Louis Vuitton’s ever-inventive Artistic Director, Nicolas Ghesquière, is taking the venerable French fashion house on a futuristic odyssey.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Louis Vuitton’s ever-inventive Artistic Director, Nicolas Ghesquière, is taking the venerable French fashion house on a futuristic odyssey.

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The city was a painting in oils the day I visited Nicolas Ghesquière. It was cold outside, but the blue sky was made for Paris, the perfect ground for those iconic buildings, all that history and all that romance. Paris is the sublime essence of a dream we want to believe in, that living is a beautiful art, and all the way to the horizon the rooftops and spires convey a hunger for something wonderful. On the right bank, steps from the Pont Neuf, on the second floor of a grand building by Rue de Rivoli, scented candles were burning in the many roomed ateliers of Louis Vuitton. In every room, the candles burned, the threads looped—a golden moment takes many hours.

It tells you a lot about a person, how he walks into a room. (Remember Carly Simon’s line about the guy who walks into the party, “like [he’s] walking onto a yacht”?) It so happens that Nicolas Ghesquière doesn’t so much walk into the room, he rolls in, a ball of energy and openness, and we said hello like two sudden prisoners of luxury, locked in a giant white room overlooking the Seine. “You are the official winner of the best-office competition,” I told him. “Bigger than Karl Lagerfeld’s at Chanel, nicer than Sarah Burton’s at Alexander McQueen, whiter than Mrs. Prada’s.”

“I know. Nice, right?” he said, laughing.

The laughter, by the way, is important. During the 15 years he served as Creative Director of Balenciaga, Ghesquière was better known for his seriousness, his shyness, and for a near reclusive unwillingness to play the part of the party-boy designer with celebrity friends. But now there are signs of an upbeat, easier Ghesquière, a man both sure of his place in the world and comfortable with his own talent. Ghesquière is at the top of his form, and fresh challenges are like oxygen to him. Newly light on his second wind, Ghesquière appreciates the amusement that comes with experience, and he has no end of determination, which I believe will soon lead to a namesake label.

When I asked him, he said as much. But that’s the future. For the present, Ghesquière is the delighted head of Louis Vuitton, a man with the intelligence to question himself and push for clarity.You’ll even see Ghesquière in the company of celebrity pals nowadays, but the bigger sense you get with him is that his life is falling into place and his wings are spreading.

Andy Warhol once told a friend of mine how to interview an artist. “Ask him 25 questions in the right order,” he said. I told Ghesquière this, and he was instantly amused, so we sat down on a big white sofa, and, in honour of his new lightness, I sent my questions, written on squares of paper, across to him like paper airplanes. Ghesquière had had, he told me, a fairly boring upbringing in Loudun, in western France: His father managed a golf course, and Ghesquière grew up dreaming of life beyond the fairway.

“What is home?” I asked.

“Paris is home,” he said. “But home is also a nostalgia for adolescence. It is a fantasy, out of proportion.” “Your poet Rimbaud said, ‘Life is elsewhere,’” I reply. “Exactly,” said Ghesquière. “It’s a very good way of seeing it. And there’s an addiction now of travelling, of having a different experience. I don’t like to go home anymore to the home of my childhood because, you know, it’s a place I will never find again. Even if it’s there.” Modern fashion designers, the great ones, have to be masters of sculpture and masters of business, and Ghesquière is a byword for innovation in both. At Balenciaga he made beautiful clothes, and the company was resurrected. Where Cristóbal Balenciaga made the box jacket and the sack dress, inventing new looks and silhouettes, Ghesquière offered slimline pants, structured blazers, “Lego” shoes, toga dresses and metallic leggings, a brilliant use of floral prints, a concentration on utility-wear and what he called the “techno bohème,” using new materials, while selling countless Lariat handbags. He has the golden touch: Invention coupled with what is known as merchantability. I was keen to know where he got it from, the supreme command, the creative aplomb. Did he glean some of it from the people he worked with at the beginning, Jean Paul Gaultier, Agnès B.? “I was very young when I worked with Agnès,” he said. “I was just observing. But from Jean Paul I got a sense of… yes, the right word is ‘control.’ He was in control of almost everything. He was conducting the band and creating something that belonged to him. He was at the helm. I hate the word ‘consultation.’ I don’t know what it means.”

Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director Nicolas Ghesquière with the actress Sasha Lane, one of the faces of the spring 2017 campaign. OPPOSITE: Ghesquière at Oscar Niemeyer’s 1971 French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.
Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director Nicolas Ghesquière with the actress Sasha Lane, one of the faces of the spring 2017 campaign. OPPOSITE: Ghesquière at Oscar Niemeyer’s 1971 French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.
Rila Fukushima at Villa Cavrois. OPPOSITE: A levitating Hannah Elyse at Villa Cavrois, the 1932 Robert MalletStevens modernist architectural gem in Croix, France.
Rila Fukushima at Villa Cavrois. OPPOSITE: A levitating Hannah Elyse at Villa Cavrois, the 1932 Robert MalletStevens modernist architectural gem in Croix, France.

He told me that resurrecting Balenciaga was difficult. “It was a transmission; I was carrying on for someone. I probably underestimated how difficult it was. You just go for it at age 25, and the context allowed my determination to work. I am proud of it. I take responsibility for having put Balenciaga back on the map, with integrity.” He is clearly proud of that achievement, but the pressure it brought on him—and the legal dispute that engulfed him when he left the company in 2012— presents a conundrum that is typical of the fashion world. How does a creative person pursue an individual vision while being answerable both to the tradition of a house and its commercial aims? “It was quite confusing, to be honest with you,” he said. “I got lost in that. Sometimes I thought the company was me, it was mine, it was not a heritage, we were the same object, we shared the same DNA.

Then I realised I was wrong: It’s a marriage that can fail. I was happy but suffering too, not sure whether I was trapped or free.”  Perhaps freedom grows with wisdom. Ghesquière is now 45, and he appears to take pleasure in the challenge of time passing, and, as always, that enjoyment is filtering into his work. I asked him about that sense of growth, and how it applied to the question of women getting older. “As a woman gets older,” he said, “it’s more about style than fashion. A woman knowing herself more and more, and looking for new things, is getting into her own personal style, being more than just a fashion addict. I’m interested in that.” Yet it must be difficult to create original designs in a world obsessed with familiarity. I asked if haute couture was still possible.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Haute couture corresponded with a world that was changing radically, and those women were brave. They wanted to have a new shape. They were conscious of wanting to be opinion leaders. Today it’s more about embellishment. The endless situation of the red carpet, it’s a constant celebration, and for me that is problematic: The more you celebrate, the less you get a sense of what there is to celebrate. I understand its importance, but it’s not the real sense of couture. Couture was the matrix, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Still, it was amazing how Saint Laurent or Ungaro, for example, brought that excellence into readyto- wear.”

Ghesquière considers himself lucky to have strong partners at Louis Vuitton, people whose daring permits him to take the energy and the craft of old couture and make it new. “I’m talking about our ambassadors,” he told me, smiling with his blue eyes. He means his muses—the actresses Sasha Lane and Rila Fukushima (both photographed here), Catherine Deneuve, Léa Seydoux, as well as Michelle Williams and Alicia Vikander— women who embody the ethos that matters to him. “These girls are not scared. They don’t just want to wear a boring dress on every red carpet.” Some fashion people are all instinct, but Ghesquière is also a thinker: When you ask him a question, he hunts down the answer.

At Vuitton he has resources that match his perfectionism. The catwalk shows are sumptuous and often sublime affairs, with a deep gloss to them. I remember one of his first runway shows for Vuitton, in the fall of 2014. I visited the set at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne after midnight, and the carpenters were still hard at work, sawing and drilling, only hours before the show. Next morning: Perfection reigned. The show was a poetic masterpiece, a hall of mirrors, with young faces looking down from video screens quoting lines from the David Lynch film, Dune. Many of his collections rely on the clean lines and the dreamscapes of an unknown space-age future. He likes science fiction. “I’ve always believed in a creative dimension,” he said. “It is where we go. The parallel world more often has to do with anticipation than anything else.”

I take responsibility for having put Balenciaga back on the map, with integrity.”
I take responsibility for having put Balenciaga back on the map, with integrity.”

And what is the fashion world, if not the element of pure anticipation made solid? In a sense, Ghesquière has become a philosopher of luxury, trying to refresh, renew, remake a brand of goods with an old story and an old patrimony but with a futuristic reality. There are women and men in Queens or Lyon who dream of having one of his bags as part of their self-transformation. “That’s right,” he said. “It makes you feel better.

They know there’s a creativity. With Vuitton the scale of this expression is so large that it becomes super-interesting. People can feel they are part of a community.” Ghesquière recognises it is the weight of the past being filtered by young minds that makes influential fashion houses. He smiled, played with a hole at the wrist of his sweater. “Troublemakers,” he said, “often become a great reference in classicism.”

His ambition at Vuitton is to make clothes for modern women on the move. “For a long time I was considered a niche designer,” he said. “I adored this, but today I want to create things that touch people on a larger scale.” He wants his designs to be more edgy and work from season to season, he told me. Ghesquière’s aim is to “incarnate France’s aristocratic savoir-faire along with today’s very young, free style.” He is too shy to say he was programmed for fame, but he admits that it is his natural element and that he felt relieved when success came. “It is what I love,” he said.“And when I go home in the evening and observe what I did during the day, I feel super happy. I still have the same emotion I did when it was fresh.” “But can success be oppressive?” I ask him. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You oppress yourself. If I don’t surprise myself, I feel quite bad. The clock is oppressive, but I want to do timeless pieces. You have emotion, and you create a desire—that is my job.”

Ghesquière is not a political animal, but he understands that freedom is worth standing up for and that progress does not come for free. You have to fight for it. Vuitton was always about travel, but are the world’s borders closing? “Fear is the enemy,” he said. “Fear of outsiders is the worst thing. Fear of the ‘other’ is what much of the world is saying today, but… from the street, people are saying, ‘The world has to be mixed.’ A generation is saying that. I trust youngness in that way.” Ghesquière loves a strange and unexpected idea. For the Harper’s BAZAAR shoot, he was excited to work with the artist Vincent Fournier. “There’s something so cinematic about his intelligence,” he said. “I love working with creative minds that are so open!” The shoot took place at Villa Cavrois,a 1930s modernist house designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, and also at Oscar Niemeyer’s 1971 French Communist Party headquarters, a wondrous creation that perfectly meets Ghesquière’s futuristic aesthetic. When I asked Fournier about it, the artist said he was fascinated by Ghesquière’s obsession with time and mutation. “His work is very linked to the future,” Fournier said, “having a strong sense of anticipation but always with a connection to the past.”

By the end of our conversation, the hole in Ghesquière’s sweater was bigger, yet he seemed at home with both past achievements and new possibilities. “What’s your biggest fear?” I asked him.


“Not much chance of that now.”

He shrugged. The old smile returned. Certain kinds of people, especially perhaps boys from the backwater, never really believe the past is over. The past is always waiting. But it was a joy to see him at the centre of Paris, with his success glaring around him, an affirmation of his brightest dreams. I remember observing Ghesquière at the end of the cruise show he did for Vuitton in Monaco in 2014. He appeared to have emerged from a period of exhaustion, from a bruising encounter with Balenciaga and a trial of self-questioning. The show took place in a specially made glass box in front of the royal palace. The runway was constructed of clear panels with images of water flowing underneath. The new clothes looked as if they carried the same pacific feel of a clean, easy tomorrow, an optimism Ghesquière was willing into existence. When he sprinted down the runway to take his applause, he seemed almost shy of such optimism, but he was already living it. “As you get older,” he told me, your sense of editing gets more and more refined. And it’s interesting to follow that refinement.”

“Into the future?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “That is the future.”.