The Louis Vuitton headquarters on the corner of Rue du Pont Neuf are as austere and anonymous as the former Samaritaine building they sit opposite is blousey. Inside is a warren of long identical corridors, all studded with doors that break the space with such a precise uniformity a visitor could be easily lost. Employees talk quietly on the telephone before passing notes between each other on Post-its. There is an air of urgent secrecy. And if the space is designed to intimidate, it does.
Many details about Louis Vuitton, the crown jewel of Bernard Arnault’s LVMH group, a vast conglomerate of 70 luxury houses that includes Moët & Chandon, Céline, Christian Dior, Loewe and Givenchy, are intimidating: the fact that Louis Vuitton accounts for 25 per cent of all LVMH group sales and an estimated 50 per cent of its profits, for example; or that the house is expected to make €8.7bn in sales this year, with a forecasted growth of four per cent – all according to Thomas Chauvet, luxury-goods analyst at Citi. “Vuitton alone makes up half of LVMH earnings [EBIT],” he says. “And LVMH shares are currently up over 20 per cent year-to-date, outperforming the broader luxury sector.”
In short, Louis Vuitton is a luxury behemoth. And the man at the creative helm, Nicolas Ghesquière, occupies one of the industry’s most keenly scrutinised positions.Appointed as artistic director of women’s collections in November 2013, almost a year to the day after his abrupt departure from the Kering-owned Balenciaga, Ghesquière has been tasked with heightening the house’s fashion credentials at a brand that still makes, Citi says, 75 per cent of its fortune from accessories (mostly handbags). The former creative director, Marc Jacobs, introduced ready-to-wear at Louis Vuitton in 1997, but Ghesquière’s arrival has coincided with a huge drive to reposition the ready-to-wear line as a more highly visible category within the broader divisions (it currently accounts for only five per cent of sales, according to Chauvet). Where Jacobs’ collections veered thematically from one season to the next, with little aesthetic continuity, Ghesquière is developing strong house codes and ideas: his Vuitton is more polished, luxurious and directional. “He has led an exciting change in the aesthetic for Louis Vuitton – his handwriting is infused with the heritage,” says Helen David, Harrods’ fashion director. “His designs are fashion‑forward and this is opening it up to more customers; the shift in silhouette and style reaches out to a broader audience.”
The scale of the brand’s new ambition has been overwhelming. First came the resort show, a vast overseas spectacle staged in Monaco, May 2014, and then Palm Springs in May this year, for which 550 guests were flown in to LA to celebrate the collections outside the traditional show circuit. Then came Celebrating Monogram, a series of limited-edition bags based on the house’s signature leather and produced in collaboration with six leading creatives, including Cindy Sherman and Delphine Arnault (Bernard Arnault’s eldest child and the executive vice-president of Louis Vuitton since October 2013). The vast Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris has attracted pages of editorial and more than 1m visitors since its opening in March, and this weekend (September 21) a travelling exhibition, Series 3, will open at 180 Strand in London, a space in which visitors will be fully immersed in the new brand iconography. “It was a request from Delphine and Bernard Arnault,” says Ghesquière. “They asked me to think about something that would introduce my work and explain my vision in a different way.” It will be a promenade-type exhibition that hopes to capture the essence of a show. “You could call it an exhibition, but I see it as a moveable walkway of clothes…”
If the spotlight is on Ghesquière, he is more than comfortable in its heat. A slight figure in dark jeans and a box-fresh navy T-shirt, the 44-year-old designer seems almost breezy as he sits sipping black coffee on a velvet sofa in the company’s meeting room. Despite the froideur of the building’s atmosphere, Ghesquière is a total charmer; he’s erudite and friendly, with a wolfish smile, sparkly blue eyes and a winning habit of saying “Et voilà!” when you say something he agrees with.
With only five collections undertaken so far, Ghesquière is still exploring the woman he wants to dress at Vuitton, and his understanding of her sartorial requirements is something he is constantly re-evaluating. The designer has always experimented with silhouette and form, and at Vuitton he has taken a “time travel” approach – dipping in and out of different eras with insouciance. His collections have drawn on architecture, sci-fi, William Morris and Edie Sedgwick, but the references are seldom explicit. His influence is incontrovertible. For example, in his first collection he paired a thin-rib, high poloneck jumper with go-go boots, a lacquered leather minidress and a swing coat to create a modern take on a 1960s silhouette. Rare was the catwalk the following season in which these ideas weren’t replicated – and polonecks have become one of the statement pieces of the new season.
“My first collection was about infusing structure,” he explains of his rigorously edited debut silhouette. “I wanted to say: ‘I get it. I get Vuitton. I know the craft. I understand that the supremacy of leather goods at the house is unquestionable.’ But I was also saying we can build an identity from leather goods – continuing on from Marc obviously – that is very strong.”
“Ghesquière is comfortable with making the existing DNA of a fashion house his own,” says Sebastian Manes, buying director at Selfridges, where there is a Louis Vuitton concession across three floors. “Ready-to-wear and accessories are at the same time distinctly Vuitton and distinctly Ghesquière.”
Subsequent collections have introduced new propositions to this emerging wardrobe. He likens his approach to walking into a “limitless dressing room” and identifying what the missing pieces might be. For spring/summer 2015 he “pushed the Seventies factor” and introduced techno-crochet minidresses (from £3,550) and soft floral velvets (from £1,810); the current autumn/winter 2015 season includes impeccable trouser suits (drawstring trousers, £795, blazer, £1,679) and neat little Exploration ankle boots (£870) in calfskin. The standout pieces are a vast leopard-print shearling coat (£8,838), an oriental jacquard minidress (£3,447) with a jellyfish motif and, as an alternative proposition to the now ubiquitous polo, a series of macro-rib knits (£795) with fluted sleeves and a giant slash across the bust, in citrus orange and navy and white. The collection has a new maturity (one of the house muses is Catherine Deneuve, who stood smoking cigarettes backstage at the autumn/winter 2015 show wearing one of Ghesquière’s sequin-embroidered tunics and black trousers). But his clothes still contain vital touches of drama that delight the dedicated fashion crowd: Japanese bloggers, It girls like the jeweller Gaia Repossi, and actresses Michelle Williams and Jennifer Connelly are also among his most visible patrons. “Ghesquière’s approach to luxury is fearless and far-reaching – from the experimental to the accessible,” continues Manes. “His collections have been a success – both commercially and critically – appealing to both our luxury consumer and fashion consumer.”
As for creating a consistent vision for the house, Ghesquière says: “Little by little I’m adding new categories, I’m infusing new elements. I’m also introducing new bags.” And as with so many designers, it was his last collection, for resort 2015/2016, that he found most personally satisfying. Here he has focused on a longer line – floor-sweeping skirts and dresses (from £8,490) worn with leather harness belts and flat shoes. “With that collection, I got closer to who I really want the Vuitton woman to be,” he says. “She was cool, but she became even cooler in Palm Springs.”
Born in 1971, Ghesquière grew up in Loudun, a picturesque town in western France where his father owned a golf course. He started to draw obsessively at around eight years old and became convinced of his future in fashion aged 12. Encouraged by his parents, who suggested he write to designers he admired, aged 15, he took an internship at Agnès B. At 18, he turned down a place at art school to work at Jean Paul Gaultier. While he considers these early experiences “really superb”, he does regret not having a formal fashion college training “when you dedicate yourself to pure experimentation”.
He was just 23 and designing for a licence division at Balenciaga when, in 1997, he was appointed creative director at the house. It was a shock promotion and yet his work astonished from the outset. During his 15-year tenure his collections were fêted by the fashion press and he won the International Award for his work by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2001. It was here that he inspired a cult-like following among a certain fashion tribe with his radical silhouettes, technical fabrications and futuristic hybrid clothes. His designs for Vuitton must be further reaching in their appeal. Was he concerned that he might have to tame the more dramatic aspects of his vision within such a corporate environment?
“It was the big question at the beginning, because I had to ask, ‘Do you really want to change?’” he replies. “I’m very conscious about the patrimony, but they asked me to join Vuitton because they wanted my point of view. So I try not to forget that when I struggle with identity. I’m always reminding myself, ‘Don’t be insecure, they want your point of view.’”
In fact, the corporate structure has been strangely liberating, he continues. “It’s overwhelming because the corporation is so huge, but my interlocutors are very few. Communication is very direct, so I know who to ask if I have a specific question – and an answer comes right away. When you have an idea, they will follow you.” And he has long-term female collaborators. Ghesquière’s ongoing conversation with his “woman” is both literal and metaphorical; he continues to work closely with Marie-Amélie Sauvé, the stylist with whom he first joined forces at Balenciaga, and the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom he describes as his best friend and sounding board. “He watches what they wear, how they wear it, and he also listens to what they say,” observes Delphine Arnault of the women who surround him. They also tell him when something isn’t working. “A big part of my job is to convince, seduce and create the desire for something,” Ghesquière explains. “People think my team are like, ‘Yes, beautiful, wonderful, Nicolas… go ahead.’ But it’s the contrary. It’s really tough.”
That Ghesquière is free to work without the heavy hand of corporate intervention is echoed by Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chief executive since 2012. “My job is to make sure Nicolas’ dreams come to fruition,” he told me earlier this year. “The CEO’s objective is to be the partner in the tango: finding the appropriate keys to understanding where he’s going.”
Even so, Ghesquière’s aesthetic isn’t immediately accessible to everyone. The Louis Vuitton woman is still a fashion-forward creature and many baulked at his first collection, with its short skirts and low décolletage. But while his vision can be uncompromising, Ghesquière insists his clothes are inclusive. “I’m very sensitive to that. I don’t like the thought that my women are a gang or a club,” he says. “I want to provoke and intrigue. But we want to talk to different types of women in different continents.”
“We see new customers buying into Louis Vuitton, perhaps for the first time, because they admire the aesthetic and vision of Ghesquière specifically,” says Selfridges’ Manes. “Other customers, including those from the Middle East and Asia, may be more interested in the broader heritage of the label – for them, it’s often the brand signifiers that are important. Ghesquière’s signatures have taken a couple of seasons to develop, but now they are firmly established in the Louis Vuitton repertoire, suiting a spectrum of customer profiles.”
This global perspective is instrumental to a brand whose very essence was founded in the spirit of adventure and foreign travel. “Nicolas is French. He was born in France, raised in France, works in France,” says Burke. “In one way, we’re more French than we used to be. But he embraces this world view that is future-looking, which is what Vuitton has always been. Vuitton would not be a 160-year-old company otherwise.”
Ghesquière understands the significance of Louis Vuitton as a heritage brand. The house’s legacy is perhaps best expressed in the Louis Vuitton trunk, a great flat-bottomed canvas carry-all first created in 1858 for the moneyed elite to take on trips, and still one of the most recognisable totems of affluence today. Yet, unlike the Chanel jacket or the full sweeping skirts of Dior’s New Look, it’s a curious piece of architecture on which to build a brand’s ready-to-wear collection and I wonder how great its presence is felt in the design room? It’s big, says Ghesquière, “but I like that. I like the fact that it is the recipient of so many things, that the trunk is the story of someone’s life. I like this idea of a secret place that conversely you share, because everyone sees it, and I have a lot of affection for it.”
His creative response to the outsize bit of luggage was to shrink it to micro proportions and repurpose it as a tiny clutch, the Petite Malle (£2,830). “It was the first thing I did when I thought about Vuitton,” he says. “I went to the petites mains and said, ‘How can we project the trunk into modern life? I want a clutch.’” The Petite Malle epitomises his approach to the house, “taking the history and remaking it my way, with a lot of respect, but changing the scale, changing the function.” The bag has since been made in a score of fabrications and has been a sell-out success. “It was not a surprise,” he says immodestly, “but I didn’t anticipate such a result and such a reaction.” David concurs: “The Petite Malle has been a standout success, combining modernity with the historic roots of the house. It should last well beyond the season of its creation.”
For a brand that depends so heavily on its accessories, the success of a high-fashion bag that has moved from catwalk to shop so seamlessly is reassuring. Ghesquière’s contributions may only account for a proportion of total sales, but his new handbag lines, like the Triangle bag (£2,660), the Alma (£1,500) with its jaunty new logo, or the Boîte Promenade (£27,000), a sci-fi-esque vanity case, have helped create a halo effect for the entire brand.
Ghesquière revels in the expertise with which he is now surrounded. He adores working with the petites mains and developing new techniques with them. He’s also learnt to delegate more and be less didactic. “I say ‘no’ far less than before,” he explains, “and ‘yes’ much more. It makes me happy. At a certain time in your career, it’s normal to be very directional. And I still am, but today I welcome ideas. People bring things to the table that are surprising,” he grins. “And I like them.”