In a startling Monday morning statement, Balenciaga announced that, by mutual agreement, designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s and the storied brand were parting ways at the end of the month.
“Cristóbal Balenciaga was a master, a genius whose avant-garde vision dictated fashion’s greatest trends and inspired generations of designers,” said Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of the French luxury conglomerate PPR, in the statement. “With an incomparable creative talent, Nicolas has brought to Balenciaga an artistic contribution essential to the unique influence of the house.”
According to a spokesman at Balenciaga’s Paris headquarters, there’s no timeline for announcing the company’s plans going forward.
Ghesquiere arrived at Balenciaga in 1995 as a relative unknown. It was not considered a particularly prime posting. While Balenciaga boasted a tremendous legacy, it had fallen out of fashion.
Two years later, Ghesquière was promoted to creative director and the renaissance began. He acknowledged Balenciaga’s design history but refrained from any sentimentality about it. His vision was not merely modern, it was futuristic. He embraced high-tech fabrics, a bracing urbanity, and a vision of women as a kind of superhero that only science fiction could create.
In 2000, Balenciaga was swept up into Gucci Group – now PPR Luxury – during a corporate buying spree led by Domenico de Sole and Tom Ford. At its new home and thanks to a significant accessories business and countless critically acclaimed collections, the brand prospered.
“It’s a collection I truly do like. I like his sensibility. I like how he has a nice balance between classic and modern,” says retailer Nancy Pearlstein, owner of Relish in Georgetown. News of his departure, she says, has left her “frustrated.”
Over the last decade, Ghesquière – along with Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo and Hedi Slimane -- had emerged as one of the most influential designers of his generation. Ghesquière’s success, of course, led to inevitable questions about his future and the likelihood that he might launch his own label. In a conversation with Ford for Interview magazine a couple years ago, Ford asked the younger designer where he saw himself in 10 years. “Honestly, I think I will be here at Balenciaga. Maybe not only. I have no idea what I would do for my own collection if that does happen one day,” Ghesquière said. “I give so much of myself for Balenciaga that today if you put me in a room and said, ‘Okay, let’s try to do a Nicolas Ghesquière project,’ I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
For today’s customer, Balenciaga is defined by Ghesquière, not by the Spanish master who founded the house and showed his first collection in 1937. “For all intents and purposes, this was a Nicolas Ghesquière collection,” Pearlstein says.
Under the founder’s leadership, the brand was known for its haute couture rigor and its sculptural shapes. He closed the house in 1968 and retired. What Ghesquière created is a brand that is both fanciful and sophisticated. He works around an impossibly long and lean ideal, but never allows his work to grow ascetic and cold. His greatest strength has been his refusal to become mired in vintage shapes, historical references and stubborn traditions.
Ghesquière is a resolutely modern designer whose work is both comprehensible and challenging. He didn’t merely revive Balenciaga; he reinvented it.