Coming at the very pinnacle of Paris, the fashion ceremonial that is the Louis Vuitton show is always the grand finale, the last word, on the very last day, of a month of shows in four capitals. Needless to say, the word ‘always’ has been made redundant in the pandemic-disrupted schedule that is spring/summer 2021, but one thing is still certain: the Louis Vuitton show is still going ahead—a little bit differently—but “in real”. So how has Nicolas Ghesquière, the future-facing force at the creative helm of the French global powerhouse, been preparing for the show he’s about to stage in Paris’s emblematic and newly restored La Samaritaine department store?
One vast difference between now and the ‘before’ is that designers and journalists get the chance to chat before the show from their respective homes on a Sunday afternoon. Speaking on Zoom from his house in Paris—with a couple of cameo appearances from his two black Labradors Achille and Leon—Ghesquière talked through his plans and his reflections on the mighty upheavals that have hit the consciousness of our world since the day he orchestrated the last great landmark gathering to have taken place in Paris—the Louis Vuitton autumn/winter 2020 show on 3 March. The show spectacularly dramatised the subject of fashion and time, and was to become the last large fashion gathering before Europe went into lockdown some two weeks later.
Nicolas, what a difference time makes! After such a huge-scale show last season, what are your thoughts about returning six months later in such vastly different circumstances?
Looking back now, it’s true it was the last pre-COVID show. It was a strange coincidence that it was about time, the concept of asking, ‘What if the past could look at us?’ Of course, we did have an idea of what was coming. We were kind of in denial to make this show happen—but I mean, the whole of Paris Fashion Week was like that. Every day, every hour, there was more news. Being the last one was quite intense.
That feeling of being on the brink of lockdown I think no one will ever forget. There’s so much to talk about, but first—you’re now about to hold the spring/summer 2021 show at La Samaritaine, just opposite Louis Vuitton. It’s been under wraps for years…
La Samaritaine is a very old department store. It’s in the centre of Paris really, not far from Notre-Dame. When it opened in the 1920s [when its famed art deco facade was added], it destroyed all the rival department stores because it was the most modern in Paris. When I first came to Paris in the 1980s/1990s, it was falling apart. Then LVMH bought it—they’ve done fantastic work to restore that jewel. It was going to reopen in the spring [this year], but obviously couldn’t.
So serendipity has worked, location-wise?
My office is just opposite. The space is absolutely stunning. They’ve been renovating it for a decade. Architecturally, it’s very beautiful, a masterpiece of art deco. They asked SANAA, the Japanese architects, to work on another part of the building, so there’s this verrerie, a glasshouse, on the top floor which is a fusing of the two buildings. It’s big, it’s empty. So we didn’t have to ship clothes across Paris for the show. For everyone to be safe, it’s practical. But also, to feel at home. And that’s so very nice.
Can you explain the scale of what you’re planning and what impact you’re hoping to make?
The message of today is not to be extravagant. It’s going to be beautiful, and about being responsible without losing the effect I want to give—which is [presenting] a great show, but maybe in a more balanced way than we are used to, when [we used to show to] an audience of 2,000 people. There are going to be two shows, with 200 guests at each of them. It’s going to be a maximum of 40 outfits—firstly because this is not a time to develop too many things. But also because we have to be mindful of the attention we catch online—we have to be very careful about how long the show takes.
What makes it so essential that you still have a physical show?
I feel deeply that a live presentation is necessary. My vision is that, of course, it’s about fashion, and it’s about giving a great message for the future—which is also what fashion’s about, looking forward, something that creates desire. Also, to me, the actual responsibility to show is important because it’s about the artisans, the atelier, the production people. All the economics of it, and their passion. I feel very responsible for that these days, to be honest. The responsibility to go on.
Does the idea of going smaller feel challenging? How are you planning to project it globally?
Well, no—I was used to that when I was at Balenciaga, so it’s not that strange! We used to do our shows in the showroom. Though it feels strange not to have all the interactions with people we have every season. We sometimes [complained] it was exhausting, but honestly, I miss that now. I miss seeing friends from all around the world. But digital is fantastic—we’ve got new technology where if you can’t be there as a guest, you’ll still have a seat at the show. You’ll be getting a camera—you’ll see. A lot of new windows and perspectives are opening. It’s another step towards globality, and I guess that’s absolutely necessary. We’ve sometimes made people feel excluded. So probably, it’s a way to include more people in what we do.
Fashion’s role is also to synthesise the times we’re living in. Can you give an idea of the themes you’re working on?
One idea I’ve been interested in for a few years is genderlessness and the evolution that goes with it. About how clothes today are becoming much more accessible for people of different sexes, genders and non-binary people. There is this zone in the middle that’s becoming more and more important. I don’t want to call it a grey zone—it’s a rainbow zone. Young designers have been doing it for years; it’s not new as a concept at all, but what I believe is that for big brands such as Louis Vuitton, it’s very interesting. At retail, there are women who are buying a lot of Virgil’s [Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear] clothes, and men are buying mine.
There are still so many backdated stereotypes about how womenswear is perceived…
When I was growing up, it always used to be that an empowered woman was defined by how she took the assets of a man and used them. We were thinking that it usually meant wearing shoulders, appropriating men’s wardrobes, all these things. I’ve been thinking that menswear has been doing such a great job crossing in the other way, showing so many great collections that feature clothes we used to think were unexpected for men. I’m not doing menswear, obviously—Virgil is—but there’s this zone in the middle.
I’ve been casting many non-binary people for the past few years at Louis Vuitton. Of course, they represent this community, but I wanted to extend it to women, too. It doesn’t mean I’m going to dress women in menswear, but show clothes that are in between. Not clearly feminine or masculine, but in between. There is a section that is oversized T-shirts but in an elaborated way. You’ll probably be able to reference some things I did at the beginning. So that’s where I’m going for the season.
I’m interested to know how you spent lockdown. Were there positive learnings that stuck with you?
What was mentally valuable was the fact that I could interact with friends much more—even if it was not ‘in real’. The compensation for being isolated was being connected. I always used to think twice about calling people because I always had the next thing to do, and the one after that. Now I’m making time for it. Taking time to feel the time—to be more human.
You’ve talked about your sense of responsibility—a good word to use in these times when life has been slowed down in one way, but yet huge issues have also been exploding.
I’ve enjoyed the acceleration, in a way, of subjects we are confronted by. Like overproduction of collections, showing prototypes, or sometimes just making more products. I enjoy the fact that now we can go straight to the point. Today, there is no question—you have to do the right thing, and that one thing has to have the right balance of being impactful and practical. Instead of making 10 things, you make one. In a way, to be confronted with that is pleasant. Now to be able to do less but better is quite enjoyable. That was [something] very positive about slowing down in the lockdown. There was a serenity that everyone was in the same rhythm—and to be less confronted with the stress of that world.
How have you been able to put that into practice?
Well, my cruise show was made only with stock fabric. And production—that’s one small example. And I shot one campaign myself—that was a first. And I loved doing it. It’s very enjoyable—I had to be creative in a different way. Louis Vuitton loved it and asked me to do a second, and now there’s a third in the pipeline.
The issue of people flying all around the globe to attend fashion shows has obviously come to a sudden halt because of the pandemic. You were instrumental in starting to take people to destination Louis Vuitton cruise shows around the world—the point being that you were taking clothes to audiences locally. Can that continue?
For Louis Vuitton, the idea of travelling is fundamental. But now we have to reinvent the idea of travelling. We’ve done crazy things—it sounds like an old world now—we’ve done Cruise shows in Kyoto, Rio, New York… So I don’t know if we’ll stop travelling; we will still do shows in different countries. One solution is what they’re calling ‘spin-off’ shows. Local people do the production. We did one in Korea before lockdown. I was sceptical because I wasn’t there, but we did a lot of briefing, and Zoom calls, and they did a great job. It’s what we used to call trunk shows in the past.
The Black Lives Matter movement is equally a big wake-up challenge within the fashion industry globally. What has been your reaction?
The movement is accelerating a situation that is rotten—and of course, that’s a good thing. You have to look around and question yourself: why don’t we have more diversity in general around us? Think twice, think three times. Who is surrounding you? Is it fair? You know what’s interesting—the most diversity you’ll find in fashion houses is usually in the ateliers. We have to look at that. There’s a lot to be done.
In so many ways, it feels as if the changes of this year are irrevocable, but also have huge positive potential in them. Do you think we’re going to go back in time, to ‘normal’, or will fashion go ahead to form a better system?
I don’t think we’re going to go back to the way it was, I hope not. To be honest, it wasn’t right. And I hope this will be a step forward for the consciousness of this world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.