Fashion: The man who turned Madonna into a Goth

When Madonna gives a designer her seal of approval, his success is assured. Nicolas Ghesquiere, the new man at Balenciaga, cannot fail: the pop star is already quite a fan. Ian Phillips meets the great couturier's latest successor at his Paris studio
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WHEN the fashion house Balenciaga was looking for a new designer early last year, there were reports that it was planning to bring in a big-shot designer. The names of Helmut Lang and Yohji Yamamoto were bandied about. The fashion flock started to get all flustered. Then, it was announced that an unknown 26-year-old called Nicolas Ghesquiere would actually be taking over. To which the general reaction was "Er, who?"

At the same time, Ghesquiere was also hired to design the women's collection for Trussardi, and just 12 months later both appointments look like an incredibly smart move. His latest collection for Balenciaga was the highlight of Paris Fashion Week, and shortly after his first collection in October, Madonna adopted him as one of her new fashion darlings.

At the Golden Globes in January, she chose not to wear any of her favoured designers, such as Dolce & Gabbana or Versace. Instead, she turned up in a long-sleeved, full-skirted black Balenciaga dress, which she described as "Goth". On a trip to Paris last month to promote her new album, she took time out to pop into Balenciaga for a fitting and walked away with a choice of 10 outfits for the Academy Awards. On the night, she chose to wear an outfit by the latest avant-garde designer on the block, Olivier Theyskens, but that's another story.

When asked about his most famous client, Ghesquiere is suitably discreet. He will, never the less, reveal that she discovered his creations during a shoot for Spin magazine with Dutch photographer Inez van Lamsweerde (a big fan of Ghesquiere). "She immediately fell for my clothes," he says. "She feels they fit into the new direction she wants to take and have obvious links to religion - something which has always fascinated her."

Indeed, Ghesquiere admits to being very attracted by the monastic aesthetic, as indeed was the old master Cristobal Balenciaga himself. In the collection for autumn/winter `98, it was apparent in the pared-down, sombre, black forms and clothes inspired by capes and cassocks. Right up until the last minute, Ghesquiere had even planned to tie thick ropes around the models' waists in the guise of belts.

In one corner of his sunny Paris office stands a board covered in pictures of nuns. Next door, the American department store Barneys is placing an order.

Ghesquiere himself is sitting at a marble desk, dressed in a long-sleeved black T-shirt with his long hair scrunched up at the back of his head with the aid of an elastic band. Out of the window, he has a view of the House of Dior and says that he often admires John Galliano's Mercedes as he drives by. "When I walk out of the door with my nylon bag on my back in the evening, I say to myself, "Life's not fair," he jokes.

His passion and enthusiasm are quite infectious, and particularly evident when he recounts how he has always wanted to be a fashion designer. As a child, his parents worried about him because he would spend all of his holiday sketching clothes - even on the beach. In secondary school, he used to give the local butcher's daughter fashion lessons and at the age of 15, spent his summer working for Agnes b. At 18, he was hired as a design assistant by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

For him, Balenciaga, who set up his first couture business in Spain in 1919 and closed it in Paris in 1968, is one of the top three couturiers in fashion history. Balenciaga died in 1972, but the house is now set to flourish again under Ghesquiere; since taking over the design helm, the young designer has managed to revive the great Spaniard's style. There is the same purity in the lines, the same bubble shapes and the same analysis of volumes, and the same relentless modernity.

"Balenciaga took his inspiration from Velasquez," he says, "I take mine from Princess Leia's dress in Star Wars." The construction of each piece is carefully thought out and highly original. Skirts, for example, consist of four separate panels. Tunic-style tops have sleeves at the front, but look like capes from the back.

"I really don't have too much trouble designing," he says, "because Balenciaga's heritage is so inspirational." He certainly seems well informed about the late couturier's life - how he started off reproducing models of Parisian couture in San Sebastian; how he was "not at all sociable, but rather solitary, discreet and stern"; and how, when he announced that he was quitting fashion, Christian Dior himself came to beg him to continue.

"Before he quit, Balenciaga did say one thing," he continues. "That he regretted not being younger so that he could do a ready-to-wear collection for a younger, more active woman." In Ghesquiere, at least, he has a worthy heir to carry out his wish.