NEW YORK — For a designer who typically sends his models down the runway at a breakneck pace and to a kinetic soundtrack, Nicolas Ghesquière has had something of a slow, quiet year in Paris, his ambitious plans for Balenciaga on hold during the management and ownership transition of the brand’s parent company, Gucci Group.
After opening stores in New York and Paris last year, talks of further locations in Milan, Los Angeles and Tokyo were temporarily shelved in favor of upgrading existing retail real estate. In addition, while Balenciaga’s runway shows in New York were always fairly modest in scale, Ghesquière has shown his last two collections less formally in his Paris showroom. Both moves were made because of financial constraints.
“It’s true I had to make some choices with the budget and financial situation, but it was not a big compromise,” Ghesquière said during an interview here Monday. “My only regret is not having been able to show in New York anymore.”
So it was with some surprise to the designer that, upon touching down in New York Saturday, he felt a sudden rush of nostalgia not only for the city, but also for its speed.
“You see all the people in T-shirts running in the park and you have this shot of energy,” Ghesquière said. “I realized I missed it here. It’s been over a year since I have come, and this year has been more quiet in Paris than when I was here with the show and opening the store.”
Ghesquière returned to New York for the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute gala Monday night and to host a party at Ian Schrager’s Hudson tonight with actress Diane Kruger, followed by a presentation of his fall line and vintage Balenciaga capsule collection at his Chelsea store Wednesday. While he has already forged an artistic downtown image for the Balenciaga brand by collaborating with artists on his store designs and staging his fashion shows in the gallery district west of 10th Avenue, Ghesquière chose to make his headquarters for this trip at the stodgy Carlyle Hotel, where the music more commonly moves to the beat of Bobby Short.
“I’m discovering uptown,” Ghesquière said. “The Met is so close, but I thought it would be funny to be uptown. Definitely, the people are different up here than downtown. In Paris, there is that contrast, too, but here it is two different worlds. I love the looks of some of the women up here. Yesterday, I saw the Whitney Biennial, where I saw a woman who was quite old; her hair was perfectly done and she was wearing these big sunglasses. That was the perfect idea of the uptown woman.”
Some element of that woman, the art on display at the Whitney Museum or the Upper East Side in general could easily make their way into a future Balenciaga collection, since it is Ghesquière’s notion of referencing moods, images and feelings in the abstract sense that has defined his approach to reinventing the label.
After three years as the designer of Balenciaga, it is only with the fall collection that he has begun to directly mine looks from the archives, re-creating five pieces from collections dating from 1932 to 1968 that will be sold exclusively at Balenciaga’s stores and at Barneys New York, and shown at the Chelsea store Wednesday. Kruger, who stars as Helen of Troy in the upcoming release of “Troy,” and who once appeared in a Balenciaga ad campaign during her modeling days, was planning to wear a dress based on a 1932 look by Cristobal Balenciaga to the Met. Ghesquière said the dress evoked the 18th-century theme of the party in its material and color, but not its silhouette.
“It was very interesting to evoke the time of the evening, not through shape, but through the refinement of color and luxury,” he said, noting the thick silk dress was the shade of pink champagne. “I almost never do long dresses. It was the situation that created the need. I don’t make a lot of really dressy clothes. This is what we’re working on now.”
In the most obvious case of a situation creating a need in his life, Ghesquière has remained diplomatic about the changing guard at Gucci Group, which acquired Balenciaga in 2001 and contracted the designer’s employment there. With the departure at the end of this week of Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, a lot of questions have been raised about the new regime’s commitment to Gucci’s so-called “emerging brands.” Analysts who cover the company have asked whether Gucci would be likely to continue the De Sole/Ford policy of brand nourishment and hold onto labels like Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga that may have potential, but are not currently generating big profits.
“The general situation is good,” Ghesquière said, although he challenged the classification of Balenciaga as emerging, considering the history behind the house. “We are growing. It’s three years now, so it is the beginning of the story. We are really trying to put Balenciaga back on the map, but it’s not a new brand. I’m maybe an emerging designer, but Balenciaga is not an emerging brand. I wish this would be really understood in the future.”
Ghesquière is taking a laissez-faire approach during the management transition, saying he will continue to focus on improving Balenciaga’s production and restoring the house archives, which now count in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 pieces, including accessories and theatrical costumes, far more expansive than many people had thought. He is closely involved with recent business moves as well, directing the design of in-store shops at Printemps in Paris and Selfridges in London during the past six months.
The industry has witnessed a spate of recent battles between designers and their conglomerate partners over the control of such details, a circumstance Ghesquière feels is entirely normal, given the evolution of the business and the changing roles of designers during the past 15 years.
“When we made a deal it was absolutely clear that we had to be in a partnership,” Ghesquière said. “They give me a percentage of Balenciaga. Especially at Gucci, they always want designers to be involved with the business side. In a more general situation, the brand is the most important thing, but the designer is important, too. It is normal that contracts are very sensitive. Before, you wanted to be a designer, now you want to be a creative director, so it is normal that there is a struggle with the contracts. The designers deserve it and the brands need it.”
If there was one thing that would make Ghesquière happy at this moment, he said, it would be to have the opportunity to bring the presentation of the Balenciaga collection back to New York, at least every now and then.
“My ideal situation would be to show winter in New York and summer in Paris,” Ghesquière said. “I adore New York and I love Paris. You get two different feelings. I love so much the idea of traveling with the collection and showing here, being within the galleries and the synergy of the city. That’s the energy I need.”