He has the top job at Louis Vuitton and he is not holding back

SINGAPORE - It is the morning after and Nicolas Ghesquiere is feeling introspective.

"The different parts of my career, my experience of different things... I have a feeling that everything has been getting me ready for this."

By "this", he means the plum job he has landed at Louis Vuitton, as artistic director of arguably the world's most famous monogrammed brand's women's collections.

And by "morning after", we mean after the French designer's second collection for the luxury house, the Cruise collection - so important for sales in recent years that even Louis Vuitton started holding a show for it for the first time this year, showing in Monaco in front of 350 guests, including actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg (Ghesquiere's muse), Jennifer Connelly, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

On this May morning, Ghesquiere (say jas-kee-air) is dressed simply, in a grey long-sleeved T-shirt, black pants and sneakers. He is relaxed and chatty, relieved, perhaps, with the positive reviews of his collections.

"Ghesquiere's mix of technique and dazzling textile... elevated the simple inspiration," raved London's The Independent of the 45-look collection. The models were sent down a runway which was set in a customised glass cube in front of the Prince's Palace in the principality.

"The overriding impression was of a designer not holding back," praised Style.com, citing "an engaging new eclecticism" and printed pantsuits "destined to garner the cult status that so much of his output has in years past".

So far, so good then, in one of the most keenly-watched fashion changeovers in recent times.

No one was very much surprised when Louis Vuitton named Ghesquiere in November 2013 to succeed well-loved American fashion designer Marc Jacobs as its new creative force. Yet, the burden of expectation is heavy, to say the least. After all, Jacobs, who served as the brand's creative director from 1997 to 2013, single-handedly created its women's and men's ready-to-wear line, and collaborated with artists such as Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami to make bags that were coveted objet d'art in themselves. Jacobs left to concentrate on taking his own Marc Jacobs label public.

"Stepping into Marc's shoes is a momentous task not to be taken lightly," says Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive Michael Burke. "Marc was very successful in putting us on the map.

"The funny thing is, unlike most situations like this, we did not go through a long list. It was a very short list with only one name on it: Nicolas," adds Mr Burke.

"His work is strong, modern and directional, with a strong point of view. He had also proven he knew how to dance with history. This is not about inventing from scratch, but about embracing an existing long, rich and successful history, taking it to another level and writing another chapter."

In the years to come, says Mr Burke, the brand will be training the spotlight on ready-to-wear: "Maybe in the past, it was not given its due because everything else we do is also very successful. With the arrival of Nicolas, it is the centre of our voice. It is a new chapter we want everyone to be aware of and take note."

In a way, Ghesquiere's move from Balenciaga - he was creative director at the Spanish label from 1997 to 2012 - to Louis Vuitton marks a kind of transition from fashion experimental wildchild to, in his own words, "an age of maturity".

"I guess I'm more quiet and wise in a way," the feted designer, 43, says in his French-accented English. "I have the feeling now I can express things in a more direct way."

He adds: "I'm still expressing strong things in fashion, but I think I can say it more simply, and it is easier for people to understand, which is great and what I want.

At Balenciaga, Ghesquiere rejuvenated the 96-year-old house with his daring and experimental designs - think cropped aviator jackets and balloon-sleeved coats (Fall 2003) and moulded cropped tops with high-waisted pants (Spring 2013) - while tapping on the archives and closely studying the couture techniques of Cristobal Balenciaga, the founder of the label.

According to Vogue.com, just two and a half years after Ghesquiere joined Balenciaga, its sales reportedly doubled to US$30 million.

"I did my experimentation and what I consider 'classes' in the past, and I'm very proud of it," he says.

In contrast, his vision for Louis Vuitton is more practical.

"From very early on, I thought that my designs would be a wardrobe, not just a fashion statement, even when the fashion was going to be very recognisable and create desire. This wardrobe will develop season after season.

"People usually say what I do is very architectural and structured but, here, I think I let go. It is about being in movement but still defined and quite sharp."

For his debut Fall 2014 collection for Louis Vuitton, shown at Paris Fashion Week in March, he showed off pared-down, 70s shapes, with his penchant for unpredictability. Ski sweaters were tucked into A-line leather and suede skirts. Close-fitting vests were made from inky crocodile leather. And pleated skirts had printed paillettes that looked like feathers.

He recalls fondly the encouragement venerated fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, who was then at the now-International New York Times gave him after that Fall collection: "She said what I was doing was respectful to women and had a lot of dignity. It was probably the best compliment I've ever had from a woman and someone in the fashion industry."

Born to a swimming coach and golf-course manager father and a mother who loves fashion, Ghesquiere landed his first job at 19 as an assistant at Jean Paul Gaultier where he stayed for two years. He worked as a freelance knitwear designer before joining Balenciaga in 1995 to sketch knitwear, golf and mourning outfits for the Japanese market. When the brand's creative director Josephus Thimister was fired, Ghesquiere - then 25 - was given the job.

But for all that he has done at Balenciaga, Ghesquiere seemingly left on bad terms. He is being sued by Balenciaga for remarks it deemed harmful to its reputation in an interview with London-based indie fashion magazine System, in which he lamented, among other things, that "they only cared about what the merchandisable result would look like". According to lifestyle e-magazine The Cut, the verdict will be delivered on August 27, unless the two sides reach an agreement earlier.

There are no such disgruntled feelings about his new employer, for sure.

"It is a beautiful house that is a huge corporation. But it is also very human and you have to create links between some departments, the house needed that," says Ghesquiere of Louis Vuitton. One of the first things he did at his new job was to bring in the leather artisans to work on the ready-to-wear collection for the first time.

His biggest task these days is getting everybody on board with his concepts: "Whenever I have an idea, I'm always asking my team: Are you coming with me? Are you embracing the idea and following me on the realisation of it?

"You have to be very brave," he adds.

"Sometimes, people forget that fashion is artistic, but also about being pragmatic and convincing people about your vision. That is a challenge and I love it."


This article was first published on July 19, 2014.
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