Future Perfect ; WHILE THE FASHION WORLD FOLLOWS THE MAINSTREAM, BALENCIAGA HAS BUILT A REPUTATION FOR RESPLENDENT ELITISM. SUSANNAH FRANKEL MEETS ITS CHIEF DESIGNER NICOLAS GHESQUIeRE. PHOTOGRAPHS BY DENNIS SCHOENBERG. STYLING BY LUCY EWING
Frankel, Susannah, The Independent (London, England)
Twenty-four looks, one hundred people and no trousers. It sounds like the title of a French farce. It was, however, Nicolas Ghesquiere's spring/summer 2004 collection for Balenciaga.
"Actually," Ghesquiere says, sitting in the unforgiving bright white environs of the label's minimal Left Bank headquarters - white walls, white floor, white tables, white chairs - "there were 25 looks but we had a drama". Whichever way you choose to look at it, given that by today's blockbuster standards the average show comprises upwards of twice that many outfits, this was tiny by comparison. Small, but perfectly formed. There was not one style out of place, not one question mark over casting or pace. Rather, each and every garment had been thought through and executed with the utmost rigour and precision. "We fixed zippers in the hems of dresses," Ghesquiere says, and six months on, the idea continues to thrill. "You know how, in haute couture, they used to put a gold chain to weigh down the hem and make skirts and dresses fall better. We used a zipper. I like that."
Ultra-small floral print dresses were strict and fitted to the empire line then fell in soft folds as gentle and pretty as the bloom of a wild flower. Ivory day suits had tiny strips of Perspex along the seams which twinkled in the light as models walked. Deconstructed baby dolls were finished with tiny fabric-covered buttons. This was a veritable jewel of a collection and, as befits something quite so precious, Ghesquiere saw fit to invite only 100 members of the press to his show and no buyers at all. The average attendance of a ready-to-wear show is 1,000. This was a brave move, then, and one that earned him more than his share of detractors.
"I understand that it upsets people," the designer explains, "but it is not a question of generosity, it is a question of holding the information and the clothes we have for the people we are working with, of giving them priority." Unsurprisingly, those left out of the loop are not amused.
The final part of the equation can, similarly, hardly be described as people pleasing. It is said that Nicolas Ghesquiere's trousers do more for the less than perfect bottom than the plastic surgeon's scalpel. The Financial Times once described him as "The Demi-God Of The Divine Derriere". The fact that Ghesquiere declined this season to show a single pair is a decision so uncompromising it might almost be considered perverse.
"You know, for me it is very important that there were no trousers in this collection," he says, now with a thinly disguised sense of mischief. "We do a pre-collection [loosely speaking, more mainstream pieces aimed at buyers and ordered before the international collections have taken place] and, of course, the trousers are there. We do menswear, we do accessories. We think the show is the one thing that has to stay really very exclusive."
Suffice it to say that Cristbal Balenciaga himself would have been proud. It is the stuff of fashion legend that the great couturier once held a show with no audience at all: his customers had offended him by buying - the shame of it - Christian Dior. Ghesquiere is less prone to ill humour than his predecessor - in fact, he is entirely amenable. Both proudly represent, however, a conviction that mainstream doesn't necessarily mean good, or even strictly commercial. It is a mindset that seems all the more extreme in light of designer fashion these days being generally no more rarefied than the column inches dedicated to the subject in magazines like Now and Heat.
Nicolas Ghesquiere must be doing something right. The label is now more widely copied than almost any other - even his contemporaries have been known to pick up on his ideas one, or maybe even two, seasons after the event. Combat pants in luxury fabrics worn with stiletto heels, the prevalence of patchwork and panelling, the return of the micro-miniskirt or high waisted trousers . …