Ghesquière’s zest for research and experimentation has produced a stream of innovations at Balenciaga and persuaded legions of women to wear—or long to wear—a singular look that somehow manages to be strong, powerful, decadent, futuristic, chic, and consummately French all at once. Said look is usually accompanied by a heart-stoppingly outlandish pair of very high, quasi-orthopedic shoes.
“I just love following his work and being surprised by his ideas,” said his friend and sometime model, actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg. “Nicolas is a visionary and a perfectionist who makes me want to try things, to dare a little bit. Some of his clothes are like a second skin for me. I can get a bit fetishistic about them.”
Even sartorially challenged types, who may struggle to pronounce Ghesquière’s name (try guess-KEY-air), will recognize his innovations, if only from the knockoffs. Skinny school blazers. Cargo pants. Metallic leggings. Motorcycle jackets. Thigh-skimmingly short gladiator skirts and toga dresses. Those soft, slouchy rectangular leather Lariat bags that every other celeb is photographed with. In his 13-year tenure at Balenciaga, Ghesquière has invented or reinvented them all. Then there are the crazy shoes that look more like sculpture than footwear. Gladiator sandals with endless laces. Wedge-heel worker’s boots. Vertiginously high platforms and fetish heels that no self-respecting fashionista seems able to resist teetering around on—or falling off of.
Perhaps because a milestone birthday is approaching, Ghesquière now wants to up the ante. “This will be a year of transformation for me,” he pronounced. “There has been a big change in my team. Last year I stopped working with a lot of people who’d been with me for a long time, and I’m building a new team. I absolutely have to change my way of working. I need to become more strategic and delegate more. What’s the best way for a fashion designer to work today? To become a great craftsman like Alaïa, whom I love so much? Or a great brand like Armani, which I totally respect? My generation of designers has to do both. You have to have a complete emotional commitment to doing something very strong every season and to building a serious business.”
There’s no doubting Ghesquière’s determination to do both. “He is one of the very few people I know who has achieved precisely what they always wanted,” noted shoe designer Pierre Hardy, one of Ghesquière’s oldest friends and a former lover who now collaborates on Balenciaga’s ankle-imperiling footwear. “Nicolas is a kind of genius, and I don’t use that word very often. He has a great, great talent not only for inventing new looks every season but for managing teams of people and understanding every aspect of the brand. He’s very strong, very dynamic, very focused, very precise, and very demanding. There’s a Christopher Isherwood story about a butterfly with steel wings. Nicolas is exactly like that.”