As part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Atelier with Alina Cho conversation series, Grace Coddington and Nicolas Ghesquière sat down with the longtime television correspondent to discuss their recent collaboration, their early careers and their inspirations. When they took the stage Monday evening, Cho led the pack as Coddington, who was clad in “LV”-adorned satin pajamas, and Ghesquière, who was dressed less comfortably in black denim, followed closely behind. Though vastly different in appearance, age and upbringing, the legendary fashion editor and Louis Vuitton’s artistic director are kindred spirits: Both have a gentleness and shyness, but also possess impossible-to-ignore artistic visions that have and will continue to shape how we see fashion.
After years of collaborating on memorable editorials (and sitting with each other at the Met Gala’s dinner portion), the pair have developed a close friendship. They’ve also bonded over their shared love of animals, which has resulted in a cat-covered Louis Vuitton collaboration launching next month. But felines aside, Coddington and Ghesquière have their plates full with other projects, constantly thinking about how to tell more compelling stories through fashion. They shared what the future has in store — which may include a namesake label for Ghesquière – along with highlights from their past. Read on for highlights from their conversation.
On their cat-covered collaboration
Ghesquière had wanted to collaborate with Coddington for a while now. “I’ve always admired the very personal style of Grace over the years,” he said. “She has this particular English taste, which is so eccentric.” So, naturally, when he had the opportunity to work on a capsule collection with her, Ghesquière made sure her eccentricity would shine through. It’s safe to say that the range — which features playful illustrations of cats, dogs and mice — does just that and is a perfect love letter to the famous cat lady.
For Coddington, who is used to working with designers in a different capacity, the collaboration made her feel very “grown-up.” In the past, Coddington has gone to Louis Vuitton as more of an observer, but this time, she put on a new hat: “To be sitting with him in his office with a table covered in handbags and to be discussing what we’re going to do with it and where we’re going to take it was fun and exciting.”
On their early years, hanging out with The Rolling Stones and working for Jean Paul Gaultier
Coddington grew up in the hotel her parents owned in Wales, where she fell in love with fashion on the pages of Vogue. She moved to London when she won a Vogue modeling competition at 17. After the win, her career took off and she became the U.K.’s “It” model, hanging out with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. “Everybody was hanging out with them,” she said nonchalantly. “I didn’t see them every day, but they were around like the Kardashians are around.” And when she wasn’t keeping up with The Rolling Stones, she was on tour with Vidal Sassoon, the scissor wizard responsible for bringing back the bob haircut in the ’60s. In fact, Sassoon developed the five-point cut on Coddington’s red hair.
Ghesquière was born 30 years after Coddington, and grew up in the Loire Valley in France, but always had his sights set on ending up in Paris. He got his big break at 18, when he landed a job with Jean Paul Gaultier. There, Ghesquière learned to balance creativity and pragmatism. “He gave me my eye and my hand,” he said.
On bringing Balenciaga back to life
In 1995, Ghesquière heard about a freelance position at Balenciaga. At the time, the French fashion house had lost its way and was hanging on by a few licensing deals and its magnificent archive. “It was a sleeping beauty,” the designer, who at this time was only 25, explained. “I saw a beautiful legacy. I saw the vision of a man who was an architect and at the same time, had the unique talent to do classic pieces and have a futuristic vision. I was attracted to its history.”
Two years later, the role of creative director opened up and Helmut Lang was supposed to get the job. Though he never signed the contract, Ghesquière, who had designed a successful commercial collection for the store, applied to be the assistant to Helmut Lang. He got the job, instead, and was given a six-month trial period to see what he could do (and to give the company time to find a famous replacement). The rest, as they say, is history — Ghesquière stayed on at the brand for 15 years.
Ghesquière established his design vocabulary at Balenciaga. He studied the archives and revived the Spanish designer’s construction techniques and innovative silhouettes. His collections incorporated elements of sportswear and were always modern — never nostalgic — despite looking to the past for inspiration. “One of the things I’m most proud of is putting Balenciaga back on the fashion map,” he said, as an image of Balenciaga’s Classic City Bag appeared on screen.
The recognizable carryall, which Coddington added was the “beginning of ‘It’ bags,” was a Ghesquière creation that sat in his studio for over a year. “We knew that Balenciaga wasn’t a brand for bags, so it was a little accidental to create a bag that would become a hit,” he explained. “I believed in it, but no one did at the time.”
On bringing clothes to life through images
Coddington has worked with some of the most extraordinary photographers and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of our time. “It’s always incredible when after a fashion show happens, the clothes are taken and Grace creates another story with them,” said Ghesquière while admiring some of Coddington’s most memorable editorials shot by Arthur Elgort and Annie Leibovitz. “More than anything, what is very special with Grace is she respects the clothes and will always make sure there is a big respect for the design.”
Coddington’s response was simple and to the point: “I love fashion, so why wouldn’t I respect it?” And her passions are clear: She loves fashion, felines and photography. “For me, photography and fashion are the same thing; one relates to the other and I hope it reads in my pictures.”
On Louis Vuitton and Hedi Slimane at Celine
Ghesquière joined Louis Vuitton in 2013, following Marc Jacobs’s 16-year reign at the brand. “Vuitton is such a large brand and it’s so different from Balenciaga,” he noted. And at Louis Vuitton, he wants to create desire. “I want to empower women through my clothes.”
He will continue to do so for the next five years as Louis Vuitton just renewed his contract. When speaking about the news on French television, the designer said he has many exciting projects underway and that his namesake label might be much closer to reality. Though, when Cho begged for more information, Ghesquière refused to give any details away other than to smile and say it’s a possibility.
Of his contemporaries, Ghesquière said he was not surprised by what Hedi Slimane has done at Celine. In fact, he seemed to think that his offering for the former Phoebe Philo-led label was a testament to Slimane’s strong point-of-view. “When you are the artistic director of a house, the most important thing is style and to have someone with a true vision and that does something that is very recognizable,” he said. “I think this is the case with Hedi at Celine.”
On interviewing Anna Wintour for “Face to Grace”
Coddington is famously shy, so it was surprising when she decided to take on a new role as a talk-show host. Coddington invited her longtime colleague Anna Wintour on her show “Face to Grace,” to which she said she was shocked Wintour agreed to do it. “We’re really good friends, but when you’re in front of a camera, it’s different,” said Coddington, noting that the notoriously shaded editor-in-chief did not take off her dark glasses during the interview.