First, he asked to show in New York rather than Paris. “It is true that the collections in New York are not as experimental as they are in London and Paris, but in America, you can touch a lot of people with a message that is clean and direct,” he explains. “I was fascinated with the idea of coming to New York and trying to catch this collective attention. It is not that I want to be an American star, but it is just that as a French designer, that was something I wanted to try to tap into. And besides,” he continues, “the way we show at Balenciaga suits New York. It is fast and to the point. People are concerned with the clothes here rather than with the theatrical aspect of a show.” Still, Ghesquière is very much concerned with presentation. Last spring, he not only decided to show his first New York collection at an art galleryan obvious target for designers looking to get out of the tentsbut set his sights on one of the few commercial spaces that doesn’t need any favors from fashion to heighten its profile: the Gagosian gallery.
“I went there to see an art show a long time ago, and I thought what an amazing space it was, but when I asked, they said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t do fashion shows here,’ ” he says. “But someone made a connection, and when Larry Gagosian was in Paris, he rang me and said, ‘Voilà, come to the Ritz and have a drink.’ I was very nervoussuddenly having to explain myself and Balenciaga to this very . . . strong man, non?”
But of course, Gagosianthere are no flies on himunderstood, and opened his doors. “Oh, I was so happy,” continues Ghesquière. “I asked if we could do it there again this year, but the gallery has a show on then, and the Dia Center is just perfect, so we are doing it there. And after the show, we will show people the shop. There won’t be a party or anything, just that people can cross the road in the afternoon and see the store.”
It’s clear the store is Ghesquière’s reigning passion. “I think that the concept of having the same store in different parts of the world is boring now,” he explains. “I think architecture should be specific to its city. So for New York, I had this fantasyit is a cliché, of courseof a New York garage. And so we have tried to change as little as possible about the space. We have the same brick walls and red window frames, and there is no sign above the shop, just a label on the door, but at the same time, we have added things. There are sculptural pieces in the store and big rocks from Connecticut by the entrance, so it is both playful and yet earnest and conceptual. I hope we have achieved a harmony between what is sold and where we are selling.”
Ghesquière takes a breath. He is tiny and fine-boned, and he looks like a boy, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He makes you think that every shop should look like a garage. “The space is about the meeting between clothes and art,” he says, and he manages to sound neither silly nor pretentious. Plus, it’s true: The store has been conceived and designed not by an architect and a marketer but by a designer and an artist. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster uses video and film, and she had made many an installation, but she describes her work as using “environments.” At last year’s Documenta, she created a park that combined various elements from places she has visited: rose bushes and boulders from Mexico, a telephone booth from Rio de Janeiro.
“I knew Nicolas’s clothes before I met him,” Gonzalez-Foerster says, “and so I was excited at his idea that we should work together. We met and clicked immediately. There has been this fashion lately for stores to reference a gallery and to create a white cube. It is a very elegant system, but we wanted to go beyond that. We both thought there must be something else.”
Certainly, Gonzalez-Foerster and Ghesquière’s Balenciaga store prove that there is a good deal else. Not least the clothes: The spring collection is full of tiny minidresses, scuba-inspired tops, and the jersey pants and cycle shorts that insiders have been trying to get their hands on since October.
When asked what he has up his sleeve for his latest collection, Ghesquièreon this day in Paris, three weeks before the New York showsonly smiles. Of course, he can’t talk about the collection before it is unveiled or, more to the point, finished. But he is too willing to please to remain unresponsive. “It is very much more experimental than last summer’s collection,” he says. “There is one outfit for each girl, so we will have 30 or 35 girls, and just one vision of each.” He pauses. “For the first time, I am using more of the Balenciaga tradition. In the past, I purposefully distanced myself from that. I was transgressive and like, Oh, I don’t care, and I was just trying to be very ready-to-wear. Of course I am not a couture person. I like ready-to-wear, but I am using more of this”he gestures around the bustling Balenciaga atelier. “I wish I could say more,” he says, “but I can’t.”
So if part of him is embracing the tradition of Balenciaga, is another part of him reaching away? Having saved one label, does he want to create his own, with his own name? He widens his eyes and smiles. “Perhaps I have saved the house of Balenciaga,” he says quickly, “but it has also saved me. Yes, of course I would like to do something under my own name at some point, but right now, I am very happy. Balenciaga is a perfect screen for me, for both showing my work and protecting it.”