Nicolas Ghesquière with Raquel Zimmernann in a look he designed for Balenciaga.Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, September 2004
The house of Balenciaga has always been associated with excellence. When its founder hung up his white lab coat in 1968, and for about 30 years thereafter, that brilliance became associated with times past. Until the early 2000s that is, when Nicolas Ghesquière, then an unknown designer, breathed new life into this “sleeping beauty” of a brand. He did so by looking forward, not back; knowing, as he puts it, that there was no point in trying “to replicate or do a mimic of something that is impossible to reproduce.”
Listen to the third episode of the In Vogue: The 2000s podcast now.
Ghesquière, who is now setting trends as the creative director of Louis Vuitton’s ready-to-wear collections, does indeed look backwards in this third episode of In Vogue: The 2000s. He does so in order to navigate listeners through his 16 unforgettable years at Balenciaga; years that defined the fashion of a decade.
Liya Kebede in a design by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, July 2003
Iris Strubegger in a design by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by David Sims, Vogue, July 2009
Ghesquière wasn’t scouted for the top spot at the maison, he fell into it. The designer was working part-time at Balenciaga when the company started a search for a big-name designer to come in and transform the house, as was happening all over Paris then as the industry became corporatized. Asked to effectively pinch-hit as the process dragged on, the success of his “filler” collection, convinced the executives to take a chance on him.
Raquel Zimmermann in a sci-fi look in by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by David Sims, Vogue, March 2007
Natalia Vodianova in a shaped dress and heels by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, January 2008
It was an exciting time of change in fashion as the way things had always been done was upended, especially when it came to heritage houses. Ghesquière’s remit at Balenciaga was different than that of, say, John Galliano at Dior. As Vogue Runway’s Nicole Phelps points out, the Frenchman “was really resurrecting something out of the past that wasn’t in people’s minds. People weren’t used to seeing Balenciaga advertisements when they looked through a fashion magazine, or when they saw fashion billboards.”
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marie-Amélie Sauvé with Nicolas Ghesquière.Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, April 2009
That changed quickly though as Ghesquière, with his friend and collaborator, the stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé, started giving shape to his personal universe and passions, which range from the sci-fi to the 18th century, with collections that moved the fashion needle forward. As Sauvé puts it, Ghesquière’s Balenciaga was,“the perfect mix of conceptuality and wearability.”
Actor Jennifer Connelly in a design by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by David Sims, Vogue, March 2009
Contributing to the designer’s success were his real connections with his muses, women like Jennifer Connelly and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the way he saw women. His models, says Vogue’s Virginia Smith “looked strong and important,” which, she notes wasn’t the norm 20 years ago.
Hana Soukupova in a feathered design by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, September 2005
Joan Smalls in an ensemble by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, May 2012
One of the ways Ghesquière communicated that strength was through his distinctive cuts. “I think from the very beginning, Nicolas understood the power of silhouette, the power of sculpture, and the power of volume,” says Vogue’s Mark Holgate. This obsession with shape carried over to accessories like a visor-hat and “monster” boots. The It bag Ghesquière designed for the house, speaks more to the ease that he also put into pieces like cargo pants.
Polina Kouklina with the moto bag designed by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Raymond Meier, Vogue, January 2012
“Part of the narrative of the 2000s was eclecticism. It was taking things that didn’t sit together and making them work,” Holgate remarks, and “Nicolas had that eye of just being able to think, how much can I push it?”
Raquel Zimmermann in a fringed design by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Craig McDean, Vogue, September 2007
Nadja Auermann in a moto jacket and pants by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, August 2004
Sasha Pivovarova in an ensemble by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga.Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, January 2006
In Vogue: The 2000s is presented by Anna Wintour, and produced by Vogue. Episode 3, “Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga: Turn the Fashion House Upside Down,” features interviews with, in order of appearance, Nicolas Ghesquière, Ines van Lamsweerde, Marie-Amélie Sauvé, Jennifer Connelly. And from Vogue’s editorial team, Virginia Smith, Mark Holgate, Nicole Phelps, and Laird Borrelli-Persson. Hosted by Hamish Bowles.
Explore all episodes of both seasons of the In Vogue podcast.