He soon returned to Paris and, on the eve of his 19th birthday, began an internship at Jean Paul Gaultier. “It started out as a supersmall job, making coffee and dog walking, eventually doing color cards and photocopies, but it was fascinating. Gaultier was the place to be. It was a dream come true to go backstage at the show, to see the clothes in reality and the processes, and the way Jean Paul worked, always looking for strange combinations of ideas.”
After two years, Ghesquière left to freelance, designing mostly knitwear. “Even then he was a very, very hard worker, working late every day, drawing a lot, developing ideas and discussing them,” recalled stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who befriended him at that time and still works with him at Balenciaga. “Nicolas was extremely curious about what was going on around him, always observing other people and learning from them.”
By then Ghesquière had fallen for Hardy, and he began a seven-year relationship with him. “Pierre was very important to me and still is,” he said. “He showed me so much. It was fantastic. We’d go to the ballet, the theater, exhibitions, and movies all the time. There’s a Belgian choreographer, Alain Platel, whose work I love, and we drove to Dijon for the night to see a performance.”
It was Hardy who tipped him off about a freelance job at Balenciaga. Under the brilliant, introspective Cristóbal Balenciaga, it had been one of the great Paris couture houses of the mid-20th century. But since his retirement in 1968, the house had declined. By the time Ghesquière arrived in 1995, it was reduced to living off licensing deals.
“Pierre said, ‘You know what, they’re looking for someone. But it’s not a cool job; it’s a licensing job. You’ll have to do wedding dresses and stuff like that.’ And I said, ‘It’s okay.’ I needed a new client, because I’d just lost a big one, and I thought there might be something interesting there. I could see, by watching the contemporary collections and also trying to learn about fashion history, that there was a strong connection between the work of the Nineties minimalists—Helmut Lang and Jil Sander—and Cristóbal Balenciaga.”
Ghesquière spent two days a week at Balenciaga, producing endless drawings of wedding dresses, shoes, and belts, mostly for Japanese licensees. The more he learned about Cristóbal Balenciaga, the more he admired his purism and technical ingenuity. Balenciaga had a ready-to-wear line, produced by Belgian designer Josephus Thimister, but he had fallen out with the owner, Jacques Konckier, who wanted to replace him with a bigger name, ideally Yohji Yamamoto or Helmut Lang. “I was excited,” recalled Ghesquière. “It was like, I might be an assistant to Helmut! He had a very, very interesting proposition for Balenciaga—just couture, no shows, and only 50 pieces.”