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Nicolas Ghesquière Is Playing ‘the Big Game’

By Alice Gregory

Nicolas Ghesquière, photographed on July 16, 2019, in the Parc Floral de Paris.
 
Pieter Hugo
Nicolas Ghesquière, photographed on July 16, 2019, in the Parc Floral de Paris.

From the Louis Vuitton headquarters, which is housed in a corniced 18th-century building some 500 feet from the Right Bank of the Seine, one has a direct view of Notre-Dame. In February, Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of the Parisian fashion house’s women’s collections, urged me to look out of his office window, where the cathedral’s spire and bell towers could be seen shining against a pale winter sky. He shook his head slightly and shrugged a bit, as if to admit, wordlessly, to his good fortune, and to concede, again without saying anything, that when one is permitted proximity to such obscene beauty and physical evidence of humanity, it is barbaric to turn away.

Two months later, Notre-Dame was aflame. Ghesquière and his team, who usually work well into the night, had already gone home by the time the fire broke out around 6:30 p.m. on April 15. “Nobody stayed,” he recalled. “It was bizarre. It was like, ‘Let’s go, on y va, we have an early night! There’s nothing to do — we’re done for the day!’” It’s something, he said, that “never happens.” By the time Ghesquière arrived at Le Bristol, the hotel where he was living while his apartment in the Marais underwent renovation, he could see the smoke from the balcony of his top-floor suite. Within a few hours, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and C.E.O. of LVMH — and one of Ghesquière’s bosses — had pledged 200 million euros to the restoration efforts.

Over the following weeks, the question of how, exactly, the 856-year-old church should be rebuilt became something of a national preoccupation in France, with politicians, activists, art historians, urban planners and philanthropists all weighing in. Some said Notre-Dame should be recreated to look exactly as it did just before the fire; others, citing the fact that the building as we knew it was actually an amalgam of many centuries’ worth of work, argued that from the ruins should come something contemporary; a small group contended that the charred wood should be left exactly as it is: a kind of architectural memento mori. “It’s a very interesting discussion,” Ghesquière said in late May. “It’s very symptomatic of our times, this discussion between the people who say we should reproduce [it] as it was and the people who wish instead for evolution.” He smiled a bit sheepishly while fantasizing about something “super, super modern.” “One of my wishes for Paris is of course more modern architecture,” he said. “I would love to ask the most crazy architect to do it.”

It could be argued that Ghesquière actually has a relevant perspective on the matter — that these were more than the idle, extemporaneous musings of a man famous for his futuristic fashion designs. Ghesquière, whose “favourite way to start a collection is with an anachronism,” arrived at the now 165-year-old luxury luggage company in 2013, after 15 years at the helm of another storied French fashion house, Balenciaga, where he was the artistic director from 1997 through 2012. He is familiar with the challenges of simultaneously preserving and updating a cherished symbol of French opulence and craftsmanship. “Don’t forget,” he likes to say, “that what you think of as normal and classic was once new.”

Pieter Hugo. Styled by Melanie Ward.From left: collarless straight coat; embellished jacquard jacket, embroidered sleeveless shirt and printed puffy skirt; quilted leather jacket, embroidered bustier top and pink puffy skirt. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories, price on request.
From left: collarless straight coat; embellished jacquard jacket, embroidered sleeveless shirt and printed puffy skirt; quilted leather jacket, embroidered bustier top and pink puffy skirt. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories, price on request.

Ghesquière loves a well-functioning metaphor. His speech, which is articulate and convincingly cerebral, tends to be dense with analogies. It’s a common trait among fashion designers, but unlike some, Ghesquière’s figurative language actually makes sense. He avoids industry jargon (“colour story,” “taste level”), and when speaking with him, one gets the impression that he is actively trying to communicate ideas rather than speaking impressionistically in the conversational equivalent of a mood board.

At 48, the designer compares his professional course to what has become the common Hollywood career trajectory of Marvel tapping young, independent filmmakers with little studio experience to direct the biggest movies ever made in the history of cinema. “If I were a director or an actor,” he said, “it would be like, ‘O.K., I did my indie movie, I did my small-scale thing. But then the indie movie became known — it went to Sundance, I got distribution, and then I went to do a big blockbuster.’”

Ghesquière often discusses his ascent in these terms. Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand, has a logo — three quatrefoils and a serifed monogram against a dark-chocolate canvas background, iterated constantly — that is, like Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s munched-on McIntosh, one of the most recognizable (and counterfeited) on the planet. More than just a symbol of wealth, it’s become a symbol of the unabashed pursuit of it. It’s not all that rare to see people who have literally branded themselves with the logo, the pattern repeated, in tattoo ink, up necks and across forearms. “Louis Vuitton,” said Ghesquière, “is the most visible, the most showy, in a way. Some people think it’s terrible, some people love it, some people just have a fascination with it, some people think the brand is cheap because there are so many copies of it.” He calls it “the big game.”

But what got Ghesquière into the big game in the first place was his transformative tenure at Balenciaga, which is considered to be one of the most important reigns in modern fashion history, one that permanently changed the way women dress. When Ghesquière began working there, he was a 24-year-old freelancer. It was 1995, and the house, which had been founded by the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1917 — and had at its height, in the 1950s, been worn by Audrey HepburnGloria Guinness and Ava Gardner — was floundering in obscurity. The only reason it hadn’t been shuttered completely was so that it could continue to license its name for fragrances. It was a blank slate, albeit one with an illustrious history. Over the next decade and a half, Ghesquière would create clothes — minidresses with football-player shoulders laser perforated with watercolour-pink peonies; a modernized cocoon coat with pinched shoulders in a sapphire-hued shaved bouclé tweed; biker jackets and slim-cut, high-waisted cargo pants; a schoolboy-inspired rowing blazer; shoulder-padded metallic tops and drape-waisted double-sided satin miniskirts (a “Dynasty” girl and Joan Crawford rolled into one); a skillfully tailored evening jacket cut in cascading cream organza and white lace whose bell sleeves and high ruffled collar resembled a courtly tailcoat; latex dresses with hand-printed motifs inspired by 18th-century chinoiserie screens — that were so distinctive, so harmonious, that even today they remain recognizable as his. The designer’s love for the uniforms of fencing and horseback riding, sports he practised as a boy; a jolie laide palette of brash primary colors mixed with muddy earth tones; Mondrian-style color blocking; and his fearlessness in mixing silhouettes from the 18th century, the ’40s and the ’80s with classic couture shapes and high-tech, futuristic fabrications (sometimes all in one look) came together to create a singular vision that was — and still is — famously Ghesquière. His work at Balenciaga did nothing less than change how a woman occupied the space around her; they were clothes made for the street, not the runway. “My principle is to do clothes that I put on the catwalk, not clothes for the catwalk,” Ghesquière said. He spoke of the temptation to make “show clothes,” which he dismissed as possible to design according to “formulas” and “tricks.” His clothes, he said, had to make sense on their own; the spectacle of the show had to be incidental to the experience of seeing and wearing them.

Ghesquière’s 15-year tenure at Balenciaga produced era-defining looks that established the designer’s aesthetic. From left: a look from his debut collection for the French house, spring 1998; an example of his signature futuristic sportswear, fall 2002; decadent Louis XIV flourishes, spring 2006.
Ghesquière’s 15-year tenure at Balenciaga produced era-defining looks that established the designer’s aesthetic. From left: a look from his debut collection for the French house, spring 1998; an example of his signature futuristic sportswear, fall 2002; decadent Louis XIV flourishes, spring 2006.
A fresh take on a classic Cristóbal Balenciaga couture silhouette, fall 2006; the much-imitated schoolboy blazer, fall 2007; one of the wildly popular flower-print ensembles, spring 2008; the jolie laide colour palette, fall 2010.
A fresh take on a classic Cristóbal Balenciaga couture silhouette, fall 2006; the much-imitated schoolboy blazer, fall 2007; one of the wildly popular flower-print ensembles, spring 2008; the jolie laide colour palette, fall 2010.

Ghesquière’s time at Balenciaga didn’t just redirect fashion — it redirected business as well. His reinvigoration of the ailing luxury house was not the first of its kind (Karl Lagerfeld had signed on as artistic director of a sluggish Chanel in 1983, and Tom Ford to a struggling Gucci in 1990), but it remains a model for how to transform a moribund brand into a trendsetting one without cutting out its heart, of how to create house silhouettes that reflect both the person whose name is on the door and the one who serves as the house’s steward. He proved that an artistic director didn’t need to be well known in order to have a transformational effect: Ghesquière’s success at Balenciaga made possible the ascension of Phoebe Philo at Celine, Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Jonathan Anderson at Loewe.

Another reason Ghesquière’s aesthetic remains so dominant — in many ways, it’s the look of the 2000s itself — is in part because he trained so many designers who went on to lead houses themselves, and in whose own designs one can see echoes of their former boss’s. For his first few years as the head of Balenciaga, Ghesquière worked with a staff of four. By the time he left, he had a staff of over 400, 60 of whom were in the design studio. Among them was the now 39-year-old Natacha Ramsay-Levi, his deputy for over a decade, who currently leads Chloé; you can see Ghesquière’s influence in her fluid, athletic trapeze dresses, her equestrian-inflected jewellery and footwear and her attraction to earthbound colour. There’s also Julien Dossena, the 37-year-old creative director at Paco Rabanne, who departed Balenciaga when Ghesquière left for Louis Vuitton. Dossena calls him a “life-changer,” and in his designs as well — an expertly draped, flower-printed cocktail dress, a skinny rock-star pant or a decadent, ’80s-style rhinestone earring — Ghesquière’s influence endures. Dossena sees Ghesquière’s current work at Louis Vuitton to be something like “making personal style mainstream.” It’s important to Ghesquière, Dossena said, that his designs be legible: “He cares that people can read his clothes and that they desire them.”

Many of Ghesquière’s signature innovations from Balenciaga have travelled with him to Louis Vuitton: In the fall 2019 collection, you can see them in a floral blouse with a black lace panel, or a camel-coloured double-wool-blend cocoon coat with black leather trim. The clothes are still wearable. What’s different is that the textiles Ghesquière now uses — thick cashmeres, hand-embroidered Italian silk brocades, ornate lace — are some of the most finely made and expensive in the world, a fact that has come to define his vision for the brand. “I still work with the same passion, fascination and involvement,” Ghesquière said. “At the same time, I’m not going to lie — I was 25 [when I became the artistic director at Balenciaga], and I was doing the cool thing. What I’m interested in today is how to talk about a brand that is the biggest in the world, that has the highest sales point. ... The reason for Louis Vuitton’s success are the resources — the industrialization, the production sites. It’s a machine that has a weight. If you try to fight against it, you are dead.”

Pieter Hugo. Styled by Melanie Ward.Embroidered zip-up top and stirrup-style pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.
Embroidered zip-up top and stirrup-style pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.

A few days before his fall 2019 runway show, Ghesquière and I met at Le Voltaire, a stately restaurant not far from his Paris office. The seats were upholstered in velvet; the walls were mirrored; the radishes were buttered and provided automatically. We spoke for well over an hour, and he interjected only to provide advice on the menu. He was very French about it — thorough, serious, somehow at once joyous and grave: “I usually take a beetroot and avocado salad to start, but there is also grapefruit and avocado in the same way. There is a crab salad that is quite good that could be taken as a main. The mushroom salad is the specialty of the starters. There is carpaccio of Saint-Jacques, but they put truffle on it. The steak is amazing, but I’m not going to prefer it today.”

Ghesquière was raised in Loudun, a three-hour drive southwest of Paris in the castle-dense Loire Valley, which he considers to be a “big village” but which his parents called a small city. Only in retrospect does he see that his childhood, which was wild and rural and free, was in fact “very extraordinary.” He lived with his parents (his father managed a golf course, his mother stayed home) and his older brother. He grew up sketching dresses and making jewellery out of chandelier crystals, and by 14, he was interning with the French designer Agnès B., who was at the height of her fame (she had opened her first boutique in the United States on SoHo’s Prince Street in 1983, two years earlier); in 1988, when he was 17, he forwent fashion school and moved to Paris, where he took a bedroom in an apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement without really knowing anyone working in fashion. “It’s funny to think about how I would sit around and think, ‘I’m a loser. I don’t have friends. I’m biking around in Paris alone on Saturday night,’” he said.

From 1990 to 1992, he worked as Jean Paul Gaultier’s assistant before designing at Pôles, a Parisian knitwear brand, and the Italian fashion house Callaghan. He was first hired at Balenciaga to design ready-to-wear, uniforms and funeral clothes under a Japanese license; two years later, in 1997, the then creative director, Belgian designer Josephus Thimister, left, and Ghesquière was appointed head of the house.

Then, in the fall of 2013, Ghesquière was summoned to a meeting by Bernard Arnault (Balenciaga is owned by Kering, LVMH’s chief competitor). The two began a casual but detailed conversation about handbags. Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 by a French box maker who had witnessed the rise of leisure travel and presciently expanded his business into trunks; European royalty hired him to, in the words of one empress of France, pack “the most beautiful clothes in an exquisite way.” Over 150 years later, packaging, in every sense of the word, remains central to the brand. Ghesquière, who at Balenciaga had designed the distressed, studded and tasselled Lariat bag (renamed the City and the Motorcycle over its years of popularity), which became one of the most iconic accessories of the 2000s, was interested in the luxe practicality of Louis Vuitton’s origin. The story — the resourcefulness of a founding artisan becoming, first unwittingly and then enthusiastically, a businessman — appealed to him.

After his meeting with Arnault, Ghesquière returned home and immediately began cutting up magazines, making a little collage of LV-printed paper. “O.K., what’s real for the normal girl?” he thought. “She goes out, she needs something small and sophisticated for the evening. How can I make it miniature but not cheap?” A few days later, he returned to Arnault with a paper mock-up of an undeniably darling trunk shrunk to the size of a 1,000-page Penguin Classics paperback. Arnault took one look at the design and said, “This will look very good in large numbers at the stores.”

“I was never trained as a businessman, and I will never want to be one,” said Ghesquière. But with that first bag, he recalled that Arnault “immediately approached the collaboration from the merchandising point of view. I had an idea that was creative. He recognized this.” Ghesquière realized then that he was chatting with “not only one of the biggest businessmen in front of me but also someone who could consider what I was doing and imagine the steps after I designed. It’s clearly what I was missing in my previous career, to be honest with you. I wanted that kind of vision. I wanted someone that I would work with on a story like that.”

A month later, in November 2013, Ghesquière replaced Marc Jacobs as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s women’s collections. Several iterations later, his mock-up, which he called the Petite Malle, debuted in stores, priced at $5,200. It’s one of a dozen permanent styles he has designed over his six years at Louis Vuitton. Ghesquière has developed a visual language for the clothes as well, one that emphasizes the company’s heritage while also modernizing his signatures: staples like crewnecks and easy shifts in thick, color-blocked knits, sporty monogrammed trench coats, jeans and tracksuits, as well as his classic narrow trousers, tweed bouclé miniskirt suits and those powerful, print-clashing cocktail dresses with their familiar swirl of ’40s and ’80s excess.

“This job puts you in different spaces and times,” said Ghesquière, who renewed his contract last spring. “I know that this sounds mystical, but you have to be someone who lives in the present.” He explained that one of the existential oddities of the job is having to be simultaneously a person constantly confronted with “quotidian questions” of budgeting and expenses while also being capable of quickly and seamlessly assuming a spirit of “fantasy and lightness and intensity that gives you the freedom to escape and come back with something that is honest and creative.”

Pieter Hugo. Styled by Melanie Ward.Left: Embroidered cape, embellished jacquard crop top and stirrup-style pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories. Right: Bustier top with cape and high-waisted pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.
Left: Embroidered cape, embellished jacquard crop top and stirrup-style pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories. Right: Bustier top with cape and high-waisted pants. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.

For all the criticisms one can justifiably hurl at luxury fashion, its efficiency is massively underpraised. The rate at which artisanal clothes are designed and manufactured is astonishing. It is not unheard-of for a small team led by a single person to dream up and physically manifest dozens of outfits and present them in a logistically nightmarish event that requires the approval of local government — all within a matter of weeks. Ghesquière does this three times a year: twice in Paris, for his fall and spring ready-to-wear collections (for which he typically designs around 60 looks, including shoes, accessories and bags), and once in a far-flung location for the increasingly important cruise collection, beloved by retailers for its long (typically three-month) season. Past locations include Bob Hope’s house in Palm Springs, Calif., Monaco’s Palace Square and museums in Brazil and Japan and on the French Riviera.

Earlier, Ghesquière had told me that even as a child he had been “meticulous and a little bit extreme.” He calls this tendency in himself “zoom power,” and it was on full display one cold morning in a studio in a northern suburb of Paris where two dozen people had gathered to confer about floor treatments and the nearly imperceptible differences between a handful of blue plastic tubes. The studio walls were black, and the spotlights shone down directly, turning everyone’s breath — some combination of carbon-dioxide and nicotine vapour — into noirish plumes. It looked not like a production meeting but rather the set of a movie within a movie. In fact, what was under consideration was a museum within a museum: a dramatically scaled-down version of the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s once-reviled Renzo Piano- and Richard Rogers-designed “inside-out” museum (structural elements typically engineered to be contained on the inside — snaking tunnels used to circulate water, air, electricity and the elevators — are exposed on the building’s exterior), which Ghesquière was excited to soon plant inside the opulent Cour Carrée courtyard of the Louvre. The matryoshka-like model — the Pompidou’s signature red-, green-, yellow- and blue-painted shafts and ducts faithfully recreated — took the team several weeks to construct.

The forthcoming fall 2019 collection had been inspired, Ghesquière said, by a mélange of Pompidou-adjacent neighbourhoods he encountered upon his arrival in Paris as a teenager in the ’80s. He recalled coming upon Les Halles, whose marketplace had been razed and turned into a mall and train station after close to a decade of being only a gaping excavation site known as “the black hole of Paris.” There, he was struck by the intersection of the city’s chic and avant-garde with the demimonde — hustlers, drug dealers and prostitutes — and fellow youth stumbling off the train and into the city for the first time. Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler all had stores nearby; Philippe Starck had recently designed the instantly popular Café Costes, with a deep red, Memphis-style décor. With the contentious openings of the Pompidou in 1977 and the Forum des Halles shopping mall in 1979, the area had become a revolutionary scene in a city obsessed with the past.

Pieter Hugo. Styled by Melanie Ward.Left: embroidered leather cape, blazer and bustier dress. Right: printed quilted jacket, printed shirt and graphic quilted skirt. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.
Left: embroidered leather cape, blazer and bustier dress. Right: printed quilted jacket, printed shirt and graphic quilted skirt. All Louis Vuitton cruise 2020 clothing and accessories.

“The integration of what happened at that moment, that fusion of different elements — the sports look of the time, the true thrift stores — that’s the root of how we dress today,” he said. “A lot of people thought the museum was ugly, but with time, it became a point of cultural reference. Like the body, the brain needs a gymnasium. Sometimes if we think something is ugly, it’s because we don’t know it and aren’t trained to look at it.” Ghesquière believes that one of the “wonderful freedoms of being a fashion designer is having your own interpretation that nobody can touch.” Of course, he admitted, “we are judged as designers and for the clothes — are they new, fresh or right? But we will never be judged by reproduction. People can judge period films’ costumes for their accuracy, but it’s extraordinary because we can say, ‘This is my point of view. It’s a little blurry, maybe, or plastic or extreme, but it’s my point of view.’”

Like the most exciting journalism, which is typically wrestled from the dullest of sources (court transcripts, financial records, deeds stored in dusty archives), the most extravagant fashion shows are born from the least glamorous labour (replacing electrical sockets, hoarding zip ties, repositioning speaker systems). Ghesquière wholeheartedly embraces the very aspects of his job that one would assume his level of success might free him from. Before taking a sip of espresso but after dragging an extension cord from one corner of the giant room to another, Ghesquière put on his Persol aviator glasses and examined a variety of floor treatments. Like many male designers of extravagant clothes, Ghesquière himself dresses with a kind of perverse simplicity: black Nikes, black jeans, navy crew-neck sweater. Today, he looked like the protagonist of an Antonioni film. “Gray concrete or terrazzo?” he wondered. A handful of people gathered around him, huddling far closer to their boss than any American might be inclined to. Together, they clucked in French: “C’est beau! Bonne question! Très jolie!

In three days, the Pompidou replica would be installed at the Louvre. Ghesquière’s idea was to create a physical confrontation between one of the purest expressions of French culture and one that had once been considered monstrous — his love of aesthetic friction and contradiction on display once more. A day after that, he would present his fall 2019 collection: a decadent parade of leather skullcaps, exaggerated ruffles and bibs; a minidress in pink- and blue-marbled rooster prints; a clown shirt tucked into Katharine Hepburn-style caviar wool trousers; a lace ensemble embroidered with silvery sequins; jodhpurs cut from buttery scarlet lambskin; and an asymmetrical faux-fur cape in Lichtenstein green. It was a captivating scene, with confrontational clothes. Fashion critics for the American and British newspapers were divided: Was the collection an unwearable overload of prints, decades and materials — or a new look that hadn’t quite been seen before? The clothes felt rebelliously outré, somehow old and somehow new.

Ghesquière’s affinity for sportswear, futuristic silhouettes and historical tailoring can be seen in his collections for Louis Vuitton. From left: a zippered dress, fall 2015; a racing-striped crew-neck sweater, fall 2016; a modern cutaway ensemble, spring 2017; a scuba-inspired dress, cruise 2017.
Ghesquière’s affinity for sportswear, futuristic silhouettes and historical tailoring can be seen in his collections for Louis Vuitton. From left: a zippered dress, fall 2015; a racing-striped crew-neck sweater, fall 2016; a modern cutaway ensemble, spring 2017; a scuba-inspired dress, cruise 2017.
From left: a jumpsuit worn over an Edwardian-style blouse, spring 2019; ornate printed separates, spring 2019; a bibbed ’80s-inspired cocktail dress, fall 2019.
From left: a jumpsuit worn over an Edwardian-style blouse, spring 2019; ornate printed separates, spring 2019; a bibbed ’80s-inspired cocktail dress, fall 2019.

Barely two months after his Paris show, Ghesquière was in New York City, where he hadn’t shown in almost 20 years, to present his cruise 2020 collection. In the amount of time it takes a normal person to successfully change internet service providers or polish off a small jar of mayonnaise, Ghesquière had devised and fabricated an entirely new 59-look collection and shown it at the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport in Queens for an audience of about 1,500 people.

The 1962 terminal — all bright lights and biomorphic lines, once the picture of American neo-Futurism — had, in reality, been abandoned for 20 years. It would soon reopen as a hotel, but before that, Ghesquière wanted to exaggerate its now-neglected nature. Canopies of live plants had been trucked in to convey a sense of lush apocalypse; faint recordings of birdcalls played out through hidden speakers. Before the show commenced, actresses and faces of the brand (Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Williams, Léa Seydoux, Zhong Chuxi) arrived dressed in Ghesquière’s designs; they mingled with billionaires and Russian women with silicone faces. In the audience was a group of students invited from a local fashion college, some ostentatiously underdressed young people and several representatives from that anonymous class of very wealthy people who exist, usually invisibly to the rest of us, in major cities (and ski resorts) around the world. Many of them spend a lot of money at Louis Vuitton stores, and they were invited as a kind of thanks.

This collection was inspired by the idea of Gotham as it exists in the world of the DC Universe, but also the energy, power and privilege of Manhattan that Ghesquière remembered from the first time he visited the city, in 1990. There was a split-personality cape — the top half of a white-and-red leather motocross jacket tapering into a rhinestone- and bead-encrusted bed-skirt ruffle — worn over a silken sky-blue blazer, a patent-leather and Pepto-pink cashmere toggle-style coat, ultrahigh-waisted silk gabardine schoolboy trousers with kneepad-esque panels, Mennonite bibs and Victorian ruffles, belted striped safari dresses, combat boots with tongues discreetly printed with the house monogram and Siouxsie Sioux-style makeup. Some of the models carried minaudières shaped like the tip of the Chrysler Building; others had handbags whose flexible sides were actually screens, projecting images of “Blade Runner”-like cityscapes. They stomped past curved benches cleverly arranged so everyone in attendance had a front-row seat: a demonstration of democracy in a not-so egalitarian place. A lavish fashion show is perhaps the purest and most antiquated expression of luxury. It’s the representation of the best technicians and artisans collaborating on an originally soundtracked, dramatically lit parade of the world’s most beautiful people that lasts fewer than 20 minutes. Even if you are a person who cannot bear witness to one without mentally calculating how many lives could be saved with the amount of money it costs to put on, the sheer excellence is overwhelming, and it is impossible not to be impressed.

Pieter HugoNicolas Ghesquière.
Nicolas Ghesquière.

The next afternoon was a Thursday, and Ghesquière had a hangover. Over the course of the previous week, he had taken a trans-Atlantic flight, personally supervised 120 fittings, given nine interviews, escorted the actress and Louis Vuitton brand ambassador Emma Stone to the Met Gala, driven from Manhattan to Queens six times, presented a collection, attended the show’s after party at MoMA PS1 and celebrated his 48th birthday at a penthouse at the Greenwich Hotel, which he stayed at until 4 a.m. He had not not worked — not for one day — for months, and was looking forward to returning to Paris and enjoying a staycation, a portmanteau that charms him but which he can never quite remember. What Ghesquière finds the most tiring is not the creative effort but everything that surrounds it: the constant exposure to other people, the business demands, the meetings, the “amount of decisions or what you think are decisions.” He confirmed many times that he loved the job but that he found it draining. “Sometimes I have exhaustion,” he sighed.

Ghesquière’s job at Louis Vuitton — big and loud and important — doesn’t quite square with the actual nature of his influence, which while celebrated and known, is so pervasive as to be invisible. Ghesquière is, and has been for decades, at the top of his industry. But his impact on fashion — both on the runway and off — runs beneath it, deeper, like an undercurrent. He’s why our day-to-day handbags tend to be floppy, and why for years every third person you saw under 30 seemed to be wearing a kaffiyeh. Imploring people is easier than coercing them. Of course Ghesquière was tired.

Back in Paris, the first phase of renovations was finally finished on his apartment, which is itself just a 15-minute walk from his office and 30 from a small studio Ghesquière hasn’t lived in for a decade but which is filled with his own archives. Soon these will be moved to a different location, which he recently secured. “I realized that I need to have my past, my present and my future symbolized,” he said, laughing. “But I don’t know what the future space will be.”