Talk about raw ambition — and talent: An 18-year-old Nicolas Ghesquière told his teary-eyed parents he would skip university, move from the Loire Valley to Paris to work for fashion’s enfant terrible, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Without any solid leads, Ghesquière ultimately landed the job, and a few years later plotted his next career move — to “sleeping beauty” Balenciaga. Two years into a job there, the word was that Helmut Lang was the incoming creative director. When the Austrian designer ultimately didn’t sign the contract, the then 25-year-old Ghesquière went from stopgap designer to fashion superstar.
Alina Cho coaxed these details from the French designer Monday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also got her second guest, Grace Coddington, to share some telling moments, including almost admitting she had kissed Mick Jagger.
Cho chose to interview the two because they have just collaborated on a line of leather goods for Louis Vuitton, where Ghesquière is artistic director of women’s collections. But the conversation unfurled into all sorts of fruitful directions, recounting the intertwined careers of two marquee fashion talents. As Vogue’s former creative director noted, “Neither went to university and we did OK.”
Their bonding moment struck during Coddington’s “Alice in Wonderland” fashion shoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vogue in 2003. The “young and new” Ghesquière was selected as the ongoing story, while older designers played the major roles from Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. The plan was to have Natalia Vodianova walking through the Looking Glass — perched on a mantel seemingly stepping into a black hole of a painting — into the next story.
“She [Leibovitz] plans these things really carefully and it’s down to the last detail. She had sort of set the picture out before we even got there,” Coddington recalled, adding that the photographer asked to see the dress to see how it would work in the situation. Liebovitz “freaked out,” because the ruffles on the dress would not be seen and suggested Vodianova just wear the dress backward. Coddington said, “Of course, I freaked out.” Ghesquière chimed in, “I freaked out.” Coddington continued, “He didn’t say a word. He just went pale.”
After disappearing into the location van with a seamstress for 20 or 30 minutes, the cool-headed designer returned, having reversed the dress so that all the ruffles were on the other side. “This is a really complicated dress, it is not like what I have on here — a pair of pajamas [albeit Louis Vuitton ones from her collaboration with the designer] — with two sleeves and two legs,” said Coddington.
She also spoke of her childhood days growing up in a Wales hotel, swimming and sailing in the summer and helping out with the guests — serving whisky in the bar “probably way before she should have.” Off to London by the age of 18, the friend she had made the move with suggested she model and Coddington won a Vogue modeling contest for the Young Idea category. Running with the ‘It’ crowd, she hung out with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, which Coddington downplayed. “They were around. I didn’t see them every day, but they were around,” she said. “It was like the Kardashians are around.”
And a makeout session with Jagger was also called into question by Cho. “That is a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t really make out with him. I saw him a lot because he was very good friends with a friend of mine who lived next-door,” she said. “So we hung out a bit. He was never my boyfriend.” “But he kissed you,” Cho said, “Not really,” Coddington said. “He kissed her,” Cho insisted.
Vidal Sassoon created the first five-point haircut on Coddington, who joined the famed stylist on a bus tour to show it off. A shot of Coddington wearing a bikini and heels on location with Helmut Newton was one of the snapshots that flashed on a screen. A sampling of her 30-plus years at American Vogue included a shot of a high-kicking Linda Evangelista parading behind a bagpiper, and Stella Tennant in a wool suit and Wellingtons diving into a Hamptons pool at the end of a shoot. The latter was captured by the “always camera-ready” Arthur Elgort, who attended the talk.
Coddington had other stories to share. After making the switch to publishing, a 1966 Norman Parkinson for British Vogue photo involved powdering Prince Charles’ nose in 1966. “Totally nervous, it was awful and humiliating,” she said. “When he walked into the room and I met him, no words came out of my mouth. I was so shy, and of course went bright red.”
Anticipating that the prince would be coming to the shoot after an invigorating polo match, Parkinson told Coddington that his ruddy complexion might need some toning down. Coddington said while powdering his face, the prince “whispered, ‘Oh, I bet you do this all the time.’ I said, ’No, actually, this is the first time.’ I so shouldn’t have said that…but he was nice.”
Ghesquière spoke of outgrowing his Loire Valley homestead and dreaming of Paris, where he interned with agnès b, among others. At 18, he secured a job with Gaultier, whom he credited with “giving him his eye and his hand.” In what he described as “the real emancipation,” he spoke of telling his parents how he wanted to try to get a fashion job even though they urged him to go to a university. He promised that he would be hired by Gaultier before his next birthday. “He really is the conductor of the orchestra,” Ghesquière said. “I learned, of course you have to be creative and have great ideas, but you have to have pragmatism.”
When a freelance job opened up at Balenciaga in 1995, the designer said he saw the label as a “sleeping beauty” and recognized “the legacy, the vision of a man who was an architect. He was someone who had a unique talent to cut fabric, to do classic and at the same time to have a completely futuristic vision. Of course, I embraced that so much.”
Two years later when the creative director position came up, Helmut Lang was up for the job. Ghesquière, who was then an assistant doing licensed collections for different countries, was on board with the prospect. “There was a great opportunity to have Helmut Lang— probably the coolest designer at that moment.” So much so, that he applied to be Lang’s assistant.
“Well, I think Helmut never signed the contract, so they asked me,” Ghesquière said. ”They asked me to do an in-between collection just for them to have the time to find someone famous. It’s the way it was.”
Jumpstarting the ‘It’ bag craze was among his accolades at Balenciaga. In 2013, nearly a year after leaving the French house, Ghesquière was named artistic director for women’s collections at Vuitton, following in the footsteps of Marc Jacobs. “Of course, there was a lot of pressure but at the same time, there was a lot of excitement and freshness for me,” he said. “…Vuitton is about movement, traveling as we know, and as you said, I’m representing the second chapter after the brilliant work of Marc Jacobs for 16 years, creating the ready-to-wear. To arrive after him is a privilege, too. It’s very inspiring to go to a territory that is unknown in a way and it’s what I love to do at Louis Vuitton.”
The designer said that France’s first lady Brigitte Macron was a client of his before his Louis Vuitton days, although she has since gone to a Vuitton fashion show. Before her husband ran for France’s top job, she consulted with Ghesquière about confidence-building campaign attire. “This is not a woman who needs a lot of advice, to be honest. She knows exactly who she is. She has a very great personal style and she knows what she likes,” he said. “So it was very easy to help in a way.”
Having renewed his Vuitton contract for five years last May, the designer also has spoken publicly about plans for the start of a signature label. “First, it’s true that I have many more things to say at Vuitton. And they have many more things to ask me to say,” he said, declining to say exactly when he might start his own label.
As for fashion critics sniping at Hedi Slimane’s first collection at Celine for being too much like his Saint Laurent work, Ghesquière graciously said, “I obviously support the position of an artistic director in a house. I think what is most important is to have a style and a point of view. I think it is the case of Hedi at Celine, so of course it is the most important thing — to have someone with a true vision and who does something that is very recognizable. That is the case. I absolutely support him.”
With a six-episode show on IMG’s streaming channel, the “famously shy” Coddington has interviewed such personalities as Sofia Coppola, Ansel Elgort and her ex-husband Michael Chow. Even Ghesquière agreed to a chat, and their conversation will air today.
“I’m very smart. I only talk to people that I know really well,” Coddington said. When Cho mentioned Anna Wintour was another one of Coddington’s guests, she said, “Yeah, that was tough. How did you find her? Did she take her glasses off?”
Hearing that Wintour had, Coddington said, “Oh, you’re lucky. I tried. I mean we’re really good friends. But when you’re in front of a camera it’s different, as you know. I find that people behave differently in front of the camera. She was good. She was a really good sport. I was shocked that she said she would actually do this interview.”
Asked about their legacies during the Q&A portion of the talk, Coddington said, “I hope my legacy is having a lot of happiness and being able to enjoy and love fashion and photography, because to me fashion and photography are kind of the same thing. One relates to the other and I hope it reads in my pictures. So I hope people will remember me for stories and some kind of magic that happens between photographers, editors, models, hair and makeup people — all the team that go to build these images.”
Speaking for his own legacy, Ghesquière said, “To create desire. This season I found the fact that I design clothes to empower women. It’s been 20 years. Other people were defining my work like that but I never say it out loud. In fact, I think it is what I would like people to think when they think about my clothes — that I’m empowering women and giving them confidence that will make them feel good and happy.”