Why Nicolas Ghesquière's new collection is out of this world

Ghesquière may have been inspired by 'normal' clothes for his latest Balenciaga collection, but the end result is extraordinary, writes Susannah Frankel
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"It was a collection that was inspired by really normal clothes," says Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director of the Balenciaga label. This might sound disappointingly banal were it not for the fact that "normal" clothes - and indeed a "normal" price point to match - is the last thing the dedicated fashion follower has come to expect from this, the most rarefied of designer labels; and that such an element of surprise is just what the fashion industry thrives upon.

"Balenciaga streetwear" is how Ghesquière describes the look of his label's autumn/winter season: "I played with very ordinary clothes. I had in my head this campus girl with a very personal sense of style, the kind of girl who would mix a scarf, a jacket, a pair of chinos, an argyle sweater. It was all about individuality and personal style."

Given that this comes from one of the world's most influential designers, it might only be expected that if there is one word that sums up the international collections this time round, then "individual" must surely be it. In place of an overriding look or even mood comes the most diverse selection of clothing that has been seen for seasons, even years. It's what's known in the industry as a "transitional period" - cynics might translate this as a time when no one knows quite which direction to follow.

However unfocused the picture may be as a whole, though, this is quite a happy state for the consumer to find herself (or, indeed, himself) experiencing.

Whether madam prefers her look to be ultra-feminine or androgynous, loosely layered or architectural, minimal or maximal, she will be delighted to find that now, and for a short time only, just about anything goes. There is only one unifying factor, and it too is a positive one. Passive femininity is the one thing not on the agenda. Instead, a woman may dress any way she chooses just so long as she does so to please no one other than herself.

For Ghesquière, who has, in the past, been considerably more dictatorial in his approach, such a liberal mindset is reflected both in the mix-and-match style seen on the Balenciaga catwalk, and in his gathering together of references from all over the world. "I like the idea of playing with cultural symbols," he explains, "with colours and symbols. This was certainly the most eclectic collection I have done."

So there are Chinese influences - the pockets of the season's much publicised, and even more widely copied, Balenciaga jodhpurs come embroidered with Chinese writing. There are American classics reinterpreted: the same jodhpurs have their khaki or US army-green roots in the chinos originally given to the world via US military dress. "There are also some African jacquards," adds Ghesquière, "Moroccan prints, Balinese ikat prints, prints inspired by onyx and marble..."

And there are distinct elements that hail from England - and London especially, the capital being the spiritual home of any streetwear, designer or otherwise, one might care to mention. Argyle knits, pyjama stripes and blazers, also among the most plagiarised pieces of the autumn/winter season, that look like they come from the most sartorially accomplished school uniforms, all lend a British feel to the whole, as indeed do both thick ribbed tights in grey, and brightly coloured opaque ones - turquoise, preferably.

Lest anyone think, even for a moment, that such a melting pot of cultural references might lead to anything as cliched as diaphanous bohemian dress, East-meets-West style, it will come as a relief to discover that the end result is, in fact, entirely urban. The look may pay lip-service to the King's Road in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but there's nothing overly ethnic to be seen.

"The challenge was to introduce elements from a mix of cultures without ever being too ethnic," Ghesquière agrees. "Balenciaga had to stay urban, as always!"

But however accessible the collection may, at first glance, appear, things are never quite as they seem. Ghesquière is pleased to confirm that this is a more obviously commercial collection than anything he has designed for Balenciaga so far, and it's certainly a million miles away from the awesome robot-inspired collection that preceded it. "I'm very proud of the commerciality," the designer says. "A few years ago, people described Balenciaga is a niche brand, but in a very short time we've taken it from elitist to commercial."

Ultimately, however, satellite collections of knitwear and trousers, as well as the unprecedented success of the fringed Lariat bag, are a contributory factor where this is concerned, and the main-line collection remains the more extravagant parfum from which everything else springs.

"In the end, the clothes were inspired by normal dress, but they are still hugely complex," Ghesquière explains. "It was more that, after the sleek robotic collection, where all the girls looked alike, I wanted to do a collection about individuality, multiculturalism, an expression of the world today and the street today. But the pieces are just as amazing."

The porcelain buttons of jackets are all hand-painted, for example; an oversized safety pin holding a scarf in place is solid silver. Jacket linings are printed with heraldic lions and crowns, and come only in the finest silk velvet, felted wools and cashmeres. And then there are the coins, fringing and beading finishing everything from the smallest wrap to the hem of a dress.

"For me, this collection is really over-designed," Ghesquière adds, with a smile, and this goes for everything from a Palestinian scarf - look more closely and discover that it is overprinted with Space Invaders and snowflakes - to "Meccano" shoes that boast a brightly coloured plastic shell that looks more like the most elaborate children's toy than anything a fashion-conscious woman might choose to take to the street in.

"The idea was to take the familiar and rework and twist it," summarises Ghesquière, at this point sounding more like his usual self. "The clothes may look ordinary but, of course, they're not."