Is robotic the new exotic?

Nicolas Ghesquière's futuristic creations for Balenciaga are completely out of this world. He tells Susannah Frankel why he loves C-3PO chic

'I wanted to express the idea of artificial legs - robot legs,' says the Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière of his full-metal 'leggings', which have proved among the most written- and talked-about pieces of this spring/ summer season.

It's not difficult to see why. Even by designer-fashion standards, these leggings are extreme, which is precisely what might be expected from one of the world's most forward-thinking designers. 'We had a lot of documentation on robots from comics, movies, Japanese artists, so everything was mixed,' Ghesquière explains, going on to protest, 'They're not so unwearable' But the distinct feeling is that he is all too aware of the fact that only very few people are ever likely to agree with him. 'You could wear them with a T-shirt,' he continues. 'They're more modern than an evening dress. I think they're quite interesting.'

They are indeed. They are also perhaps the most overt statement to date of this designer's interest in futurism and, in particular, in the future as seen through the eyes of the past. Let's not forget that everything from ocean-printed neoprene-effect second skin to direct references to the costumes of David Lynch's Dune has already been plundered for inspiration by Ghesquière.

When the army of spring/ summer 2007 Balenciaga-clad models first emerged on to the Paris catwalk, in September last year, in skinny tailored jackets with gleaming strips of black vinyl at the shoulder, knitted copper goddess dresses, sunglasses that might appear more at home in a glamorous laboratory, and more ( right), the melancholically beautiful android in Fritz Lang's Metropolis sprang to mind.

'It wasn't Metropolis, though,' Ghesquière explains, 'but the generation after Metropolis, the generation inspired by Metropolis to make The Terminator and Tron.' It is, of course, no coincidence that both of those science-fiction blockbusters came out of the 1980s. Ghesquière is more than a little interested in this particular decade, which was, after all, the time when he grew up. More Eighties references in this collection include BMX chains snaking their way round super-elevated platform-soled shoes, and toughened-leather biker jackets and matching, ultra-stiff A-line skirts.

The fascination with futurism as seen through that era in the current Balenciaga collection (which, incidentally, Ghesquière is blithely willing to concede is 'not, in fact, so summery') doesn't stop there. Take as a further example the prints. The first is inspired by the circuitry of a computer, the second is a magnified image of human cells.

'What is interesting for me is to look at an expression of the future as it was perceived 20 years ago,' Ghesquière explains. 'And then to abstract that which, I hope, evokes a feeling of looking to the future from our point of view today.'

In particular, this effect takes full flight in the almost perverse desire, throughout the collection, to 'plasticise' what are, in fact, more often than not traditional couture fabrics rather than hi-tech ones. "I wanted to give the impression of something hi-tech but using natural fabrics, which is not easy. I didn't want too much plastic, too much synthetic fabric. I wanted to use silk, wool, cotton, very natural fibres and turn them into something that looks synthetic. So, we lacquered fabrics, we hand-wove vinyl, we plasticised horsehair"

Of all the designers in contemporary fashion - with the exception, perhaps, of Miuccia Prada - Ghesquière's contribution is the most hotly anticipated, season after season. He shares with that other fashion deity - and it is perhaps worth noting that in this they are pretty much unique - the ability to shift perspective every six months, leaving the rest of the world struggling with all its might to keep up. Certainly, this short, sharp and - for Ghesquière, at least - on the face of it really quite theatrical collection was a million miles away from the vintage Balenciaga, couture-driven offering that came immediately before it.

'The idea was still to play with a certain sharp silhouette, but not with extreme volume,' Ghesquière explains, and in this he, to some extent, parts company with this very grand house's namesake, Cristobal, for whom volume was always of prime importance. 'There is no volume in this collection. It's narrow but it's also playing with lengths, with superimposition: with layers and with fake layers. Last season was so much about shape, this season it's more about sharp.'

In the end, perhaps the most clever thing about the end result is that any surface pyrotechnics belie the fact that, for all its dramatic impact, this is far from costume. 'I thought it was important for this particular collection to give the feeling of something that you really cut and shape with a strong hand,' Ghesquière says, 'but at the end of the day, it may be thick but it is wearable. It's not something that is impossible to wear.

'The visual effect looks tougher than what it is in reality. It was very important to me to keep it quite real. It may, at first sight, be a strong robotic image, but I hope it isn't caricature.'

So, the aim, then, now, as always, is to make wearable garments. 'Of course, there is the evocation of something artificial,' Ghesquière concludes, 'but in the end, you're left with a pair of trousers, a jacket, a dress' There's nothing much superconceptual about that. They're real clothes.'

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