WORK ETHIC: Although he exited Balenciaga last November, designer Nicolas Ghesquière continues to captivate the press — and secure megaeditorials. To wit: The summer issue of Berlin magazine 032c, due out Tuesday, features Ghesquière on the cover in an embrace with actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, his muse, plus 38 pages inside.
The magazine calls the feature its “monument” to Ghesquière’s final season, with Gainsbourg posing for photographer Karim Sadli in looks from the spring collection. Meanwhile, in the 14,000-word article by Pierre Alexandre de Looz, the designer breaks his silence on his split from Balenciaga and drops a few choice hints about his future plans — while skirting widespread speculation he will work with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in some capacity, possibly launching his own brand.
“Ideally, I’d like to give myself a six-month break, to travel and discover things. I’m not sure it’ll happen because some interesting projects are on the horizon,” he says. “Given the projects and the offers I have on the table, the trick is to think about what is most inspiring, what can become a new way of working.”
Later in the article, he seems torn between the golden handcuffs of a megabrand and the route less traveled. “I’m preparing something, but I have choices to make. I will announce something when I am ready,” he said. “Now is my time to question interseasonality — it’s always the opposite season somewhere in the world — and fashion’s need to be global while respecting the environment and local cultures and of course the usual six-month cycle for collections. I may decide to fulfill that mission again, and I’ll enjoy it as I always have. Another part of me absolutely wants to break these rules. I may be putting myself in danger, but that’s what I want these days. I enjoyed years of extreme comfort at Balenciaga. It’s fantastic to harvest that status to explore in new ways, rather than sticking to a routine, even if it was the most comfortable and incredible, I couldn’t be in a better position.”
After months of silence, Nicolas Ghesquiere has finally spoken out. Today, BoF brings you the global exclusive excerpt of his interview with System magazine where he reveals the circumstances surrounding his abrupt departure from Balenciaga.
System magazine’s Jonathan Wingfield interviewed Nicolas Ghesquière several times between early December 2012 and late March 2013. This was the first time Ghesquière had chosen to speak publicly about his shock departure after 15 years at Balenciaga.
Ghesquière opens up about why he left Balenciaga, his thoughts and impressions about the current state of the fashion industry and what the future has in store. As he mentions at one point in this defining conversation, “The best way to move forward is to go back to work.”
What follows is a global exclusive excerpt from the interview.
At what point into the job at Balenciaga did you realise you needed to wise up to the business side of the brand?
NG: Straight away. It’s part of being a creative because the vision you have ends up in the stores. It actually makes me smile today when I think about it because it was me who had to invent the concept of being commercial at Balenciaga. Right from the start I wanted it to be commercial, but the first group who owned the house didn’t have the first notion of commerce; there was no production team. There was nothing.
What was your vision for the brand?
NG: For me, Balenciaga has a history that is just as important as that of Chanel, even if it’s a lesser-known name. It had the modernity, it was contemporary, and I’ve always positioned it as a little Chanel or Prada.
But what makes Chanel and Prada bigger structures?
NG: The people that surround the designers. Miuccia Prada has an extraordinary partner, whereas I was doing everything by myself.
So without the right people, building something as big as a Chanel or Prada is unimaginable?
NG: I don’t know if it’s impossible, maybe the system will change, but what’s clear is that those brands have family and partners surrounding them, and they have creative carte blanche. Prada, for example, has made this model where you can be a business and an opinion leader at the same time, which is totally admirable. It’s the same thing at Chanel. Sadly, I never had that. I never had a partner, and I ended up feeling too alone. I had a marvellous studio and design team who were close to me, but it started becoming a bureaucracy and gradually became more corporate, until it was no longer even linked to fashion. In the end, it felt as though they just wanted to be like any other house.
You’re saying this spanned from a lack of dialogue?
NG: From the fact that there was no one helping me on the business side, for example.
Can you be more specific?
NG: They wanted to open up a load of stores but in really mediocre spaces, where people weren’t aware of the brand. It was a strategy that I just couldn’t relate to. I found this garage space on Faubourg-Saint-Honoré; I got in contact with the real estate guy who’s a friend of a friend, and we started talking… And when I went back to Balenciaga, the reaction was, ‘Oh no, no, no, not Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, you can’t be serious?’ And I said yes really, the architecture is amazing, it’s not a classic shop. Oh really, really… then six months went by, six long months of negotiations… it was just so frustrating. Everything was like that.
And the conversations, like that one about the store, who would you have them with?
NG: I’d rather not say. There wasn’t really any direction. I think with Karl and Miuccia, you can feel that it’s the creative people who have the power. It was around that time that I heard people saying, ‘Your style is so Balenciaga now, it’s no longer Nicolas Ghesquière, it’s Balenciaga’s style.’ It all became so dehumanised. Everything became an asset for the brand, trying to make it ever more corporate – it was all about branding. I don’t have anything against that; actually, the thing that I’m most proud of is that Balenciaga has become a big financial entity and will continue to exist. But I began to feel as though I was being sucked dry, like they wanted to steal my identity while trying to homogenise things. It just wasn’t fulfilling anymore.
When was the first time you felt your ambitions for the house were no longer compatible with Balenciaga’s management?
NG: It was all the time, but especially over the last two or three years it became one frustration after another. It was really that lack of culture which bothered me in the end. The strongest pieces that we made for the catwalk got ignored by the business people. They forgot that in order to get to that easily sellable biker jacket, it had to go via a technically mastered piece that had been shown on the catwalk. I started to become unhappy when I realised that there was no esteem, interest, or recognition for the research that I’d done; they only cared about what the merchandisable result would look like. This accelerated desire meant they ignored the fact that all the pieces that remain the most popular today are from collections we made ten years ago. They have become classics and will carry on being so. Although the catwalk was extremely rich in ideas and products, there was no follow-up merchandising. With just one jacket we could have triggered whole commercial strategies. It’s what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do everything. I was switching between the designs for the catwalk and the merchandisable pieces – I became Mr Merchandiser. There was never a merchandiser at Balenciaga, which I regret terribly.
Did you never go to the top of the group and ask for the support you needed?
NG: Yes, endlessly! But they didn’t understand. More than anything else, you need people who understand fashion. There are people I’ve worked with who have never understood how fashion works. They keep saying they love fashion, yet they’ve never actually grasped that this isn’t yoghurt or a piece of furniture – products in the purest sense of the term. They just don’t understand the process at all, and so now they’re transforming it into something much more reproducible and flat.
What’s the alternative to this?
NG: You need to have the right people around you: people who adore the luxury domain. There has to be a vision, but there also has to be a partner, a duo, someone to help you carry it. I haven’t lost hope!
At the time when you were starting to feel that frustration, did you talk to any other designers who were in the same situation?
NG: Yes. What’s interesting is how my split from Balenciaga has encouraged people to get in touch with me, and they’ve said, ‘Me too, I’m in the same situation. I want to leave too.’ There are others, but my situation at Balenciaga was very particular.
In spite of the increasingly stifling conditions you felt you were operating in, were you nonetheless scared by the prospect of leaving Balenciaga?
NG: I just said to myself, ‘Okay, well you have to leave, you have to cut the cord.’ But I didn’t say anything to anyone, apart from to a few very close people, because, you know, I’ve become pretty good at standing on my own two feet.
Once you’d decided enough was enough and you made your intentions clear, was management surprised that you wanted to leave?
NG: Yes. I think so, because I’d shown my ambitions for the house. There’d been lots of discussions, of course, and there were clearly some differences, but that sort of decision doesn’t just come out of nowhere. I’d been thinking a lot too. I was having trouble sleeping at one point. [Laughs] But there’s usually something keeping me awake.
After the announcement, did lots of people in the fashion world contact you?
NG: I didn’t actually see all the reactions straight away because I was in Japan at the time; one of my best friends had taken me on something of a spiritual trip to observe people who make traditional lacquer and obi belts; it was such a privileged environment with tea ceremonies. On the other side of the world, there was this violent announcement being made. When I got back to Paris I saw the press, and with all the commentary going on I actually learnt things about myself; it was quite beautiful in fact. Generally the reaction had been very positive, even on Twitter there were some very satisfactory things being written. Ultimately, I felt okay in the end because it seemed very dignified. I haven’t expressed myself up until now, but I would like to say thank you to everyone, I really am very grateful.
Did you ever think about making a personal announcement?
NG: No, I never wanted to express myself like that. I don’t know how to do that.
What’s the most exciting thing about this period of time for you?
NG: Preparing for the next chapter and having the time to observe what’s going on in the industry. People could have forever associated me with Balenciaga. We saw clearly when the split took place that there was a desire for my name, so I disassociated myself naturally from the house. That could have been a risk. It would have been different if Balenciaga had disassociated itself from me, but people had seen me develop my signature and knew that it might happen. That’s exciting because whatever choice I make, the possibilities are open, and that was confirmed with the freeing of my name from Balenciaga. I’d made so much effort and been such a good obedient kid in associating myself… Now I can imagine a whole new vocabulary. I’m regenerating again, and that’s very exciting because it’s a feeling I haven’t had since I was in my twenties.
Kristen Stewart Told Ghesquière She’d ‘Run Away’ From Balenciaga With Him
German magazine 032c has devoted its cover and 38 pages of its summer issue to former Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière, calling the feature a “monument” to Ghesquière’s final spring 2013 season. It's a hefty tribute indeed: There's a thirteen-page Q&A between the designer and Pierre Alexandre de Looz, a fashion editorial starring Ghesquière muse Charlotte Gainsbourg and styled by Marie Amélie Sauvé, and a meaty story by De Looz about Ghesquière's fifteen-year tenure at the house, bolstered with reverent quotes from major industry figures like Grace Coddington, Eric Wilson, and Hamish Bowles. It's a long read, to say the least, but full of interesting tidbits about Ghesquière's ideas and the history of Balenciaga.
But let's cut to the juicy part: Kristen Stewart, a friend and "ambassador" of Ghesquière's, contributed several F-bomb-laced quotes to the piece. She tells De Looz:
He is a reminder of how fucking annoying everyone else is. It’s not easy to walk a line that not every single person in the world is going to get in a second. Nicolas is the sort of person who loves swimming in rough water ...
I’ve felt the happiest I’ve ever felt wearing these clothes. I’ve also felt androgynous and rigid. Sort of like you’re wearing a fucking building.
She also recalls the moment after his final collection for Balenciaga, when he told her he was leaving the house:
I was like, ‘Dude, are you okay?’ and he was like (in a French accent), ‘Yes. Yes. I will tell you soon, but there are things happening.’ Before I left, he was like, ‘All right, I'll tell you.’ I’m so fucking proud of him because what he was about to do would rock people’s worlds. He was just like, ‘Believe for me.’ I thought it was the coolest fucking thing.
032c also gave the Cut an exclusive additional quote from Stewart:
The look on his face after that show, he had this look like he was actually the kid who was being told he wasn't allowed to do something. And he was totally not going to stand for it, and I was like, 'I will totally run away with you.'
And so she has! Balenciaga hasn't explicitly stated whether they'll continue to work with her post-Ghesquière, but their future seems unlikely. Alexander Wang, the label's new designer, famously expressed his loyalty to Liberty Ross, the wronged woman in Stewart's cheating scandal with film director Rupert Sanders last summer. Stewart has yet to appear in any of Wang's new designs for the label. This article skirts the issue, simply describing her as "an ambassador for the brand’s second new fragrance Flora Botanica."
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