Nicolas Ghesquiere may very well be the most sought-after designer in fashion, even if most people cannot pronounce his name. WWD’s Bridget Foley sat down with the sprightly designer to discuss his immense respect for Cristobal Balenciaga, how the brand landed an “It” bag and subsequently a blistering accessories business, and his unwillingness to compromise fine design. Ghesquière also chatted about a variety of other topics, including jaunts to the house’s archives, the upcoming Balenciaga exhibition in Paris and how celebrities like Nicole Kidman approach the house instead of vice versa.
WWD: Nicolas, I know the theme of the whole summit is change and you want to talk about that. But first of all you want to say a few words about Mr. Balenciaga himself.
Nicolas Ghesquière: What we can say about Cristobal Balenciaga is that he first showed his collection in Paris in 1937 and he was considered right away as a true fashion innovator. He radically changed the fashionable silhouette for women in the mid-20th century. He was praised as a revolutionizing force in fashion. For the next 30 years, he remained the most influential couturier. So it’s always interesting to remind people of that and to think of that environment, that time.
Christian Dior once said of Cristobal Balenciaga that he was “the master of us all.” Balenciaga decided to close his house in 1968 because he was a couturier and he didn’t want to start a ready-to-wear collection. His influence on fashion today is incredible. You can still see his influence on our work. We can also say he left the most interesting heritage and I am very proud to be able to work with that inspiration now.
WWD: This morning Robert Polet [chief executive officer of Gucci Group, which owns Balenciaga] said one of the most important things in reviving a house is making sure the designer is right for the house. What makes you right for the house of Balenciaga?
N.G.: I would say it’s timing. First, I have the chance to find Sleeping Beauty. Balenciaga was really Sleeping Beauty. It had disappeared for 30 years. The ready-to-wear was existing but it was not really developed. First is to find the name and to have the opportunity to be hired and to find the team. I found amazing people and we shared the same vision.
WWD: Your ascent at Balenciaga has been different from many other young designers. You started out doing the uniforms and doing funeral clothes. Tell us a little about where Balenciaga was when you got there and how you came to get there doing uniforms?
N.G.: I was hired to do the licensed collection. It was not the most exciting job but for me it was the most beautiful name in fashion. I didn’t care at that time. I was thinking, ‘It’s OK. I will go and I will see what the potential is and see what is going on.’ So it was not the most glamorous way to approach the brand. But it was interesting to work on this license and to see what was left from Balenciaga. After that, I was hired as a main designer. With the top job, they gave me a six-month test and we did the first collection and that’s how it happened.
WWD: Did you sense going in that there was a chance for what you have developed?
N.G.: Oh yes, at that time it was the end of the moment of minimalists. You can see his work in every collection. I was 25 and I was fascinated to see his influence. I was conscious that something was possible with Balenciaga.
WWD: Some of the clothes we just saw here [on the video of the spring 2006 collection] were inspired quite specifically from the archives. Can you explain a couple of those?
N.G.: Two years ago we launched a collection called Balenciaga Edition. The objective is to take 10 or 15 couture pieces from the archives. They were done for one woman and we are reproducing them in the ready-to-wear collection. But we have a very good technique. Sometimes they are the starting point for the show but the show is also something very experimental and innovative. It has to be. It’s something very important in that world. Ideas are the first input. You have to really prove your ideas and develop your ideas to build something. It’s what Balenciaga is about. It’s about building with tradition.
WWD: So when you start, you always start with the archives for the runway collection, right?
N.G.: Not always, for two years. When I first started, I was very distant from the archives. My idea was to build strong daywear for Balenciaga. I have had access to the archives since the Gucci Group took over. Before that, I was not able to go to the archives. When I got the key, it was a pleasure to go. It started to inspire me directly.
Before that, it was just the idea of Balenciaga. I was looking at some pictures, some Irving Penn work, some dresses here in the U.S. But I wanted it to be my time. I didn’t want it to be too respectful, strangely.
WWD: Let’s talk about that balance between history, or referencing, and currency. How do you find the balance, how do you strike the balance, how do you know when you’ve got it?
N.G.: Sometimes I start with the archives and sometimes I’m distant. The luxury of being in a house like Balenciaga is that when you work on something, you can very easily find a link to his work. When I go to the archives, I can project those clothes in the future and when I work in a total abstraction without references I suddenly find a link with what Balenciaga did. It’s really about the context.
WWD: I find this fascinating. You talked about this sleeve on the dress we ran on the cover of WWD The Magazine, you said it took, what, eight tries or 18 tries?
N.G.: Maybe 14.
WWD: These clothes are so detailed, so worked. Can you talk about the design process or the perfecting process?
N.G.: There is no compromise. It might sound strange, but there is no compromise. If we have to try 20 times [to perfect] a dress, I try it 20 times. I’m speaking about the show, of course. You have to offer something very surprising and something very interesting every season. So there is no excuse. You have to try until it looks perfect. What is very important at Balenciaga is the perfectionism and the innovation. I try to respect that with the show. But we develop other lines that we are not as obsessional with during fittings.
WWD: Do you think the surprise element is very important? The last two collections were both so obviously your work but yet they were so different.
N.G.: You have to prove something every season. You have to perform. What is always his is the silhouette, the construction. It’s very special for our ready-to-wear to have an atelier working with 40 people before the show. It’s a gift so you have to use that. Even if things are not easy to produce, we make sure we will produce them. The question is not to adapt your creativity to an industry. The question is to develop and to control your prototype, and after to build a link with the industry.
WWD: Let me clarify: When you say to build a link to the industry, do you mean to production?
N.G.: To the factories.
WWD: From the beginning, you’ve had a strategic vision of where you want to go from a business standpoint, right?
N.G.: Yes, very instinctive. It became a strategy with the group.
WWD: We had reported that at times you dug in your heels and there was some give and take, shall we say.
N.G.: You know what it was — I had a vision, since the beginning with Balenciaga. I wanted to find a way to share this vision. It’s true I had to prove that this potential was there and that we were the right team to do it, too. It was not always easy, but we are passionate. We work day and night. We are fascinated by fashion and by that brand, so it is really a question of communication and energy.
WWD: Were you ever tempted to compromise when you were really holding out for what you wanted?
N.G.: No, I try to change the constraints to quality. At the end, it’s not a compromise. It’s choices.
WWD: How did the strategy you felt instinctively change when Balenciaga was acquired by Gucci Group?
N.G.: We were and we are developing different collections. There is the show that you saw. There is the pre-collection, which is becoming very important. There is what we call the capsule collection. There are complimentary collections around the pre-collection. There is the well-known collection for the must-haves, so it’s a collection of treasures because we have a reputation for treasures. But we have no compromise; again, the cut is the same. So to answer your question, the idea is to expand what we have — to try to open more stores, to try to develop the retail network.
WWD: How do you take the pre-collection or the capsule collection and make them accessible and yet fashion-y enough and Balenciaga enough?
N.G.: The pre-collection is a collection that is a delivery service. It’s a question of time. I want the pre-collection to be very strong, too, and to stand on its own. It’s very creative. There are stories inside. It’s not just a compromise between two seasons. It really gives fresh clothes to the store. The capsule collection is more complementary. They are not new shapes. They are shapes from previous seasons, but you will find them in different colors with a good price and the Balenciaga touch. It’s why the pre-collection is very important. It’s holding this whole galaxy, this whole structure, instead of being this second line, third line or jeans line. It’s about something more circular.
WWD: In the Edition collection, how do you select items for that?
N.G.: There is no criteria. We just go to the archives with some people from the studio. It’s like being in the most beautiful store. It’s our own store and it’s all the work of Cristobal Balenciaga. We can take a dress from the Fifties, a dress from the Sixties, pants from the late Fifties. It’s what we think is good for the season and we try to remake it. We go to the atelier. We scan it. We analyze it. We try to redo it.
WWD: Do you ever feel yourself getting competitive with Cristobal himself?
N.G.: Never. What is incredible is we take those shapes that are from the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and they were done for one person, so we have to adjust them, to reshape them a little bit and they fit so many women today. Again, it shows you how he was so modern. There is nothing to change.
WWD: Let’s talk about accessories. It’s everyone’s dream to come up with the “It” bag that every girl has to have and then to see it all over in a season and then to develop a whole accessories business around it. Very few people have done it recently. You’re one of the very few and you have come up with a new classic. How did you do it and when did you know you had hit on that bag?
N.G.: Again, it was very instinctive, very spontaneous. At a certain point we had the need to do a bag. We were like, ‘OK, let’s try to do a bag.’ It was really about the creative process. When we looked at the market at that time, we saw that all the bags were with logos and were stiff, very heavy and kind of structured. We thought, ‘Why don’t we do a very soft, supple and light bag that is kind of friendly and recognizable without a logo?’
WWD: When did you know it was going to be the huge hit that it was? That it was really going to trigger a major accessories business?
N.G.: Well, you never know. It didn’t start right away. I would say it took a nap. It had a very good reaction from the press and retailers. And celebrities were starting to wear the bags everywhere, and editors. It was really a buzz. When I analyze it now, it was the most accessible item for Balenciaga, for the collection.
WWD: How important do you consider the role of celebrity for your business and for fashion overall? You don’t have celebrities at the show. But how important is it for you to have celebrities be seen with the bags and in dresses on the red carpet and that kind of thing?
N.G.: I consider the celebrities to be very important, of course. It’s really representative of the brand when you have a really great collaboration. But I would say it’s not at any price. What’s happening with Balenciaga is usually they come to us. They come to the brand because they like the clothes. They go to the store, they see the press and they call us. We don’t have someone looking after the celebrities and trying to get them dressed.
WWD: Can you see yourself kind of veering that way?
N.G.: Well, you know we dress amazing, beautiful actresses and singers and those are the ones we want to dress. We have great collaborations with Jennifer Connelly, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lauryn Hill. Little by little, the family of Balenciaga is growing. I prefer that than to chase people.
WWD: Certainly we see your clothes all the time on actresses. Your clothes are among the most editorial out there and yet you choose to show very quietly first thing in the morning with not a Lindsay [Lohan] or a Mary-Kate [Olsen] in sight. How come?
N.G.: First, they don’t come to Paris yet, or maybe they do. But we don’t fly them. Not yet. We have an amazing showroom and a few years ago we had to make some choices. The choice was to do a show in our beautiful showroom. It fit my vision for Balenciaga. I like the proximity. It’s only for 300 people. I know it’s frustrating for so many people, but those clothes are very elaborate and it is better to see them up close. I’m not into a big spectacular show; I prefer a little show, working time, where the buyers and the press can work.
WWD: The stores are so dramatic. Some thought when the store opened in New York that it was too dramatic, too odd. Tell us about your concept for your stores.
N.G.: The concept is to be different in every country. For me, when I come here I want certain food, certain architecture, I want to meet certain people and if I go shopping, I want the same thing. We just opened Hong Kong two weeks ago. The same elements are there, but it is very different from New York or from Paris. That’s the idea — to do something specific, respectful to the country. Have a great location, great architecture and try to surprise people who travel or the customer with something different.
WWD: What is the integration of architecture and fashion?
N.G.: The New York store is in an old garage. It’s an industrial place. It’s not very new for New York, but what is new is to set a very recognizable element inside this very normal garage in Chelsea. It’s what I wanted to do — to use this beautiful architecture and not create just a box that is so impersonal. I like the idea that my clothes are received by the structure of different countries.
WWD: I know there is an upcoming Balenciaga exhibition during the couture in July. Will that be from Cristobal Balenciaga to your work now?
N.G.: Yes, it’s going to be a thematic exhibition. There hasn’t been an exhibition about Cristobal Balenciaga for 30 years. The last one was in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973. It’s very exciting for us. It’s a very big step and I hope this will be very big exposure for the brand. It’s good timing. There will be pieces from Cristobal Balenciaga from our archives and from different museums and my work.
WWD: What’s next for Balenciaga in terms of the brand, in terms of its growth, new direction, new areas?
N.G.: It’s really about expanding. I have the feeling it’s really the starting point for us. It may be strange to say that after working nine years for a brand. But really it is the starting point. We are getting somewhere I wanted to go a few years ago. I really want to keep going with what I do with continuity, but also to be spontaneous and to have many ideas.