Nicolas Ghesquiere accomplished one of the fashion industry’s most difficult tasks: bringing a forgotten designer house up from the doldrums of fashion lore to the feverish heights of hype and acclaim. His 15 years at Balenciaga saw the house rise from dusty French institution to an industry power player, changing the rules of the game and influencing a whole generation of students and future fashion designers.
To accomplish this Ghesquiere largely ignored the legacy of the house, reimagining Balenciaga’s otherworldly quality with his own preference for retro-futurism, a post-modern perspective that is as much an off shoot of Helmut Lang as it is Schiaparelli, an aesthetic that Ghesquiere singlehandedly brought to fashion’s consciousness where it evolved its own lexicon and systems; as developed as any other “ism” currently being explored. His references to the master were few and far between and often only addressed Balenciaga’s formal achievements rather than his conceptual, but regardless it was effective.
Ghesquiere’s modern vision for the house however was not its first. Before he took the helm, when he was designing the Japanese funeral license, Balenciaga was overseen by Josephus Thimister. The Antwerp trained designer started at Balenciaga in 1991 which at that point was a mere shadow of its former self having been mismanaged and shifted down market for decades. Thimister’s challenge to revive it was daunting and unprecedented. At that point Karl Lagerfeld, who Thimister had once worked under, was developing Chanel into the untouchable juggernaut it is today, but Thimister did not have accessible talismans like tweed suits or pearls to fetishize and latch on to, rather, he had an architectural consideration of volume, a grand ecclesiastical conservatism, but most importantly he had claim to the genesis of minimalism – an abstract that Balenciaga’s protégés Andre Courreges and Emannuel Ungaro would pursue and use to define the 1960s, that Halston would use as his benchmark for his easy luxury in the 1970s, and that in the ‘90s would almost come full circle, but not quite. Thimister’s challenge would be to reconcile the haughty minimalism of Balenciaga in an era that not only embraced the master’s distaste for excess but held distaste for his own aristocratic and snobbish ambitions. The minimalism of the ’90s had no use for couture egos or the women who cherished them. Thimister had to reconstruct Balenciaga’s legacy for a new era.
The success of his time at Balenciaga is up to debate and perhaps speaks to why Nicholas Ghesquiere was wary of treading directly into the archives until almost a decade after he took the post. But Thimister’s collections for Balenciaga highlight two important things: the minimalist codes of the house which were largely abandoned by Ghesquiere yet speak to Cristobal Balenciaga’s design trajectory (had he not found the couture business futile and closed operations in 1968) and to the talent and sophistication of Thimister’s team, there being two designers from those days who might require special consideration. There was Bouchra Jarrar who stayed on when Thimister was dismissed and Ghesquiere took over. She now designs her own collection which itself gives great evidence to the impact she had on the first half of Ghesquire’s 15 years at the label. And there was Patrick van Ommeslaeghe who also launched his own eponymous line after leaving Balenciaga, before Ghesquiere was promoted. While his collection has been inactive for some time, Ommeslaeghe’s talents have been put to use at Jil Sander where he has served under Raf Simons as designer and art director for the women’s wear until Simons’s own departure from the label. Ommeslaeghe’s penchant for minimalism, stoic form, and abstraction are evident in the Halston-esque gowns of his independent line and hint a distinct flavor in the collections Raf developed for Jil Sander, most notably in the homages to golden age couture that Simons left with a high note on. It’s a history that’s all very curious now as PPR searches for a new designer to lead the way for Balenciaga’s future.
One of Balenciaga’s last designs, Vogue 1967