SAINT-PAUL-DE-VENCE, France — Accustomed to showing his Louis Vuitton collections in the majestic surroundings of the Louvre museum, Nicolas Ghesquière opted for an equally exceptional, but altogether more confidential, art destination for his cruise display on Monday.
Guests including Emma Stone, Jennifer Connelly, Léa Seydoux, Justin Theroux and Ruth Negga trekked up to the southern French hilltop village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence for the show, held at the Fondation Maeght, a private art foundation whose gardens are filled with works by the likes of Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall.
Those arriving from the Dior cruise show in Paris appeared to have brought the unseasonal weather with them. Mist shrouded the treetops, giving the venue a melancholic feel enhanced by the haunting live soundtrack that greeted guests at the pre-show cocktail.
Milling about in the Giacometti Courtyard, Grace Coddington sported silk pajamas blending the LV monogram with her signature drawings of cats. It turned out the fashion editor has created a capsule collection of accessories with Ghesquière that is set to hit stores in October.
“We’re very close friends and I love everything he does, so he asked me to work with him, and it was more than a pleasure,” she said. Coddington, who published the original “The Catwalk Cats” tome in 2006, updated the characters for the occasion.
“I know they all look the same, but actually, they’re kind of new. I tend to draw them all doing the same thing, because they’re all my cats, and then they’re his dogs as well,” she explained, referring to Ghesquière’s pets Léon and Achille. “I hopes it makes you smile.”
The designer said he was drawn to Coddington’s quirky persona. “This cruise show is about eccentricity for me. It’s about how an individual can have his own proper style and can start a movement. I love this idea of someone eccentric that mixes things in her own way,” he said.
That notion of personal style, in all its funky, mismatched, iconoclastic glory, made for his most surprising collection to date for the house — a sharp rebuke to anyone who may have seen, in his bourgeois chic fall collection shown last March, a dearth of audacity.
Models snaked through the maze of hefty sculptures created by Joan Miró for the Sixties-era foundation wearing some of Ghesquière’s signature creations from recent seasons, amped up and remixed to create unexpected new looks.
With their spliced sleeves and curved lapels, the opening outfits brought to mind a cadre of female Jedi. He pumped up fall’s spaceship uniform volumes with oversize dresses set off by thigh-high leather boots that reprised the chunky soles of his hit Archlight sneakers.
“For sure, the shapes of the statues and the volumes of the statues were influencing my silhouette, absolutely. You always fight with gravity when you design clothes,” the designer noted.
“You want the clothes to be light, or to be suspended, or to be in movement with the body of the woman, and so it’s very interesting, I think, this relationship with movement and those wonderful monoliths of art,” he added.
There were variations on the puff-sleeved tunics, Botticelli gowns and silky shorts of spring 2018, the latter embellished with lace trims that took them from the locker room into the boudoir.
Yet there was nothing familiar about these mash-ups. A glossy parka was pieced together from strips of eelskin polished to a high vinyl shine. A shrunken purple-and-red striped vest, like a cast-off from a medieval court jester, somehow found its way into the blend.
Sequined jackets and feathered tops in bird-of-paradise hues were casually paired with skimpy skirts and shorts. Items including an acid-washed denim jacket were hand-painted with scrawled geometric motifs, like souvenirs from a lost weekend at the Burning Man festival.
“They are, I think, what we can imagine a very eccentric girl from today wearing, something that is maybe handcrafted, maybe done by herself. It’s something exotic and we can’t explain where it’s coming from,” Ghesquière explained.
While onlookers sought to draw out a connection between this startling new vision and the show’s setting, Ghesquière suggested it was the fruit of an inner battle: that between creating a lasting stylistic signature, and delivering the seasonal novelty that the industry thrives on.
“What is important is to build a vocabulary, I think, and it’s what I’ve been doing now for five years with Louis Vuitton, and so you can also play with that vocabulary and transgress it and shake it,” he mused.
“We all dream about doing timeless things, but the thing is, we’re doing fashion. We want to be in the moment, and we’re trying hard, I think, every designer, to respond to the desire of having a new emotion with fashion. So there’s this duality,” he added.
Ghesquière is no doubt mapping out how he wants to take the brand forward, following the announcement last week that he has renewed his contract as artistic director of women’s collections. This collection telegraphed he is not afraid of rocking the boat.
Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, said the designer was on board for “at least” another five years.
Burke said the announcement was designed to quash any uncertainties about the relationship. Rumors of a split have surfaced on and off since Ghesquière signed on to design the company’s women’s line in 2013, succeeding Marc Jacobs.
“We just felt that it was the right thing to do, because there had been conjectures and various articles. So we said, clarity is a good thing, but I think it goes beyond that,” Burke said, noting that the luxury industry has entered a period of quickening turnover at the creative level.
“It clearly struck a chord. It clearly was newsworthy. I didn’t think it would be picked up that much, but I think it’s clearly saying that this is unusual and that despite what has happened in the industry, it is possible to have long-term successful relationships,” he said.
“I personally think if you want to develop a true daring point of view, a differentiating point of view, you need to give yourself time,” Burke added. “Point of view cannot be achieved within a couple of seasons. It takes longer.”
Ghesquière may also be feeling the heat of Virgil Abloh’s impending debut as men’s wear designer at the house, with a highly anticipated show in June.
Burke acknowledged there was little overlap between Ghesquière, known for his exacting, couture-like approach, and Abloh, who has ignited the streetwear scene with a series of red-hot collaborations — though he suggested there didn’t have to be.
“A true luxury house needs to have different takes,” he said. “They’re coming at it from different vantage points. I think that is interesting per se. A house like Vuitton is too rich, has too long of a history, to be only interpreted from one direction.”
Having said that, he held out the prospect of a dialogue between the two. “The interesting question is then, how will they evolve over time? Will there be convergence and if yes, how? That’s what’s going to be interesting to follow — but time will tell,” Burke said.
In the meantime, the brand is enjoying strong momentum. Parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton recorded a 10 percent rise in first-quarter sales, propelled by a 16 percent organic sales increase from the fashion and leather goods division — home to Vuitton.
Burke noted the French Riviera was the perfect setting to gather its customers.
Vuitton has a long history in the region. It opened its first store in Nice in 1908, and many of the people who made the area fashionable were also Vuitton customers, among them the writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Françoise Sagan and William Somerset Maugham.
“Everybody wants to be on the Côte d’Azur come springtime. Yes, it’s France, but it’s the most cosmopolitan part of France,” Burke said. “We have all the hotels, the yachts, their homes, so it’s very, very convenient for clients.”
At the same time, most of Vuitton’s customers have never visited the Fondation Maeght, he added. “That’s the other part of these cruise shows, which I think I’m going to rename travel shows; there has to be a sense of discovery,” Burke said. “What’s striking is that up until now, we’ve gone halfway around the world to find these amazing places. This one is right in front of us, and it’s never been done before.”
The executive said it was no accident that three other major luxury brands — Chanel, Christian Dior and Gucci — also chose to stage their cruise shows in France this year.
“I think it’s more than serendipity. It’s clearly a vote of confidence in France,” he said. “There’s a newfound energy, a newfound willingness to take risks, a newfound reconnecting with the entrepreneur spirit that had existed for centuries in France, and it’s in no small part due to our president. [Emmanuel] Macron has shown the way.”
Bernard Arnault, the luxury titan who owns the Louis Vuitton brand, was among the business leaders who endorsed Macron’s election bid last year.
Of all the houses within the LVMH conglomerate, Vuitton enjoys the closest relationship with the country’s new leader, as it frequently dresses First Lady Brigitte Macron for her official engagements.
Burke noted that Macron’s business-friendly labor law policies were helping to create jobs, with Vuitton planning to open three new leather goods workshops, its first since 2011, in the next 18 months.
“We will be creating about 1,200 new positions just in our leather goods factories in France,” he revealed. “We need to be able to make closer to the market, because the market is requesting more and more risk and daringness in our products.”
He noted that the new laws make Vuitton’s production schedules more flexible, with workers now able to choose whether they want to work during the summer, when companies traditionally close for weeks at a time in France.
“It turns out that half of our employees prefer working in August. Before we would produce in March for Christmas. Today, what we produce for Christmas is in August — that’s precisely when we typically had to close,” Burke remarked.
Stone took advantage of her visit to France to see Vuitton’s Les Fontaines Parfumées perfume workshop site in neighboring Grasse, where house perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud plies his trade.
“It was incredible. I mean, I feel like I learned so much in such a short period of time, which was amazing,” the “La La Land” star reported, hinting that a new Vuitton perfume campaign may be in the works.
“I’m working with Louis Vuitton for fragrance as well,” the actress said, adding that rose — a key ingredient in the brand’s Rose des Vents perfume — is one of her favorite scents.