‘First, we have fun’: Nicolas Ghesquière on a decade at Louis Vuitton

It’s an early summer’s day in July and Nicolas Ghesquière is seated in a garden room at the Ritz Paris – huge cream sofas, squishy cushions, a gentle breeze wafting through the orangerie. The season is poised at that last heady moment before the fashion cycle ends and the industry takes its customary break. The mood is end-of-school anticipatory – and Ghesquière is feeling good. 

At 52, the designer, artistic director of womenswear at Louis Vuitton, is still blessed with the swarthy good looks that made him a pin-up when, at 25, he was appointed creative director at Balenciaga. But today he seems less brooding. Perhaps the California sun has mellowed him? He goes there regularly with his partner Drew Kuhse. The couple have bought the Wolff Residence, which he describes as “one of the smallest” houses by John Lautner. The cliffside 1,664sq ft home was built by the modernist architect in 1961, a feat of futuristic geometry and rock face that looks precisely like a Louis Vuitton show set. 

Or maybe it’s the pace of life that finds him living between an apartment on Paris’s Quai Voltaire and his country home. He goes there at weekends: his family are near (he was born in Comines, on the Franco-Belgian border) as well as a gang of friends who live close enough to cook together. “It’s like we’re a unit,” says Ghesquière. “It’s the place where we just drop everything.” It’s also where his Labradors, Leon and Achilles, keep a primary residence.   

Or maybe it’s simply that after 10 years at Vuitton (following 15 years at Balenciaga), Ghesquière has taken on an elder’s status, and with it a sage equanimity. In his time at the brand there have been a raft of innovations, two new pre-collection shows put on the schedule, and the rapid expansion of a clutch of different categories. The LVMH-owned fashion house has doubled in size in the past five years, and become the world’s first luxury brand to exceed €20bn in annual sales. And while recent figures have been more subdued, Louis Vuitton is still an industry colossus: expected to make €30bn in sales in the next few years, according to estimates from HSBC.

In a world in which designers have come and gone, and brands have been rebuilt from scratch, destroyed and then rebuilt again, Ghesquière’s Vuitton has become a fixed point in an ever-changing landscape. But what is his Vuitton? It’s certainly not safe. The designer has always delivered new and unusual propositions, blending the history of fashion with an almost childlike admiration for the futuristic. He’s delivered boxing shorts with 18th-century-style frock coats, and vast tiered dresses that look like chandeliers with gender-fluid suiting. If he does have a modus operandi, it has been to confound expectations – all the while delivering the bags on which the Vuitton fortunes have been built.  

Ghesquière’s challenge has been to reconcile the very masculine, heavy trunk on which the LV brand was founded with the sensual femininity required of womenswear. “But that’s also the beauty of Louis Vuitton,” he says, speaking perfect English with a very French vocabulary. “Vuitton is not a masculine brand but it’s coming from the [idea of] function. My role has been to develop what is feminine at Vuitton.” 

To help him, Ghesquière has gathered a powerful elite of actors, influencers, musicians and personalities. Some, such as Jennifer Connelly, have been his friends for decades; others, such as the Norwegian actor Renate Reinsve and the Haim sisters Alana, Danielle, and Este, are more recent pals. All are distinct as independent talents, but together they form an extraordinary tribe.

Nicolas Ghesquière, photographed in Paris

“He’s become a dear friend over the years,” says Connelly, who first wore a Ghesquière-designed dress when she was Oscar-nominated for A Beautiful Mind in 2002. “He’s one of my favourite people. But also I think he has a singular talent as a designer. His work is so innovative and pioneering, but it’s always grounded in a deep understanding of the history of fashion and proportion on the body, so his looks, even when they’re more adventurous, somehow feel tethered.”

Swedish actor Alicia Vikander has worked with Ghesquière since 2015: in 2016, he dressed her in the romantic yellow gown in which she collected an Oscar for The Danish Girl. She also asked him to work on her costumes for Irma Vep, the 2022 TV miniseries about an American actor who stars in an adaptation of the French silent film Les Vampires. “He’s an artist at the top level of his craft,” she says, “but he works to a schedule. He always has an eye towards the past, it’s clear references – it’s music, art, and architecture – but then he makes his twist, and it’s so clearly a work of Nicolas.”

“What I love is this mix of futuristic sci-fi and very romantic,” says Léa Seydoux, who has worked with Ghesquière since 2016. “I love this contradiction and this paradox. This is what I find amazing about his creations. There’s something about his clothes: they are functional but – and maybe it’s a cliché – you feel strong in them.”

“They’re friends first,” says Ghesquière of his ambassadors. “It’s so personal. You want them to feel the best they can. You get into their private life. You get into their family. But it’s when they start to wear the clothes in real life – when you spot them on the street – that means everything.” He pauses. “Most of them ask me to do their wedding dress. And I love doing it.” He considers his role in various unions: “Statistically, I’m not too bad. So far, my couples are quite solid.”

Alicia Vikander wears AW14 leather coat and wool dress

Identifying, or even creating, the iconography of a brand is one of the most important challenges for a designer: think of Dior’s Bar jacket, Chanel’s 2.55 handbag or, more recently, Margiela’s Tabi shoe. One of the biggest tasks at a big accessories house in which the ready-to-wear is quite new is trying to weave the offering into a bigger narrative. It’s even more important in the social-media age, where, as Ghesquière says, the brand must communicate “the whole coherency in around 12 minutes”.

“One of the missions I was given was to sublimate the classics of Vuitton,” explains Ghesquière, who took over from Marc Jacobs, who had launched Vuitton’s ready-to-wear in the 1990s. His first handbag, the Petite Malle (in which the proportions of the trunk are shrunken into a tiny minaudière), was an indefatigable hit. There were more: “I did the Twist Lock, I did the City Steamer. I did Dauphine [a bourgeois-style satchel], which is a huge success. I did the Loop. I don’t like to call them gamme générale [general line] like they do,” he continues. “But it’s interesting to see how many top sellers now are coming from the catwalk.” 

Ghesquière is clearer today on his house signatures. “It’s been 10 years of development. It’s not only about logos,” he says. “It’s also about details, like the chain on a T-shirt, the little patch of leather you find on the bags. It’s not only about branding. Even on the clothes for the show, when I’m finishing the outfit, my last question is, ‘OK, how do we finish it with details?’”

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In future, he sees the industry as being far more localised. But in addition to producing more locally, from more locally sourced materials, he also anticipates that brands will have to adapt to a greater range of sensibilities. He can already see it at the shows, where the brand’s most valued clients are invited to exclusive appointments at which they are invited to pre-order pieces from the catwalk. “People want things that they will find exclusively, or [that are available] only for them at that moment,” says Ghesquière. “More and more, they’d like to have a special one of those designs.” Increasingly, he’s seeing a move towards more exclusive, customisable pieces. 

Ghesquière hasn’t been one to follow fashion. “He’s never trying to stick to or to follow trends,” says Lous and the Yakuza, the Belgian-Congolese singer and rapper who wore Louis Vuitton on her recent tour. “That’s quite bold in this industry where there’s sales and profit and benefits and all these things. He always sticks to who he is. He’s a true testament to never giving up on your vision.”

“I believe you have to desynchronise – do you say that?” says Ghesquière, when asked about his creative impulse. “It’s a process to make room for what’s coming, and also to keep celebrating what you want to do.” His work continues to mine favourite references – he still adores Dune and Star Wars – although his current obsession is schlocky-horror films. “I’ve been going to the movie theatre in LA. I’ve been watching a lot of Brian De Palma recently. The aesthetic is very inspiring. And I’ve been watching Less Than Zero” – the cult 1987 film based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis. He stops. “Oh my God, you’re going to watch this movie, and you’re going to go, like, ‘What is he thinking!’”

If film, architecture and music remain his touch-points, his motivation stays the same. “You’ve probably heard it 100 times,” he says, “but I’m always inspired to imagine a person in an environment, or in that moment. That’s what makes me do clothes. What makes me the best, I think, at what I do, is to imagine, what is she wearing? What is the feeling? Is it covered? Is it sensual? Is it protection? I always think I’m a little off time. Some people say sometimes I’m too early, but I’m not sure it is. Because I have this retro thing too. The time clash, for me, is super-important.” He thinks about his earliest work experience in the workrooms of Paris: “I probably learned that from Jean Paul Gaultier…”

Rianne Van Rompaey wears SS24 silk dress with leather bustier

Ghesquière is very aware of the hugeness of Louis Vuitton, and how to keep his head. “Michael Burke [the former CEO of LV] gave me some great advice when first I joined. He was like, ‘There is a force d’inertie.’” He is referring to Newton’s second law of motion which, as my GCSE-level physics understands it, is a force that convinces someone they are moving in a direction other than the direction of force. “It’s true in fashion. Because things spin around, and you can go with the thing. There is that feeling where you have to just be solid. It’s constantly on the move.”

He is the last person to experience inertia. “I know where we are going. I know where we want to go,” he says. “I think we want to have fun first. We want to feel good. We want to try to live well and not be completely overwhelmed.” 

Neither is he interested in pursuing his own label. “Maybe if I had a radical proposition,” he shrugs, “but do we need another brand?” Instead, he wants to look towards the next 10 years with Vuitton: he renewed his contract with the house in November. “Louis Vuitton is only my second house, and it’s not only a big one, it’s a beautiful one,” he says. “And I’m super-happy because what I get at Vuitton, I get 100 times more. And this depends most of the time on the people around. That’s what I’m grateful for and what I cherish.” He grins. For all the centrifugal spinning, fashion is “still a wonderful industry”. 

Nicolas Ghesquière: Hair, Pierre Saint Sever at Artboard. Grooming, Min Kim at Streeters. Production, Louis2. Other portraits: Styling, Isabelle Kountoure. Hair, Rudi Lewis at LGA, Laurence Walker at Streeters and Peter Gray at Home using Guerlain. Make-up, Hélène Vasnier at Home, Mel Arter at Julian Watson and Celia Burton at CLM. Nails, Christina Conrad at Calliste. Set design, Aymeric Arnould at Open Space Paris. Seamstress, Carole Savaton at Atelier on Set. Production, Michaël Lacomblez at Louis2. Photographer’s assistants, Stuart Hendry and Ian Kirby. Digital operator, Stefano Poli. Stylist’s assistants, Aylin Bayhan, Tomasso Palamin, Cecilia Baistrocchi and Anne Cecile Lemée. Hair assistants, Céline de Cruz, Irene Brenda Ohale and Vincent Zimberlin. Make-up assistants, Xiao Yuan Yang, Ana Jeric and Viviane Melo. Manicure assistant, Marieke Bouillette