Successful fashion designers are, more often than not, a little temperamental – a state of mind usually heightened before each major runway show. So it is a relief to find Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière in an energetically good mood when we arrive at his suite in Kyoto with barely seconds to spare, due to a late pickup.
Nothing in Ghesquière’s smiling, relaxed demeanour lets on that the Louis Vuitton Cruise 2018 show is scheduled to start in a few hours at the stunning Miho Museum, about a 40-minute drive away.
This will be LV’s fourth cruise show, a tradition that the fashion house started only when Ghesquière joined as creative director of women’s wear in 2013. Cruise collections are travel or resort ready-to-wear collections that some fashion houses release before the two major runway shows in Paris.
He enjoys the cruise collections even though they have only a few short months to work on them between the major Paris runways. “I have a very focused story when I do Paris, but for the cruise, I let myself go further. Because it’s winter and summer mixed together, you’ll be able to do things you were not able to do [for the two main collections]. In Paris, it’s more about creating a surprise or an emotion that is in the middle of the proposition of fashion. So it’s clearly a different process,” Ghesquière says.
Besides giving him the freedom to flit between seasons, the cruise shows have also allowed him to take his events to stunning landscapes around the world, starting from Monaco’s Palace Square, to the John Lautner-designed Bob and Dolores Hope estate in Palm Springs, US, in 2016, and the Museu de Arte Contemporaneo de Niteroi in Rio de Janeiro last year, and now IM Pei’s spectacular Miho Museum.
Watch the finale of Louis Vuitton’s cruise show:
“We invite people to come to see and even afford them to travel the world to see. It has a dimension that is more … not a performance. It’s not about art, but a certain moment with a certain emotion that is not in the realm of other fashion shows. It’s a moment that is really by itself, a capsule of time. In that place, it’s more free,”the 46-year-old French native adds.
“To be able to do a show related to the landscape around is extraordinary. I want to imagine women evolving in their environment and the fashion goes with it. What is a fashion show? It’s also a choreography of women walking in an environment.”
As our conversation continues, it becomes clear that creative freedom is something that Ghesquière has come to appreciate from his tenure at Louis Vuitton. Ghesquière truly made his mark in the fashion world when he turned a fading Balenciaga’s on its head and restored it to arguably more than its former glory during his 15 years with the label. He first designed Asia-specific collections, such as mourning clothes for Japan, before taking over as creative designer at the age of 25.
His creations were often described as “futuristic” for their innovative mix of genres, yet incredibly contemporary. Never one who wanted to be hemmed in by one concept, Ghesquière proved that casual and extravagant elegance are not mutually exclusive.
Yet, being at Balenciaga carried the great weight of the heritage of its beloved founder, Cristobal Balenciaga, which in hindsight Ghesquière acknowledges might have led to him allowing his hands to be tied more than was necessary. “I thought to succeed, I had to be like Balenciaga himself and the idea of the house being quite secret,” adds the precocious prodigy, who won an internship with Agnès b. at the age of 14 and was working for Jean-Paul Gaultier by the time he was 18.
Still, he was a raving success: his shows were the ones that fashionistas had on their “Do Not Miss” list, and fashion bigwigs such Anna Wintour were throwing parties to fete his genius.
At Balenciaga, he built up a following of Hollywood fans, such as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kristen Stewart, who have migrated to Louis Vuitton with him.
He has won new fans since, including Alicia Vikander, Michelle Williams and, more groundbreakingly, Jaden Smith.
“I was quite fascinated to see, to be clear, a straight guy embracing the aesthetics and to wear feminine clothes in his way,” Ghesquière says of Smith. “It doesn’t happen that much. The opposite is true: the tools of men are used to make women look stronger, but [that] the guy will put [on] those dresses and assume his masculinity is quite interesting.”
Ghesquière and Balenciaga didn’t part on the best of the terms, with the designer quoting a lack of support and the house subsequently suing him over those comments. The case was settled out of court.
Yet the past four years with LV have been markedly different, with some noticing that Ghesquière “smiles more” and looks “less serious” all the time.
He is genuinely fervent when he enthuses about the support he gets from the French luxury label. “I am amazingly surrounded,” he says. “I learn everyday. I get to meet people who have incredible craftsmanship that is bringing me these amazing ideas when I give one direction. And I feel that it’s not that my ideas are without limits, but that with Vuitton you can really push the limits and that makes me happy. That’s why I am more comfortable.”
When LV first approached Ghesquière about taking over the helm from Marc Jacobs, he was intrigued by the idea of working with a contemporary brand with a relatively short history. “To be the second one in a very fresh new brand in terms of ready-to-wear was interesting to me,” he recalls. “When people say ‘it’s small’, it’s huge compared to any other house because Vuitton is so big.
“So doing the small things that grow into something so big, it’s quite fascinating and very attractive. To me, it’s very interesting and created a lot of desire and plus, [Vuitton has a] very different culture and story from Balenciaga, and my fear was to try to go somewhere to reproduce something that would not have been right.”
The creative freedom he has had for the past four years has energised a young, but more confident Ghesquière. He says: “It’s my responsibility to make propositions that are sometimes a little disturbing, but in time, hopefully, they will become successful, but sometimes a little more complex than what [they] should be. Once I’m free to do that, I am super happy to do the other things – the more accessible things, the more recognisable things, the more commercial things.”
Ghesquière set out to extend the wardrobe of the LV woman and to try and define a style about LV with “casual quality and the exquisite pieces, the real and the extraordinary”. He has brought a coherence to the LV wardrobe and refashioned the monogram’s famous trunks into the label’s newest “It” bag, the Petite Malle.
“It’s full of surprises because Vuitton is a constant movement,” Ghesquière says. “They do this and they do that and I do this and it’s a schedule of non-stop celebration and new launch of products and the links are created. Or you create something and they develop it into something else. It’s a great interaction that is constantly movement and it also looks like what I wanted.”
Michael Burke, CEO of Louis Vuitton, confirms as much when I bump into him after the interview. “So many other things that we do is because of what Nicolas has created in the first place.”
Yet, in the past few months, there have been suggestions that there may be trouble in paradise as rumours have been rife that the spring/summer 2018 shows in October may well be Ghesquière’s last with the label, although his contract with Louis Vuitton officially ends only in October 2018. When I broach the subject with him, he interjects with a laugh: “You want to ask me if I will start my own label.”
For a moment, before we part ways, the old mysterious Ghesquière returns: “I want to do it,” he says. “I’m very busy with Vuitton. It’s a question of time, but my intention is to do it, definitely. I have many things to say. Also, differently. It’s just that I’ve been taken by very fascinating projects for years and also I think it’s good to be very focused on what you do. It’s still there. I will never say I will never do it. But there is no timing.”
Years ago, old friend Azzedine Alaia offered these words of advice to a young Ghesquière: “Do what you want when you want!” And, perhaps, that is what freedom truly means for Ghesquière today.