PARIS — Nicolas Ghesquière likes to shake things up.
So for his spring show on Oct. 5 at the tail end of Paris Fashion Week, Ghesquière is taking a break from the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the dazzling, cloudlike Frank Gehry museum that has hosted his last three ready-to-wear shows.
This story first appeared in the September 23, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD has learned the designer is decamping to the Place Vendôme, where Vuitton is constructing a future flagship in an 18th-century corner building with stunning views of the picturesque square.
The venue, which he describes as a raw space within a grandiose structure, embodies his wish to continue uniting tradition and the here-and-now to propel the storied megabrand.
“I thought it was very interesting to catch the space right at the moment when there is that brutalist feeling inside: Basically the most beautiful gray box possible inside this most beautiful building. To me, this contrast is very interesting,” Ghesquière said at his vast, sun-drenched office at Vuitton headquarters, with panoramic views of the mythic monuments lined up along the Seine. “It’s a great message about Vuitton, about the history and patrimony represented by that place and also the modernity and innovation we are bringing. So it’s a great symbol.”
Nearly three years into his tenure at Vuitton, Ghesquière seems sanguine and confident at the creative helm of one of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s cash cow — so much so that he brushes off lingering speculation about a possible departure like he would a fluff of dark lint on the snowy, “2001: A Space Odyssey” sofa upon which he’s lounging.
Before the summer, Vuitton issued a firm denial of a Reuters report suggesting the October show could be Ghesquière’s swan song, going to the extent of detailing that the French fashion star’s current contract runs through the end of 2018.
“LVMH and Louis Vuitton strongly deny what has been said in Reuters. Nicolas Ghesquière’s contract renewal will not happen until end of 2018, so no discussion whatsoever is engaged at this stage,” it said.
During a joint interview with Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Michael Burke, the designer stressed his commitment and passion for the Vuitton project, while Burke credited Ghesquière with giving the brand a fresh and youthful élan that is gaining commercial traction.
Burke also enumerated a creative purview and impact from Ghesquière that is broader than some might think.
“He designed a silhouette, a very clear, strong silhouette, but beyond ready-to-wear, beyond runway, he’s informed literally every nook and cranny of the company, including all categories from shoes to jewelry to leather goods. There’s been an amazing list of bestsellers that germinated from his studio and the rest of the company,” Burke said, mentioning such bags as the Petite Malle, City Steamer and Twist Lock. “That’s the magic — how one studio can inform and irrigate an organization as complex, big and successful as Louis Vuitton. That was our joint challenge.”
Indeed, the two men reconfigured Vuitton’s creative structure to erase boundaries between what comes down the runway and the permanent collections. For example, leather goods studios for the two categories were merged.
“That was key. It has to be organic,” Burke said. “It’s not like here is a room of runway goods, and here are the classics or permanents.”
“We broke this boundary between certain kinds of categories: products that are more classic and what was fashion,” Ghesquière said, adding that “the resources and the talents are incredible” across the company.
The designer said his next mission is to “dive deeper and deeper into each product category to make sure that the proposition we are doing is respectful of this vision of innovation and tradition.”
“The most important thing is to keep on creating the fusion between the studio and the rest of the house — making sure that that becomes an organic flow of directions, needs and proposals,” Burke concurred.
Wearing tapered Acne Studios jeans and a plain gray T-shirt, Ghesquière spoke candidly about his arrival at Vuitton after making his reputation as a ringleader of fashion experimentation and futurism at the helm of Balenciaga.
He parted ways with the brand, owned by LVMH’s rival luxury group Kering, in November 2012 after a 15-year tenure, landing at the creative helm of Vuitton’s women’s collections a year later.
Recalling his first meeting with Burke; Bernard Arnault, chairman and ceo of LVMH, and Delphine Arnault, second-in-command at Vuitton, Ghesquière had talked “about how this house is so much about history, craftsmanship, the famous savoir-faire, the French way of doing things and how important it was to preserve that.”
“At the same time, I think they were looking for someone who could embrace this tradition and move it forward without compromising — using this craft, this incredible legacy to do modern things,” he continued.
Ghesquière acknowledged that he had perhaps been pigeon-holed as something of a “niche” designer, given the exacting, couturelike creations he was known for at Balenciaga.
“But maturity has brought me here and they recognize that no one can do without fashion today. It’s very hard for a luxury house to not play the game of fashion,” he said. “They did it brilliantly with Marc Jacobs obviously, and I think with me, they wanted to add to this world of luxury the innovative vision I was known for.”
One of the world’s largest luxury brands, with annual revenues estimated by Citi to reach 9.1 billion euros, or $10.25 billion at current exchange, this year, Vuitton is considered the core of LVMH’s fashion and leather goods division and a linchpin brand of the group, accounting for as much as half of its profits.
Sales at the division fell 1.3 percent to 2.92 billion euros, or $3.3 billion, in the three months ended June 30. In organic terms, sales were up 1 percent, with Vuitton considered the star performer.
“No other brand is more exposed to the impact of travel retail shifts than Louis Vuitton, and the resilience of its financial performance is the best proof of the soundness of its product and distribution strategy,” LVMH chief financial officer Jean-Jacques Guiony said in July, when the results were reported. “As far as the product architecture is concerned, we are extremely pleased with the development of Vuitton over the last, I would say, three to four years, and have reinforced in a great way the value content at the various price segments.”
Ghesquière said he finds Vuitton’s enormous scale exhilarating.
“It’s a place where you have to be wise because every decision that you take has very big consequences,” he said. “It’s a brand that is built on success and it’s quite exciting to be a part of it, to see the results your work has.”
The designer’s aim is to propose “a style that is coherent with the brand Vuitton and at the same, one that has a lot of integrity with my fashion proposition.”
Ghesquière has often tossed out the “wardrobe” word when discussing his collections.
Pressed to talk about his defining silhouette, the designer replied: “It’s hard to describe, but for sure it’s about this mix and contrast between sporty clothes and very high luxury — embroidered pieces, exquisite leather. It’s two sides of the same brand. My role was to bring that together, make it a silhouette and I think that is what I’m doing,” he explained. “It’s still luxurious, very sharp, but there is more freedom and movement, more fluidity, more femininity.”
He makes no apologies for showing bags with almost every runway exit, stressing that it’s not because of some corporate imperative.
“The bags make sense for Louis Vuitton. It’s not that we are making clothes to show bags; we are making a silhouette that includes a bag,” he said. “I designed those bags and I love them so it’s hard not to put the bag on the girl.
“I always enjoyed leather goods but I was doing it differently at a different scale,” he continued, alluding to his Balenciaga days.
As for the term “wardrobe,” Ghesquière said it connotes creating garments that are timeless.
When he arrived at Vuitton, he asked himself: “Which were the pieces that were absolutely necessary for Louis Vuitton? And that does not exclude fashion and very strong pieces.”
For example, the painted leather jackets he did for his manga and digital inspired spring 2016 collection were carried over to become part of the permanent collection.
“Every season, we are adding a few more propositions to the wardrobe, so it’s the challenge of every designer to balance those things: timeless pieces and the wish to have a strong statement; a strong proposition for the season. It’s the way I build it,” he explained.
Rtw is carried in all freestanding Vuitton stores — roughly 40 percent of the network of 460 locations that includes men’s corners, accessories corners and leased departments on the ground floor of department stores, according to Burke, who was unequivocal that the goal is to grow the rtw category. “What we are now building is wardrobing, beyond the runway — taking Nicolas’ style and silhouette and rolling it out across various product categories like knitwear, dresses, coats, outerwear,” he said.
Vuitton made a big statement about rtw’s importance by starting to stage cruise shows — big-budget productions in exotic locals with striking buildings as a backdrop. The project united Ghesquière’s passion for groovy midcentury architecture and Vuitton’s heritage of travel.
“That was a key moment in the calendar where we were absent and when Nicolas came he grabbed that opportunity and filled it,” Burke said.
The otherworldly Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro by Oscar Niemeyer was the backdrop for the most recent cruise show. Burke and Ghesquière said they are hunting for a locale for the cruise 2017 show, with a striking building likely to be part of the geography.
“A world tour of architecture,” Ghesquière said, elaborating on how it inspires him. “I always love to imagine what kind of person can evolve in a different architecture. It could be modern or very classic.
“I think architecture is pushing creative people to imagine characters, to imagine music, to imagine what is this lifestyle or the scene of a movie you can imagine in the architecture,” he explained. “Architecture has to be functional and make you dream: It’s like fashion in a way.”
While mystery was part of Balenciaga’s brand personality, Ghesquière has opened up since arriving at Vuitton, firing up an Instagram account that has grown to 500,000 followers and come to include personal episodes — vacations, gym sessions — in addition to campaign images, buildings that inspire him and glimpses of the creative process.
“I embrace it, and I like the fact that there is a direct connection with people. There is a certain amount of comments and messages, not always nice,” he said, flashing a knowing smile. “It’s a public mood board of what you want to show more than what you want to say. For the luxury industry, if we don’t use social media, we miss a certain category of audience.”
It was an old-fashioned medium — television — that sparked speculation that Ghesquière’s days at Vuitton could be numbered. When he appeared on talk show “Le Petit Journal” in July, host Yann Barthes flashed a Nicolas Ghesquière logo and coaxed him to specify when he might launch a signature label.
“I said, ‘One day.’ Then he asked, ‘Are you allowed to do it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And then I said, ‘I will come back one day to tell you.’ That’s what happened — and then a lot of rumors,” he said.
Ghesquière reiterated to WWD that he intends to introduce his own collection “at some point. But I’m not leaving Vuitton for that. For me, the time is coming. I need to do it. Vuitton is an important part of my career, but it is compatible with other projects. Marc has done his brand with Vuitton, too, for 16 years. There are many examples of designers doing both.”
To be sure, he feels “there is still a lot to accomplish in terms of development [at Vuitton.]”
And he accepts that speculation about him comes with the territory.
“When you’re in a position at the biggest luxury brand in the world, I’ve learned to try to be quiet and wise.”