Nicolas Ghesquière, now a year into his tenure as artistic director, addresses his mandate at Louis Vuitton with precision and clarity.
“When I met with Bernard Arnault, Delphine Arnault and Michael Burke, we had a few discussions about what Louis Vuitton is, and where it is today,” the designer said in conversation with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley. “We all share the same vision: It’s important that Louis Vuitton has to define a few women, and create something that is innovative and respectful of the history and patrimony of Louis Vuitton at the same. The idea was to meld those two elements.”
Having shown three runway collections thus far — fall 2014, cruise and spring 2015 — his vision is beginning to crystallize. The approach isn’t about nailing the next “It” bag that’s hot today and gone tomorrow. “My thought was that when we look at things that are considered ‘Grande Classiques,’ as we say in French — iconic classics that almost everyone wants — we sometimes forget that they were new one day,” he said. “They were totally innovative and might sometimes be shocking to some people, but with time, they become classics. Every item doesn’t become that but the challenge for the designer is to look for those things that are so consistent that they can stand [the test of] time even if they are surprising and new at the beginning. That was the concept.”
Travel, which provides the foundation of the house, is at the core of the image.
“It might be cliché but it’s true that Louis Vuitton himself was totally innovative,” Ghesquière said. “He looked at what was missing in travel and packaging things in the most beautiful way. With time, that evolved to trunks. The little bag inside, which was just an addition to the trunk, itself became a key element. When you really have a good idea and you look for one, you transform things and that’s what becomes a classic.”
During his career trajectory that spans nearly two decades, first at Balenciaga and now at Vuitton, Ghesquière has built a reputation for such transformation. He is considered one of the world’s most influential fashion designers, with a proclivity for futurism and experimental clothes that sometimes veer into couture territory. During his first year at Vuitton, however, he didn’t deliberately set out to make a big design statement. Instead, he said, he approached the brand with a wide range of women in mind.
“You never do things thinking you will make a big statement,” he said. “It just happens sometimes and you are lucky. You don’t think you will do a revolution. At the beginning, you are very honest with your idea and you want to seduce. It’s more about building a vision with time, and to dig and go deep into a woman’s wardrobe. Yes, you do like a collection with a hint of something, with a proposition, but at the same time, what I want to see is for the longer term.”
The role of the designer in fashion is “to be true to yourself,” he said, “create a strong signature, something recognizable and at the same time to create desire.”
As for his design process, Ghesquière works closely with his team. “There are many people around me that remind me I have to do right,” he said of when to know to drop an idea. “I am surrounded by people with a lot of talent. We share our ideas and it’s a process. Sometimes you think something is good and then you wake the day after and look at it and it’s so bad. You have to take time and see it again and again and refine things. [Bernard Arnault] told me Vuitton is not minimal and I agree completely. Louis Vuitton has this dimension, this crazy visibility, which is quite elaborate and complex and at the same time quite simple and effective. I understood that it has to be something with a great dimension.”
Whether intentional or not, his first three runway shows made that point. They injected the brand with a sense of pragmatism, a clear antidote to the extravaganzas staged by his predecessor Marc Jacobs, though Ghesquière downplayed that this was a deliberate decision.
“I think Marc Jacobs did extraordinary work,” he said. “He explored and developed [the brand] in so many different territories, and he built so many tools for the identity of Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear. He gave it a patrimony that is huge.”
If the spectacle of a runway show is still a consideration, “I think it’s a new phase and I find my way of doing it. It’s the fact: There is another signature.”
The choice of three photographers — Juergen Teller, Bruce Weber and Annie Leibovitz — to shoot the current ad campaign plays into the notion.
“My idea of Vuitton is talking to many facets of women,” he said. “Each [photographer] has a different expression of it. [With Leibovitz], it’s more dramatic. Juergen has this reality, this impact that is quite raw and Bruce is much more poetic and has this dimension. It’s the combination that is interesting because these are emotions that every woman has.”
Ghesquière’s Vuitton woman is not age-specific even if the runway models are young. “Age is more an identity and a style,” he said. “The qualities and the things I love when I meet a woman are her charisma, her personality, her intelligence, her personal style, her way of expressing herself. I wouldn’t say we reflect every generation in the campaign but when we shot the campaign with three different types of generation, we had a lot of comments. When we took a friend of mine, some said she may be too old for the campaign and I felt I had to defend my own age.”
Social media plays a substantial role in delivering the message. “I love social media, I love Instagram a lot, and I do like Twitter a lot too,” he said. “Instagram is very playful and it’s a wonderful tool for a designer. Louis Vuitton asked me to take over the Instagram account for a week. I had a little sweat when they gave me the phone — the responsibility of 3.1 million followers and what to show, what not to show, what to suggest. I like the no filter. I can speak to many people very directly.”
If the decision to stage the spring show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, two weeks before it opened, in any way influenced the creative process for spring, it was only in abstraction.
“We felt very lucky to be able to show there,” he said, adding that he wanted guests to see the “incredible architecture” but then, once inside, to entirely focus on the collection.
“It didn’t really influence the collection but I love architecture a lot,” he said. “One of the reasons is that I have fantasies about the woman or characters that can evolve in those different buildings and environments or even landscapes. What happened here, when you see the Frank Gehry building, I also try to imagine which woman can evolve in that building.”
The Gehry-designed foundation is mainly a space to showcase contemporary art, which brought the conversation to designers as artists and whether they should be considered as such. Ghesquière said an artistic sense can come with the creative process. “For sure there are designers who are and will be remembered as great artists….Obviously Rei Kawakubo and Azzedine Alaïa, in different expressions, are true artists.”
The sabbatical between leaving Balenciaga and joining Louis Vuitton allowed the designer to take a step back, albeit briefly. “This year went very quickly between the separation and the new wedding,” he said. “But yes, I stepped back and looked around and I found it quite fascinating how fashion is transforming itself all the time, and how the different actors are always renewing themselves. Stepping back, I missed it, even if it was short, and I couldn’t wait to be back.”
Fashion is more corporate than it was 15 years ago, but that’s not a bad thing, according to the designer. “There are cycles,” he said. “I remember, not a long time ago, couture houses that were strong and individuals who were called ‘createurs.’ Azzedine, Jean Paul Gaultier, [Thierry] Mugler and [Claude] Montana suddenly emerged and we went to a whole different part of fashion history. Today, there is something that is more corporate but at the same time there is a good thing with corporations.
“You have to be aware, things go so quickly, and the way you talk to people is completely different and also wonderful,” he added.
Asked what chief executive officers should know about the designer psyche, he wasted no time with his retort. As he put it, it’s “what a designer should know about the ceo psyche.”