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Confinement pushed many fashion people to be creative in different ways, to move outside their comfort zone and usual perimeter of expression.

It gave Nicolas Ghesquière the bold idea to shoot Louis Vuitton’s fall campaign, his extensive “portrait gallery” as direct, sharp and carefully considered as his fashions, though with a lighter spirit. He even coaxed some full-on smiles.

“It was something I wanted to do for a long time, in a very humble way,” he said. “I thought it was interesting to add a new point of view for Vuitton, and they were kind enough to agree to take a risk on a very young, new photographer.”

Ghesquière laughed. He’s actually not such a newbie, recalling that he photographed his designs earlier in his career “to try to give them that second dimension,” and for years toted an old Leica to snap personal pics, accumulating boxes and boxes of images. “I think maturity, probably, and experience give you confidence to take positions you never took before,” he mused.

Mariam de Vinzelle

Mariam de Vinzelle  Courtesy Photo

His pitch to Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke and executive vice president Delphine Arnault was to bring coherence and unity in communication across multiple categories of product. “And I told them, ‘I think I’m ready to do that,’” he related in an exclusive interview.

Indeed, the campaign, slated to run over three months after it breaks Aug. 1 in Le Figaro, amalgamates what would have been several campaigns: showcasing not only the fall runway collection, but also the new Since 1854 range, plus permanent products designed long before Ghesquière arrived at the French luxury house in 2013.

Ghesquière acknowledged that one of the most challenging aspects was photographing the leather goods. “You know how essential handbags are at Vuitton, and we love handbags, but it is so hard to give handbags a great visual effect,” he said.

French actress Léa Seydoux, in perhaps the most joyful of the images, found a way to suspend a monogram Dauphine bag over her forearm and elbow as she folds her arms behind her head and lets out a laugh.

“There are so many things that I like about this picture: the attitude, the fact that he captured a genuine moment where I was laughing. He didn’t ask me to laugh on purpose,” Seydoux marveled. “As with everything he does, Nicolas was a pro. He knew exactly what he wanted, talked me through the brief and took the time to explain what he wanted to achieve. He guided the team and me throughout the session, creating a really relaxed atmosphere, so we got the shot very quickly.”

Léa Seydoux

Léa Seydoux  Courtesy Photo

Ghesquière said his motivation to shoot a campaign was to “show that I could have a point of view.”

To be sure, the French designer said he has long been inspired by fashion photography “so it was interesting to be on the other side of the camera,” he said. “Some people have this crazy capacity to be so photogenic, and some other people that are so gorgeous in real life are not that easy to photograph. I mean, it is the reality and this is a discussion I have had with many photographers.”

He’s worked with the crème de la crème: Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, David Sims, Juergen Teller, Collier Schorr, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin among them. What’s more, Irving Penn has shot the designer’s portrait, and he attended a Penn fashion shoot for American Vogue featuring model Gemma Ward.

All have different working methods, and Ghesquière gleaned many insights.

“Some people can catch the moment very quickly, and the first picture will often be the right one. Bruce catches that moment of emotion that is very raw, and David has that gift, too,” he said. Penn, meanwhile, was all about building up the image slowly and methodically. “The way he was putting the girl and the clothes and the composition together was exactly like what you can imagine a painter would do, and the time for him was limitless,” Ghesquière said. “He could take days to do one shot.”

During his debut Vuitton shoot, “what I was looking for was the direct emotion,” Ghesquière said. “So I was the more quick type. I was trying to get something right at the beginning of this session.”

A heritage trunkmaker still closely associated with travel, Vuitton campaigns have been shot all over the world, from the swamps of Cambodia and downtown Moscow to Pompano Beach, Fla., and the storied Île Saint-Louis in Paris.

Yet Ghesquière decided to stay put, inviting the entire cast and crew to his Paris apartment, where he could closely follow all safety precautions to protect everyone from the coronavirus.

“I wanted to welcome people at home, to make them comfortable, and to set up a relationship of trust,” he said, also describing the space as very feng shui. “Today I think home means a lot to people. In the moment we all just went through, going home, being at home, is even a stronger symbol than before. So that was why I wanted to do it there.”

Dina Asher Smith

Dina Asher-Smith  Courtesy Photo

The designer assembled a large and diverse cast for the shoot. They include British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, transgender model Krow Kian, actress Stacy Martin and the Congolese-Belgian singer known as Lous and the Yakuza. Ghesquière said he was often sneaking off to the makeup area to listen in on conversations, always curious to know about the personalities he recruits, their artistic expressions, and their interests.

“You have to try to shoot models for who they are in real life, not because they are models,” he said, noting, for example, that sleepy-eyed Mariam de Vinzelle is studying engineering and talks science as fluently as the designer does fashion history. “She’s a model, but I see her more as the student she is,” he said.

For Seydoux, who will be seen late this year in the James Bond film “No Time to Die” and in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” the designer “wanted to catch that sense of humor she has in real life and this lightness,” not forgetting her inimitable mix of French beauty and Hollywood glamour.

Martin, who stars in the acclaimed sci-fi film “Archive,” said Ghesquière approached the shoot with a “precise eye” and clear intentions.

“Nicolas always seems to see beyond the clothing — he creates not only a silhouette but also a character in a distinctive world. I think that’s why I respond to it so much, it echoes cinematic worlds,” she said. “He looks for what magnifies women and makes them feel unique by going past the conventions of beauty and fashion.”

French actress Marina Foïs lauds Ghesquière’s bold use of color and mash-up of references in his fashions, and yet “no one disappears behind what they wear,” she says. “What strikes me about these photos, mine and the others, is the directness, the strength of the gazes and the truth of the smiles. It’s simple and sophisticated.”

Ghesquière worked with professional crews to achieve the lighting and framing he had in mind, leaving him free to conjure moments he described as simple, positive and at times joyful. “It’s also the message I wanted to give,” he said.

“Probably my work when I do fashion shows is much more about drama, because the fashion show is usually quite dramatic. And I thought the campaign would be interesting if I could achieve a different kind of emotion,” he said.

Ghesquière acknowledged that he had to occasionally resist the urge to drop the camera, and jump onto the set to adjust the clothes, leaving that job to stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who draped a hoodie over Asher-Smith’s head, a wink to her athleticism.

He said it was inspiring to see how “all these elements came together with great coherency. There is a strong proposition at Vuitton that says a lot about how much people are working together in that brand.”

The designer also felt a strong sense of accomplishment having followed his clothes from their creation to the “final point,” which is the campaign. “It was interesting to take control of that and to really go through the whole process until photographing the clothes,” he said. “I took so much pleasure to do it. It was a joyful experience, and safely done. I shot the different talents one by one.”

Very few designers pick up a camera themselves, with the late Karl Lagerfeld perhaps the most accomplished of them all, having lensed campaigns for Chanel, Fendi and his own brand for decades, along with advertisements for Dom Pérignon, Adidas and Coca-Cola. Hedi Slimane followed in his footsteps and shoots all brand imagery for Celine.

Recently, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing picked up a camera to shoot their resort campaigns.

Ghesquière made it clear his expansive fall campaign is not a one-off.

“Yes, I hope to continue shooting,” he said, “but I also want to keep working with great talents. Vuitton is so large and we always need different images.”

Ghesquière suggested to Burke and Arnault that he could do a “working session” just to reassure them he was up to the task, but they did not insist.

“They were very supportive right at the beginning, they never saw any picture that I did before. And they really trust my vision from in the first minute I shared the idea of this project with them. It was really great to explore a new artistic expression I could add to the Vuitton story we’ve been telling over the last years,” Ghesquiere said, describing himself as “someone that could really put together this message with a lot of unity, a universal message about what is Louis Vuitton today and how it can reflect the world of today.”

According to Burke, Ghesquière offered “a more focused point of view” for Vuitton at a time when new media is exploding. “There are very few global buys anymore,” he said. “We’ve empowered completely all our countries and regions.”

Also, Vuitton is forgoing the past impulse to dedicate campaigns to certain seasons or product categories. “People want to see Nicolas’ point of view on the Vuitton woman,” he said. “There’s more movement, more attitude, more inclusivity — all the things that resonate with digital media platforms.”

While he didn’t give numbers, Burke said Vuitton would spend more on advertising in the second half of 2020 than the same period last year, reflecting a rebound in business in many markets, and unspent monies carried over from the first half. It is also to support a stronger pipeline of new products, headlined by Since 1854, a range of clothes and leather goods featuring a new jacquard.

Burke said the new campaign would lead to a sequel, done with the same dedication to diversity and inclusion, and a reliance on local casting. While the latter was a necessity this year due to travel restrictions, Burke said “that’s also the future.”

While he didn’t rule out campaign shoots in cities other than Paris, Burke said Vuitton would rely on talents in town at the time rather than flying in models, singers and actresses from all over the world. “It makes for a much more authentic set,” he said.

Vuitton will also run separate campaigns for its men’s product universe and high jewelry in the second half, he noted.

Deciding to shoot the women’s campaign was not the only new idea Ghesquière had during lockdown.

“I took that opportunity to step back, to think more deeply about how I do things,” he said. “I want to be an actor of change. To change in everyday actions, in everyday decisions is important.”

In lieu of a destination cruise show — Vuitton has shown as far afield as Brazil and Japan — the designer created a more concise collection of about 20 looks, pouring a lot of energy into fabric development, including a new monogram toile incorporating playing-card motifs.

“It is a very strong statement in fashion, I did it with the same honest message, the same conviction, with no compromise,” he said. “It pushed us to go straight to the essentials, maybe to do fewer prototypes, to waste less maybe, to be more focused on the message.”

He said he was heartened by the positive feedback, though he still plans to do a physical show in October,

“I’m going to do digital stuff like everyone, I’m working on different projects that can reach the people who will be far away from us unfortunately,” he said. “But I need a physical, live event that will take place in Paris and I’m doing everything to make it happen, limited obviously by the sanitary conditions. I really hope the fashion week will exist. Everyone has a responsibility and the big brands are important in this calendar.”

He allowed that the show is likely to be smaller, “more adapted to what we’re going through.”

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