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 ready-to-wear line in 1997, succeeding Josephus Thimister, he quickly won acclaim for sculpted designs straddling futuristic and Parisian chic.
For three seasons straddling the Millennium, he also designed collections for the Milan-based house of Callaghan.
Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, then creative director and ceo of Gucci Group, respectively, brought Ghesquière into the fold, eager to turn his rising profile into profits.
“We do feel that it is a wonderful brand, but you do need to secure good design talent, and Nicolas Ghesquière is a star,” De Sole told WWD at the time.
While primarily known for his creative prowess — and at times criticized for his elitist, exclusive approach to fashion — Ghesquière frequently took pains to show that he was not opposed to big business, even occasionally taking the powers to be at Gucci Group and PPR to task for holding him back.
“Even if we’re not a priority in the group — and that’s clear we’re considered a small brand — I still want to prove that we can be bigger than that,” he said in a 2005 interview, stressing that capsule collections for pants and knits, introduced that year, were 100 percent his idea.
“It’s not a marketing strategy, and it’s not coming from someone else. You don’t sign on with these kinds of groups if you don’t want to do business and make money,” he said at the time. “I like to experiment, but I also like to make beautiful, wearable clothes. I always mix them.”
Back in 2000, Ghesquière introduced a much-demanded, logo-free handbag with braided handles and dangling zipper pulls, and the style is still seen in the streets all over the world, though overshadowed by more recent “It” bags.
He is seen as a pioneer in linking fashion and art long before they became cozy bedfellows, tapping French contemporary artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to codesign his otherworldly Balenciaga boutiques and planting them where you least expect them: next to the former Dia Center in New York or on a forgotten street in central Milan, for instance.
He also helped fan the trend to extreme footwear, and often influenced fashion from the designer level down to the high street.
Several market sources characterized Ghesquière as uncompromising in his futuristic vision for the brand. “Nicolas is one of a small coterie of designers, who in spite of the general progress of the world, seems unwilling to address the demands of communication and marketing. It seemed to me that his attitude to protecting exclusivity was at odds with the general focus of the rest of the group,” said one industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another source claimed that Balenciaga has been overly dependent on its handbag business, and unable to convert Ghesquière’s designs into commercial categories. “There was so much editorial noise around the collections, and a few key reporters decided to champion him. And maybe the more noise there was, the more he felt he needed to push himself and take risks. His ideas were regularly copied — it was directional but never commercial,” the source said.
French designer Pierre Hardy, a friend of Ghesquière’s who collaborated with him on shoes at Balenciaga, said he had no sense of any internal discord at Balenciaga or PPR.
“This might be exactly the right moment for him [to leave the house],” Hardy said. “The collection was a commercial success and a critical success. He is at the zenith. He probably felt in a cage. It was too small for him.”
Retailers expressed regret at fashion’s latest divorce.
“I think it’s a shame for Balenciaga. I really liked what Nicolas Ghesquière did. I don’t know who else can bring that modernity to the brand, and I was a big, big fan of his passion for colors and fabrics,” said Martine Hadida, women’s wear buyer for L’Eclaireur in Paris. “He did a great job. I loved the modernity of the collections. We had good results with the Balenciaga collection. The pieces we chose for L’Eclaireur sold very well.”
Marie-Amélie Sauvé, the Paris-based stylist, fashion editor and consultant who collaborated with Ghesquière since the start of his career at Balenciaga, said it was impossible for her to imagine the brand continuing without the man who defined and energized its image for 15 years.
“He made Balenciaga. Balenciaga and Nicolas are the same thing,” she said, calling the brand too small for his talent. “He deserves more than that because he is the biggest designer of our times. His signature is so strong, so unique.”
“It is a little hard to believe as he is so linked to the house,” said Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of Barneys New York. “What a transformation and an indefatigable talent. He seemed to get better every year but the company has a very strong, talented management team and they are incredible partners.”