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The Art and Science of Nicolas Ghesquière

Some designers are showmen; others are realists. Nicolas Ghesquière is a scientist who conducts experiments with fashion, distills it down to a concentrated essence and uncorks it for a rapt audience every season in a seven- to 10-minute runway...

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Some designers are showmen; others are realists. Nicolas Ghesquière is a scientist who conducts experiments with fashion, distills it down to a concentrated essence and uncorks it for a rapt audience every season in a seven- to 10-minute runway dissertation.

There is such precision in his work at Balenciaga that it’s not surprising to find the arresting necklaces from his blockbuster fall collection curled into petri dishes at his Rue Cassette fashion show venue, now transformed into a buzzing showroom. There is much to discover up close: how couture fabrics are sandwiched with foam to create sculptural jackets and dresses; how tiny glass beads are embroidered onto hand-painted latex to evoke blossoms on an Asian landscape; how killer heels are rendered both edgier and slightly more wearable with a slab of gel, like a miniature Rachel Whiteread sculpture, fused to the sole.

That Ghesquière could open his show with something as potentially mundane as a little black dress—and blow away even the most forward-thinking retailer or editor—is testimony to both his sharp fashion instincts and technical prowess. Each of the 34 looks stalking his catwalk was a marvel of imagination and intricate construction, intriguing from all angles. “The dress that opened the show, I refitted the waist one hour before. I wanted it to fit her perfectly,” Ghesquière relates from California, where he is readying Balenciaga’s new Melrose Avenue boutique in West Hollywood. “The girls come in for fittings five times in the two or three days before the show. When you make something with precision, and good craft, it makes all the difference.”

Ghesquière’s quiet arrival at the design helm of Balenciaga 11 years ago has certainly made all the difference, transforming an almost forgotten brand into one of the hottest names in the business, snapped up by Gucci Group in 2001. Ghesquière’s latest collection demonstrated a new ease and confidence, showing him able to nimbly reference the legacy of the late great Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, while increasingly asserting his own daring, futuristic sensibility.

“Mature” and “wearable” are among the words Ghesquière uses to describe the fall collection, pronouncing them with a shoulder-hunched sheepishness, given his reputation for clothes that are often ultraradical and strict—neither for the faint of heart nor full of hip. “I wanted the collection to be austere, but not minimal, more mature, but still sensual,” he says. “I don’t want to fall into a formula.”
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The maturity was expressed in almost-to-the-knee skirt lengths and chunky costume jewelry sets worn by every model, giving a bourgeois, grown-up quality to a runway that only a year ago paraded jodhpurs, school-girl blazers and colorful scarves festooned with dangling coins (which, by the way, was the style favored by oodles of models backstage, many of whom copped the look with finds from H&M and Zara).

“It’s very interesting to see how the styling trickles down,” Ghesquière says, his infectious smile palpable in his voice over the phone. “I’m really happy to see the influence of the Balenciaga silhouette on the street.”

Ghesquière acknowledges it’s problematic if copycats can deliver his looks faster than the brand, something Balenciaga has worked to eliminate. Still, it’s gratifying for him to see ideas become popular, given how some have derided his designs as exploratory, niche or even unwearable.

“In my shows, I always do some more experimental or extreme pieces, but it’s very rarely a caricature of women,” he stresses. “That’s why there is always one girl per outfit and usually little makeup. It’s important to see who the girls are. I like that idea of reality. This season especially I wanted something that looks more wearable.”

Given that many editors and retailers rely on him to set the fashion agenda, Ghesquière is conscious of the pressure. “But the first pressure is the one I put on myself,” he says. “Ours is a small show. I know almost everyone in the room personally, so it’s very important for me to make a strong proposition. You want to surprise them. That’s the minimum of this job: to make a new proposition, and to be at the level of expectation.”

First and foremost, instinct guides Ghesquière about where to take fashion next, plus “there’s a lot of reaction to past seasons,” he says. If fall has a darker, more austere tone, it was surely because spring was abloom with vivid color, floral prints and embellishments galore. Yet it’s a sign of Ghesquière’s maturity and confidence that he doesn’t feel compelled to zigzag from one trend to another every six months. For example, for the past two seasons he has been working on and refining the “semifitted silhouette,” as much a staple of the Balenciaga vocabulary as the sack dress. For fall, he expressed it in a new way with double-layer compressed fabrics, which made his silhouettes sharp, yet lighter and softer than they appear. “I think it’s super Balenciaga,” he enthuses. “More and more, I’m working with the codes of the house; I’m trying to define the codes.”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, he quickly won acclaim for designs straddling futuristic Goth and Parisian chic. Jump to last January, and PPR honcho François-Henri Pinault decorated him as a Chevalier of Arts and Letters, one of France’s highest honors, while the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg looked on.
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Not surprisingly, Ghesquière describes his nature as “quite impatient,” which might explain why he reached Gucci Group’s business deadline to break even two years early. Ditto for the atelier. Ghesquière likes to see his ideas realized quickly, so he usually starts building shapes himself, pinning fabric on the mannequin. His process is one of deduction and refinement, working toward the final look. “It’s a very controlled process: I work outfit by outfit,” he says. “It’s not like we launch the clothes in five different fabrics and then choose the best one.”

While his black dresses and kimono-sleeve jackets in tweed or flannel broadcast an austere-but-wearable message, the second half of his show was decidedly more experimental. His draped velvet and taffeta tops are an allusion to the Spanish painters Francisco Goya and Francisco de Zurbarán, while Whiteread’s eerie resin sculptures inspired Ghesquière to experiment with latex, plastic and other “artificial” materials in various combinations with couture fabrics. Chinese screens inspired the finale suite of latex dresses hand-painted with nature scenes.

For these, he was keen to avoid all implications of fetish in his use of latex, which is why he lined all the dresses with pale green or pink silk. Instead, his intention was to make latex and plastic noble and luxurious with craft techniques. Indeed, they look expensive—and they are, retailing from $46,000 up to $86,000 apiece. “We sold some in some quantities. That’s the luxury of having your own stores. There is a customer for exceptional pieces, more and more, actually,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to be wearable—that’s the beauty of fashion.”
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