then when you do the gradation, of course the heel is adding centimeters, too.
WWD: Your production heel heights are consistent across sizes, 37 the same as 40?
N.G.: Yes. It’s fascinating, the technical side of shoes and what they are able to do to in micro-refinement, big shapes and crazy construction. It’s an amazing talent. For a great success in shoes [you must] be consistent with your construction. Even if your designs are changing, you have to keep that construction. A woman comes back to a brand because she knows that it’s going to fit the shape of her feet.
WWD: On to jewelry. The collection that mimicked grand, high jewelry, fall 2008, had all the markings of a major launch, but you didn’t approach it as such.
N.G.: No. I think it’s difficult to be in between with jewelry. Of course it’s not high jewelry, but it’s not inexpensive jewelry. It’s really in between because the manufacturing is quite specific. I don’t know if you remember, I did those shark teeth in stone and semiprecious stone dipped in those colors, very weird jewelry. They were very expensive. Each time there is an experimentation. It’s the good thing and the problem with Balenciaga. It’s the price of experimenting: You’re experimenting with new techniques and new things. Sometimes it works, but sometimes the production doesn’t work. We [typically] have a good proportion of things we can produce really well, and a small part that we have to let go because it’s not ready for production. That’s something that we will keep going for the future. So jewelry sometimes is like that.
WWD: Talk about spring 2009, for which you did those gorgeous clutches. The bags looked a bit Fifties; the clothes, anything but.
N.G.: We called that the Light collection, the Lumière collection. As the girls were walking, the light was following them and changing colors. The hair, skin, makeup—everything was nude-toned. It was the David Bowie thing. You remember, with the no-shoes [look]—stockings that look like animal feet? It was not a commercial collection. In the middle of building that character, I thought of contradiction. I said, ‘I think they should carry a bag—an everyday, or a clutch, or an evening bag.’ So we designed a very precious bag in crocodile with a holographic treatment on the top. We also used different techniques of dying to change the color inside the crocodile, so in between the scales you had the colors.
WWD: When you focus on a major nonshoe accessory, is it typically because you find during the design process that something is missing?
N.G.: It could be a reaction. A reaction to what we did, and a reaction to the industry. When something is suddenly overexposed, we ask, ‘What is the answer to that? How can we evolve to something different? What’s the next proposition?’ So it’s a mix of a real desire and it’s a reaction to what’s going on.
WWD: What is the next proposition, reacting to what’s going on now?
N.G.: About accessories?
WWD: Or the mood in general.
N.G.: That’s a very good question. It’s the timing of presentation: What is the next proposition? Is it to be able to show and sell at the same time, something some people have started?
WWD: Would you like to do that?
N.G.: I don’t know. One option is to say, ‘Look what I did; you can have it right now.’ The other is to tell people to be patient. A very luxurious thing needs time; please wait. Where are we going? I honestly don’t know.
WWD: Given the intensity of your approach to design, is it possible for you to show and sell right away?
N.G.: Yes, if it’s a limited edition of pieces.
WWD: In reality, aren’t many runway collections limited editions anyway? Your runway work is so special, and resort and pre-fall have grown so much.
N.G.: Resort is huge. When we received the shoes, I said, ‘They’re show shoes. They’re not resort.’ They’re very strong so I think they’re more like a show shoe.
WWD: Resort used to be a delivery, and now designers strive to deliver real fashion.
N.G.: So the question is: Is [the] ready-to-wear [runway] the new couture?
WWD: That’s a whole other matter.
N.G.: I have no idea, but maybe.