PARIS — Nicolas Ghesquière is expected to bring a gust of experimental fashion — and that all-important buzz factor — to Louis Vuitton as the brand’s new artistic director of women’s collections.
Confirming a widely expected hire, Vuitton said the designer — who catapulted Balenciaga to the forefront of the Paris fashion agenda — would show his first collection here next March.
The appointment on Monday afternoon came almost a year to the day that the Frenchman exited Balenciaga after a 15-year career, sparking a guessing game about where he might land. He had also conducted talks with Japanese retail giant Fast Retailing Ltd., parent of the Uniqlo chain, as reported.
Vuitton said Ghesquière would bring “a modern, creative vision to the house’s women’s collections, building on the values of refinement, savoir faire and extreme quality.”
He is the latest fortysomething fashion modernist tapped by luxury kingpin Bernard Arnault, who last year named Belgian Raf Simons to become Christian Dior’s sixth couturier, and who in recent years brought in British designer Phoebe Philo to energize Céline.
Known for his exacting, couturelike approach, Ghesquière could help Vuitton in its quest to build a more upscale and elite reputation after years of rapid global expansion and a heavy reliance on monogram canvas.
Reporting third-quarter results last month, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said revenues in the fashion and leather goods division slipped 3.8 percent to 2.43 billion euros, or $3.22 billion, with Vuitton “slightly” underperforming other brands in the business group, which includes such names as Fendi, Givenchy and Berluti.
Signaling an upscale drive designed to stem that sales slide, last month Vuitton tapped accessories designer Darren Spaziani to spearhead new lines of “very high-end” leather goods to complement existing collections. Spaziani, who worked at Vuitton from 2004 to 2006, was previously director of accessories design at Proenza Schouler, and he had also been design director of accessories at Balenciaga under Ghesquière.
“Louis Vuitton has always incarnated for me the symbol of ultimate luxury, innovation and exploration,” Ghesquière said Monday. “I am very honored of the mission that I am entrusted with, and proud to join the history of this great maison. We share common values and a vision.”
Ghesquière, 42, succeeds Marc Jacobs, the American designer who stepped down from Vuitton last month after a storied 16-year tenure to focus on developing his signature brand and ready his namesake company for an initial public offering.
Hired by Vuitton in 1997 to bring the company into the modern fashion age, Jacobs introduced ready-to-wear, shoes, fashion jewelry and eyewear to a brand known primarily for luggage and handbags.
A darling of the media, Jacobs brought lots of attention and fashion credibility to the brand, tapping celebrity pitchwomen including Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Uma Thurman and Sofia Coppola. The American designer took a freewheeling approach to Vuitton’s women’s rtw, trotting out lacy French confections one season; hip-hop-inspired streetwear the next. His all-black swan song collection last month was inspired by showgirls and featured dramatic feathered headdresses.
Ghesquière is expected to crystallize a new feminine image for the heritage brand, which will mark its 160th anniversary in 2014.
While leather goods continue to account for the vast majority of Vuitton’s sales — estimated at as much as 90 percent — it is understood the rtw business operates at a slight profit and ranks as one of the most sizable in the LVMH empire.
At Balenciaga, Ghesquière cultivated an aura of hyper-exclusivity, staging rapid-fire shows, accentuating an experimental approach that widely influenced other runways and made him a popular figure among editors and retailers — at least the happy few invited to his fashion party.
The Frenchman’s challenge will be to adapt to Vuitton’s massive scale, vast global audience and a brand image sometimes linked to travel and sporty pursuits, including sailing and fine automobiles.
Analysts peg Vuitton’s 2012 revenues at around 7.4 billion euros, or $10.2 billion at average exchange, making it the luxury sector’s biggest brand by sales — and roughly 25 to 30 times the size of Balenciaga.
Vuitton accounts for roughly half of LVMH’s earnings before interest and taxes, analysts estimate, and boasts an EBIT margin of around 42 percent.
Ghesquière must also acclimatize to a sprawling company with many creative and business chiefs across a plethora of product categories.
Among Vuitton’s visible designers are Kim Jones, men’s studio and style director; Julie de Libran, women’s creative director and the front woman for cruise and other collections; Lorenz Baümer, fine jewelry designer, and Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, a master perfumer brought in to thrust Vuitton into the fragrance arena, though a launch is not expected before 2016.
Sources said they expect Ghesquière to bring some of his key collaborators, including designer Natacha Ramsay-Levi and stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé. Footwear guru Pierre Hardy is also part of his inner circle. (Fabrizio Viti is currently Vuitton’s style director of shoes.)
Ghesquière’s arrival at Vuitton completes an overhaul in top leadership at the cash-cow brand of LVMH. Last December, Vuitton welcomed a new chief executive officer, LVMH veteran Michael Burke, previously ceo at Bulgari and Fendi, and with prior experience at Vuitton in the U.S.
Burke in turn tapped Delphine Arnault, daughter of Bernard Arnault and longtime deputy general manager at Dior, to become his second-in-command at Vuitton, responsible for all product-related activities.
A key talent scout within LVMH, she is said to have championed Ghesquière for the linchpin Vuitton post. Arnault was also instrumental in recent transactions that brought buzzy British designers Nicholas Kirkwood and J.W. Anderson into the LVMH fold.
Sources suggested Ghesquière, a tough negotiator, likely fought for the right at LVMH to launch a signature fashion house, long an ambition of his. His most recent contracts at Balenciaga included a clause permitting him to pursue a namesake brand, giving parent Kering first right of refusal in the event the designer found another business partner willing to set up a fashion house for him.
In a 2005 interview, the designer spoke openly about that eventuality.
“It’s one of my dreams. I would love to do my own line. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but I would like to do it. And today I would say it would be in addition to Balenciaga,” he said at the time. “If I want to start my own line, I have to find a very specific and special concept. We are far from this.”
One of the stars of the brand reinvention era, Ghesquière exited Balenciaga last November after clashing with management about the future direction of the company.
Hailing from the small French town of Loudun and without any formal fashion training, Ghesquière got his start in fashion by filing, photocopying and cataloguing fabrics at Jean Paul Gaultier, ultimately landing at Balenciaga and designing lowly licensed lines, including office uniforms, bridal gowns and widows’ dresses for Japan.
Once promoted to the helm of the main rtw line in 1997, succeeding Josephus Thimister, he quickly won acclaim for sculpted designs straddling futuristic and Parisian chic. For three seasons, he also designed collections for the Milan-based house of Callaghan.
At Balenciaga, he had a penchant for futurism and the Eighties, while exploring key silhouettes and themes from Cristóbal Balenciaga, a Spaniard who founded his couture house in 1919 and established himself in Paris in 1936.
LVMH has had its eye on Ghesquière for some years, making overtures to him more than a decade ago for Givenchy. As reported in WWD, Dior heavily courted Ghesquière as it sought to replace its disgraced couturier John Galliano, ousted in the wake of racist and anti-Semitic outbursts.
Ghesquière joins LVMH as a legal battle with his former employer is slowly grinding its way through French courts. Balenciaga is seeking damages of 7 million euros, or $9.2 million at current exchange, for published remarks by Ghesquière it deemed harmful and in violation of its separation agreement with the designer.
On Oct. 15, a legal representative for Ghesquière and Sauvé, who is also named in the suit, appeared before the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Paris to table its defense.
A date for pleadings has yet to be set, but sources familiar with the case said it could take up to two years before it winds up completely.
Court documents say the French fashion designer was paid 6.6 million euros, or $8.7 million at current exchange, as compensation for breaking his latest employment contracts with Balenciaga, signed in 2010 and 2012.
He also walked away with 32 million euros, or $42.3 million, for the purchase of his 10 percent stake in the company, granted to him when then-parent Gucci Group bought Balenciaga in 2001.