Purple Magazine
— S/S 2012 issue 17

The Balenciaga Boutiques




Ten years ago, a very young Nicolas Ghesquière was given the assignment of redesigning the Balenciaga boutique in Paris — and all of the label’s boutiques around the world. Nicolas chose to dispense with the grandiose architectural gestures and uniform visual identity of most international fashion brands. So instead of commissioning a famous architect for the project, he asked the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to join him in re-imagining the entire concept of the boutiques. This wasn’t just a question of how to dress the boutiques’ windows, or if artwork should be placed in their retail spaces — Nicolas and Dominique together reformulated every aspect of each boutique, using an architectural concept based on climate and landscape, and fiction and abstraction. Every Balenciaga boutique is adapted to its city’s local context and history, creating a mise-en-scène for each new collection — every season they tell a new story. After a decade of the collaboration between Nicolas Ghesquière and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and with a second Balenciaga boutique opening in SoHo in New York in 2012, we thought now would be a good time to talk to the fashion designer and the artist.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Nicolas, some of the most important fashion labels have commissioned great architects to design their prestige boutiques, but you decided to work with an artist, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who had absolutely no experience designing boutiques. Wasn’t this taking a bit of a risk?
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — I didn’t see it as a risk at all. More than anything, it was something new. I knew Dominique’s work, and I knew about her interest in architecture, landscape, atmosphere, ambiance, and narration. So when I began to think about the new Balenciaga boutiques — and how I wanted to present my clothes — I thought of her. We met, we talked about it, and immediately the new boutiques became our playground: a beautiful blank page.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — We really did create our own little playground. We began with an exchange of images and combinations of our visual obsessions, and almost immediately we ventured away from the usual, well-trodden ground of boutique design and began to reinvent it altogether. The boutiques we’ve created are entirely new, meaning that each element and space have been designed or invented from top to bottom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Creators have brought artists into their boutiques to do certain things, but no fashion designer I know of has conceived their entire retail space with a visual artist.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Ten years ago, there was a wave of collaborations between designers and architects. Then, once the boutiques were built, they would ask artists for pieces to animate the spaces. I find this both sad and disturbing — as if fashion needs art in order to render itself more credible, or needs to use works of art as communication tools. In any case, I asked Dominique if she would be willing to work on the boutiques, using an architectural approach to present what I do, but without pretending that it would be a way to show her art, or to create an installation. I didn’t want to do that at all.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — Nor would I have used a boutique to show my work. We didn’t want to instrumentalize or fragment art in the boutiques. We conceived each Balenciaga space as a gestalt, an original aesthetic experience, because all the stores are different.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you start with an initial idea, or with specific references?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — We had images, scenes from films, and all my architectural research on tropical modernity, but more than anything we knew what we did not want to do. I realized that many boutiques just latch onto the white cube aesthetic of galleries and museums. Our method was to start from the opposite direction: creating landscapes, dioramas — situating Nicolas’s clothing in a new landscape, in their own specific atmosphere. When I began working with Nicolas, the realization that no one has ever perfected the recipe for displaying clothing thrilled me and put me at ease. There are certain functions and rules, but nothing really scientific, such as whether it’s better to have a store that’s a little dark or one that’s very well lit. No one knows.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — We wanted to think freely, without restrictions, while considering the actual function of a couture boutique. We weren’t looking for prefabricated modules we could put anywhere in the world.


OLIVIER ZAHM — So it was like a blank page for both of you?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — It’s still a blank page because we don’t know what works — or what might work. We’ve been working together for almost a decade now, and all I can say today is that the space and the clothing work well together. This coherence is important. From there we can invent, which frees me up completely.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — We approached the work together, like we were in a laboratory, though it wasn’t scientific. We searched for new possibilities each time. We didn’t want to apply a systematic formula, city after city.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — When it became like a laboratory — and not the creation of something meant to be repeated — we adapted to the elements of each city, depending on the space, the context, the materials, the situations, the films we were watching at the time. And you know me: what happens the first time is the important thing!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Dominique, as an artist, did you accept to work on retail spaces only because it was for Balenciaga and Nicolas?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — Well, Nicolas isn’t just a fashion designer — he’s an artist who works with clothes and collections. He could have worked in music or film. Of course, I was also very aware of the way he constructs his clothing and I admired his work.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Nicolas, did you want the Balenciaga style to influence the aesthetic of the boutiques?
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Not the Balenciaga style — the Balenciaga identity. The laboratory idea says it best. Historically, Balenciaga is a fashion house where real creation takes place. We needed to bring to the boutiques the idea of a laboratory. Calling on Dominique was our point of departure. We began working on our historic Paris boutique on the Avenue George V nearly ten years ago, and on the one in New York around the same time. The one in Paris was redesigned by Andrée Putman in the ’80s, and then modified. What’s interesting is that we’re already in the second phase of our flagship boutique’s modification — the first lasted six or seven years, and then we redid it last year. We looked back at the archaeology of certain strata, which had been buried, and authorized certain changes. It’s a strange sort of fusion of modern and historic elements, of memory and archaeology.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Yes. We scratched the surface of these reminiscences, and then brought in the idea of the landscapes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there isn’t a specific Balenciaga style, and you opted for variation among the boutiques of each city, instead of them having a uniform corporate look.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — I’m not anti corporate. But I am against having the same style of boutique all over the world, with the same display windows, and so on. We wanted to integrate the stores into each city, capture the inherent qualities of each context, and find an ambiance specific to each place.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — We began in Paris and New York at almost the same time, and it was good to have the two different contexts.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Dominique, even if you haven’t installed your pieces in the stores themselves, one can see signature elements of your artistic vocabulary, specifically your sensitivity to architecture, intermediary spaces, the use of tropical elements, the interweaving of nature and architecture, and your interest in Japan and Brazil. It’s like you applied the principles of your art to a space — only this time not to a gallery space, but to a fashion environment. Has working on the Balenciaga boutiques factored into your artwork?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — I see myself as a creator working in different contexts. I see Nicolas like that, too, and we’re like two writers in a playground meeting to discuss questions of language, vocabulary, and signs. That’s where it all happens. It’s not about opposing art and fashion, or opposing exhibition and commercial consumption, but about questioning a language that is entirely visual. My work about climate, ambiance, shorthand, dioramas, and so on may be exhibited in galleries and museums, but I sometimes find it more satisfying to work in a boutique with Nicolas than to conceive an installation for a group show, for example. I feel more freedom in these spaces, even though they’re for consumers. But they only last for a certain length of time, which changes according to the cities and countries. Our designs establish a dialogue with each season’s collections, in a changing landscape. It’s like doing a one- or two-month exhibit in a gallery that few people will see, an exhibit that we destroy afterward. It offers great creative satisfaction. And it’s a great pleasure to work with people like Martial Galfione, who is more of an architect, and Benoît Lalloz, who is more of a lighting and set designer, because in the end we all overlap.

LONDON photography by BELLA HOWARD

OLIVIER ZAHM — Nicolas, how important are the boutiques to your work as artistic director of Balenciaga?
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Each season I see how the new collections fit into the boutiques, renewing and changing the landscape, and each time it’s a new thrill. It makes me look at a collection I’ve just finished in an entirely different way — like the story of it hasn’t ended yet. Generally speaking, for a designer, the arrival of his clothes in a boutique is pretty much the end of their story. But for me, it’s the beginning of a new life for the clothes, before they’re bought and worn, before they leave me forever. This transition, this meeting of the collection and the landscape created by Dominique, gives new life to my clothes. They come alive. And the landscape changes each time, in each boutique, with different colors and shapes, like a new state of vegetation. This also pushes me toward the next collection. I’m always astonished by the way that it comes together. It’s amazing. Each time is like a new discovery, even though I know the clothes by heart.

LONDON photography by BELLA HOWARD

OLIVIER ZAHM — I think the most successful element in the boutiques is the intuitive mix of function and abstraction. The spaces fulfill everything we expect from a boutique, but they also offer new perspectives, ones that make us see the garments differently because they’re in different settings — with high-tech lighting systems, highlighted colors, and different, contrasting, even clashing materials. There are also illustrative and imaginative effects. You call each store a landscape.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Yes. In the beginning we talked about making different landscapes, one per city.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — But now we talk more about a sort of planetarium that has a series of planets and ambiances. We look for a kind of visual language, one neither simple nor rational. That’s also the scary part. But we don’t collaborate only on the stores; for example, we also worked together for my exhibition, Expodrome, which was held at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris in 2007.

LONDON photography by BELLA HOWARD

OLIVIER ZAHM — You speak of research labs, a planetarium, and landscapes — isn’t there also a kind of sci-fi component in the Balenciaga boutiques? It’s like the experience of being elsewhere, in another place and time, in in-between spaces — in the sense of Marc Augé’s “non-places” of transience: when you don’t know if you’re in a hotel lobby, some kind of vehicle, the entrance to a parking structure, or at a highway exit. These between-spaces are spaces of change, transition, and movement. They’re crossroads. It seems to me that your stores put people in a foreign place — which might compel them to change their way of dressing.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — Well, our boutiques are a bit dystopian — something like J.G. Ballard’s strange spaces, or like cement ornamented with gold and silver leaf. It’s true that we don’t offer classical comfort in our spaces. But there can be beauty in spaces not overflowing with luxury. We learned this in Japan — that roughness and jagged lines can be as luxurious as something smooth and polished. So we mix it up.

LONDON photography by BELLA HOWARD

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about the boutiques, starting with the one in Paris.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Paris was the matrix. And it wasn’t easy. It was there that we exchanged our first images, books, and scenes from films, and developed the atmosphere we wanted to create.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — A starting point for the Paris boutique was a 1940 science fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares called The Invention of Morel, in which the same fantastic scene is endlessly repeated. What we found was a structure, a way to make the clothing float, a liaison — and confusion — between the interior and exterior. All the choices we made were about getting away from the white cube. Paris allowed us to re-examine the landscape we created and to bring back certain elements, like the gorgeous cabochon stones used in the floor and the staircase that had been taken out.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — We took out the wrought-iron railing and changed the direction of the staircase. We decided to restore only a part of Balenciaga’s history and archaeology. We found a photo of the old space taken in the ’50s showing a fresco at the back.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Paris store always seems to be changing.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — Yes, it’s a work in progress. It’s extraordinary to work with language like that, a little like Hitchcock remaking The Man Who Knew Too Much 20 years later. We get to rewrite our own language.

LONDON photography by BELLA HOWARD

OLIVIER ZAHM — After that, you put that long corridor and the color blue in the New York boutique.
In New York we kept the bricks, which Nicolas liked, and the whole envelope of the space. We built the center using rocks. It was already such an American landscape, with its great space and cement floor. Being near the Comme des Garçons store and all those galleries in Chelsea is also very stimulating. It’s the ideal playground for us.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — We created an iceberg, a completely artificial central island. But we retained the original characteristics of the space on 22nd Street, which at one time was used by a printing company. So it was a kind of virgin space, and not a gallery, which is why we decided to keep the bricks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re working on a second New York boutique, on Mercer Street, in Soho.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — It’s going to be very spatial — it has enormous interior height with a giant diorama.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — It’s another platform for us. It’s darker, more underground, and very long — the entire block from Mercer Street to Broadway. It’s as long as the Prada boutique, which runs parallel to it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How about the store in Cannes?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — It’s also dark, with this very pretty mille fleurs black carpet, which Nicolas used for a fashion show. We created a blue grotto — we have one in New York, as well — something you descend into. But the black carpet sets up a specific season.

photography by GIASCO BERTOLI

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the store in Milan?
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — Milan was the first city where we had to deal with historical conservation. It’s a little Memphis Collective, with an Ettore Sottsass influence visible in our choice of materials, like the strange stones and their composition, the long golden window shades, and the beautiful staircase with the blue lights highlighting it.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — What’s special about the Milan store is all the gold. We can have amazing suspended fixtures because of the high ceiling. We also began using marble and gilt, rethinking the codes of luxury.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A cactus garden holds a prominent position in the Los Angeles boutique.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — That store is on Melrose. Nicolas chose the building, which is made of black wood.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — I love the building. We visited many spaces, but when we saw that one, it was clear it was what we needed. The building is from the ’40s, and it wasn’t in particularly good shape. It had been abandoned, and the city of Los Angeles wanted to raze it, so at first they didn’t welcome our project. There had been several stores in the building, so we had to integrate the spaces. I see it as a kind of organic oasis, a green magma — desert green, which works so well against the black. Then the garden came in and took over the space.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — It’s the first time we put in a garden — it references the Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle-Marx. We were finally able to develop our inside/outside approach. Inside is the heart, which is sort of like a Lynchian condenser.


OLIVIER ZAHM — And the London store?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — The London store is in orange and red, for the planet Mars. It’s the favorite store of many people.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — It’s like a ship — or the craft in De Palma’s Mission to Mars — like walking around inside a spaceship. The red echoes the street because the cobblestones on Mount Street are all red, orange, and ochre. So you’re already in that universe when you’re still out on the street.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems like wherever the boutique may be, you always develop a different scenario for it — a different fiction — to stimulate the imagination.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — It takes a certain discipline to maintain emptiness — and, above all, to avoid the accumulation of too many products in the display windows.
NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE — More abstraction! Less distraction!


[Table of contents]

S/S 2012 issue 17

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple TRAVEL

purple NAKED

purple NIGHT

purple SUMMER


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