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Nicolas Ghesquiere's Fifteen Years at the House

After fifteen years as the creative director of Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesqui¨¨re is moving on.

He leaves a legacy at the house of extraordinary fashion leadership that challenged the idea of what clothing could be, and proved astonishingly potent and profoundly influential.

A self-described ¡°autodidact¡± Ghesqui¨¨re, 41, was raised in an area of rural western France that was filled with storied castles, but isolated from the world of fashion. His mother¡¯s interest in clothes, however, and the fashion magazines she subscribed to, fed a nascent interest, and with Jacques Lang as the country¡¯s culture minister, the importance of fashion as a cultural force was reflected in extensive television coverage that gave Ghesqui¨¨re a further outlet to dream.

¡°When I was a boy, I didn¡¯t want to go play with the other kids,¡± he told me in an extensive interview in early 2011. ¡°Instead, I was drawing all the time¡ªcars and clothes! One day¡ªI must have been ten years old or so¡ªmy aunt looked at what I was doing and she said, ¡®You know, Nicolas, what you are doing is fashion drawing. You are designing clothes.¡¯ And as soon as I realized that there was this thing called fashion¡ªthat there were fashion designers¡ªthat was it! I understood instantly that that was going to be my thing. Really and truly, there were no questions after that of what I wanted to do in life.¡±

At the tender age of fifteen, he applied to a number of fashion houses for internships and was finally offered one by Agnes Troubl¨¦ of Agnes B whose brand, was ¡°really the essence of the ready-to-wear.¡± Another internship at Corinne Cobson followed, but he dreamed of working with Jean Paul Gaultier. ¡°For me, the Jean Paul Gaultier vision was so right,¡± he said. ¡°A vision of very free women with an ethnic mix¡ªwith a lot of references but yet no references. I think it was so right for his time, that fascinating fashion moment when suddenly you could see the influence of the street.¡±

At eighteen, he was hired by Gaultier. ¡°I was there for the collection that Madonna modeled,¡± he recalled, ¡°and the Orthodox Jewish collection, which was so beautiful . . . I was the spectator of all the things I had been dreaming about; the shows, the backstage, the models¡ªKate Moss, Linda [Evangelista], Christy [Turlington].¡±

But he eventually left for a lucrative freelance career, designing for the knitwear house Poles, for Thierry Mugler¡¯s second line, and the shoe company of Stephane Kelian, among others.

¡°There were no shows, no pictures, no press, it was not prestigious at all,¡± he said, but he was gaining essential experience and making the contacts that would hold him in good stead for the future, among them French Vogue Fashion Editor Marie-Am¨¦lie Sauv¨¦, with whom he struck up an immediate friendship that blossomed into a creative working partnership.

One of the freelance jobs that he took on was to design the eccentric collection of licensee accounts for the holding company that owned Balenciaga (Josephus Thimister was then installed as designer for the main line). Here, Ghesqui¨¨re was working on collections, primarily for the Japanese market, of such niche products as rental wedding dresses, mourning clothes, and golf wear.

But his profile as a designer rose exponentially with the edgily intriguing collections that he designed for the Italian leather house Trussardi.

In 1997, Thimister moved on from Balenciaga, and Ghesqui¨¨re, who had designed a successful capsule commercial collection for the store, was given the job, with the understanding from the management that was this was an interim arrangement before a ¡°star¡± name was appointed¡ªat the time Helmut Lang was the company¡¯s rumored first choice.

So at the age of 25, Ghesqui¨¨re was the force behind runway collections in Paris and Milan. ¡°They gave us 80 meters square of space and all the rest was left up to us,¡± Ghesqui¨¨re remembers of his capsule team. ¡°And you know what? I became possessed, fierce. I was on a mission to make it succeed.¡±

¡°We wanted a strong and confident and quite austere woman,¡± he remembered of his image for the brand. ¡°It was a lot about a reaction against what was going on in fashion then. It was quite empowering.¡±

In 1998, Madonna wore Balenciaga¡¯s gothic-chic dress to the Golden Globes, and Ghesqui¨¨re was named Avant-Garde Designer of the Year at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. The following year, Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune lauded Ghesqui¨¨re as ¡°the most intriguing and original designer of his generation¡± and Stella Tennant won Model of the Year, dressed in Balenciaga¡¯s patchwork top and hip-slung cargo pants, thus setting a new benchmark for cool. His high-impact, must-have accessories further heightened global brand visibility.

In July 2001, the Gucci Group acquired Balenciaga with Ghesqui¨¨re at the helm, and he was able to take the brand to new heights.

The Balenciaga team moved into Jean-Charles de Castelbajac¡¯s extraordinary nineteenth-century town house on rue Cassette on Paris¡¯s Left Bank where Ghesqui¨¨re presented his collections before a highly selective audience in an atmosphere that was always electric with anticipation¡ªhis cool, automaton girls moving at lightning speed to the coolest music of the moment, wearing, frankly, the coolest clothes of any given moment.

At this time, the company acquired the remarkable Crist¨®bal Balenciaga Archive, a resource that Ghesqui¨¨re had not previously had access to, and being able to examine Balenciaga¡¯s remarkable construction techniques and innovative silhouettes and textiles first hand added a significant new dimension to Ghesqui¨¨re¡¯s own fanatically perfectionist work for the house. ¡°Suddenly I had access to all these extraordinary things¡ªI discovered the gazar, the balloon shape, the diamond construction,¡± he has noted. He successfully grafted the master¡¯s signatures onto clothes that were never nostalgic but instead always relentlessly modern and forward-looking, and often incorporated sportswear elements that reflected his childhood interests in fencing, swimming, and riding. Inspired by his discoveries in the archives, Ghesqui¨¨re added the Edition collection, curating several archive garments a season and translating them into ready to wear whilst scrupulously reproducing the original¡¯s cut, textile, and embellishment.

A Balenciaga retrospective at the Mus¨¦e de la Mode at the Louvre in 2006 presented a chronology of Crist¨®bal¡¯s work on one floor, and a dynamic installation of Ghesqui¨¨re¡¯s identity for the house upstairs, and the following season, Ghesqui¨¨re¡¯s collection was heavily influenced by his investigations at the archive and the museum. ¡°All his work is abstract at the end,¡± he said of Crist¨®bal¡¯s oeuvre. ¡°The mystery is unique.¡±

¡°I like a weirdness. I like strange beauty,¡± he told me. ¡°I like natural girls who are not true beauties. I like when there is a certain architectural quality¡ªI like when it¡¯s not an easy thing to understand¡ªalthough it¡¯s not about being conceptual. It¡¯s not done to charm. That¡¯s what I notice with Crist¨®bal. I like it so much, that philosophy. I¡¯m not the continuity of Crist¨®bal, but I¡¯m supposed to say something about my moment with the element, the influence of Crist¨®bal, if it¡¯s possible. And his work is so radical and not charming at all. It¡¯s not done to seduce, it¡¯s almost monastic.¡±

No future plans have yet been announced, but Ghesqui¨¨re¡¯s single-minded focus and soaring, protean talents will surely find exciting expression in new fashion adventures.

¡°You never want to stop,¡± Ghesqui¨¨re told me in 2011. ¡°Because it says that you are alive and you are living in that moment. Because every collection reflects a moment of your life which is no more . . . I think inspiration is the way we live. To be a designer is not a job. It¡¯s a way of living.¡± 

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