THE INAUGURATION OF Nick Cave’s Facility, a new multidisciplinary art space on Chicago’s Northwest Side, has the feeling of a family affair. In April, inside the yellow-brick industrial building, the classical vocalist Brenda Wimberly and the keyboardist Justin Dillard give a special performance for a group that includes local friends, curators and educators, as well as Cave’s high school art teacher, Lois Mikrut, who flew in from North Carolina for the event. Outside, stretching across the windows along Milwaukee Avenue, is a 70-foot-long mosaic made of 7,000 circular name tags with a mix of red and white backgrounds, each of them personalized by local schoolchildren and community members. They spell out the message “Love Thy Neighbor.”
The simple declaration of togetherness and shared purpose is a mission statement for the space, a creative incubator as well as Cave’s home and studio, which he shares with his partner, Bob Faust, and his older brother Jack. It’s also a raison d’être for Cave, an uncategorizable talent who has never fit the mold of the artist in his studio. Best known for his Soundsuits — many of which are ornate, full-body costumes designed to rattle and resonate with the movement of the wearer — his work, which combines sculpture, fashion and performance, connects the anxieties and divisions of our time to the intimacies of the body.
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Exhibited in galleries or worn by dancers, the suits — fanciful assemblages that include bright pelts of dyed hair, twigs, sequins, repurposed sweaters, crocheted doilies, gramophones or even stuffed sock-monkey dolls, their eerie grins covering an entire supersize garment — are compulsively, unsettlingly decorative. Some are amusingly creature-like; others are lovely in an almost ecclesiastical way, bedecked with shimmering headpieces embellished with beads and porcelain birds and other discarded tchotchkes he picks up at flea markets. Even at the level of medium, Cave operates against entrenched hierarchies, elevating glittery consumer detritus and traditional handicrafts like beadwork or sewing to enchanting heights.
In invigorating performances that often involve collaborations with local musicians and choreographers, the Soundsuits can seem almost shaman-esque, a contemporary spin on kukeri, ancient European folkloric creatures said to chase away evil spirits. They recall as well something out of Maurice Sendak, ungainly wild things cutting loose on the dance floor in a gleeful, liberating rumpus. The surprising movements of the Soundsuits, which change depending on the materials used to make them, tend to guide Cave’s performances and not the other way around. There is something ritual-like and purifying about all the whirling hair and percussive music; the process of dressing the dancers in their 40-pound suits resembles preparing samurai for battle. After each performance, the suits made of synthetic hair require tender grooming, like pets. Cave’s New York gallerist, Jack Shainman, recalls the time he assisted in the elaborate process of brushing them out — “I was starting to bug out, because there were 20 or 30 of them” — only to have Cave take over and do it all himself. Much beloved and much imitated (as I write this, an Xfinity ad is airing in which a colorful, furry-suited creature is buoyantly leaping about), they can be found in permanent museum collections across America.
Their origins are less intellectual than emotional, as Cave tells it, and they’re both playful and deadly serious. He initially conceived of them as a kind of race-, class- and gender-obscuring armature, one that’s both insulating and isolating, an articulation of his profound sense of vulnerability as a black man. Using costume to unsettle and dispel assumptions about identity is part of a long tradition of drag, from Elizabethan drama to Stonewall and beyond; at the same time, the suits are the perfect expression of W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, the psychological adjustments black Americans make in order to survive within a white racist society, a vigilant, anticipatory awareness of the perceptions of others. It’s no coincidence that Cave made the first Soundsuit in 1992, after the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991, a still-vivid racial touchstone in American history; almost three decades later, the suits are no less timely. “It was an almost inflammatory response,” he remembers, looking shaken as he recalls watching King’s beating on television 28 years ago. “I felt like my identity and who I was as a human being was up for question. I felt like that could have been me. Once that incident occurred, I was existing very differently in the world. So many things were going through my head: How do I exist in a place that sees me as a threat?”
Cave had begun teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with its predominately white faculty, two years before, and in the aftermath of the incident, followed by the acquittal of the officers responsible, he felt his isolation painfully. “I really felt there was no one there I could talk to. None of my colleagues addressed it. I just felt like, ‘I’m struggling with this, this is affecting my people.’ I would think that someone would be empathetic to that and say, ‘How are you doing?’ I held it all in internally. And that’s when I found myself sitting in the park,” he says. In Grant Park, around the corner from his classroom, he started gathering twigs — “something that was discarded, dismissed, viewed as less. And it became the catalyst for the first Soundsuit.”
For many years after he began making his signature work, Cave deliberately avoided the spotlight, shying away from an adoring public: “I knew I had the ability, but I wasn’t ready, or I didn’t want to leave my friends behind. I think this grounded me, and made me an artist with a conscience. Then, one day, something said, ‘Now or never,’ and I had to step into the light.” Initially, he wasn’t prepared for the success of the Soundsuits. For much of the ’90s, “I literally shoved all of them into the closet because I wasn’t ready for the intensity of that attention,” Cave says. He began exhibiting the Soundsuits at his first solo shows, mostly in galleries across the Midwest; he’s since made more than 500 of them. They’ve grown alongside Cave’s practice, evolving from a form of protective shell to an outsize, exuberant expression of confidence that pushes the boundaries of visibility. They demand to be seen.
Following the phenomenal success of the Soundsuits, Cave’s focus has expanded to the culture that produced them, with shows that more directly implicate viewers and demand civic engagement around issues like gun violence and racial inequality. But increasingly, the art that interests Cave is the art he inspires others to make. With a Dalloway-like genius for bringing people from different walks of life to the table in experiences of shared good will, Cave sees himself as a messenger first and an artist second, which might sound more than a touch pretentious if it weren’t already so clear that these roles have, for some time, been intertwined. In 2015, he trained youth from an L.G.B.T.Q. shelter in Detroit to dance in a Soundsuit performance. The same year, during a six-month residency in Shreveport, La., he coordinated a series of bead-a-thon projects at six social-service agencies, one dedicated to helping people with H.I.V. and AIDS, and enlisted dozens of local artists into creating a vast multimedia production in March of 2016, “As Is.” In June 2018, he transformed New York’s Park Avenue Armory, a former drill hall converted into an enormous performance venue, into a Studio 54-esque disco experience with his piece — part revival, part dance show, part avant-garde ballet — called “The Let Go,” inviting attendees to engage in an unabashedly ecstatic free dance together: a call to arms and catharsis in one. Last summer, with the help of the nonprofit Now & There, a public art curator, he enlisted community groups in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood to collaborate on a vast collage that will be printed on material and wrapped around one of the area’s unoccupied buildings; in September, also in collaboration with Now & There, he led a parade that included local performers from the South End to Upham’s Corner with “Augment,” a puffy riot of deconstructed inflatable lawn ornaments — the Easter bunny, Uncle Sam, Santa’s reindeer — all twisted up in a colossal Frankenstein bouquet of childhood memories. Cave understands that the lost art of creating community, of joining forces to accomplish a task at hand, whether it’s beading a curtain or mending the tattered social fabric, depends upon igniting a kind of dreaming, a gameness, a childlike ability to imagine ideas into being. But it also involves recognizing the disparate histories that divide and bind us. The strength of any group depends on an awareness of its individuals.
FACILITY IS THE next iteration of that larger mission, and Cave and Faust, a graphic designer and artist, spent years looking for the right space. Creating it required a great deal of diplomacy and determination, as well as an agreeable alderman to assist with the zoning changes and permits. And while it evokes Warhol’s Factory in name, in intent, the approximately 20,000-square-foot former mason’s workshop has a very different cast.
“Facilitating, you know, projects. Energies. Individuals. Dreams. Every day, I wake up, he wakes up, and we’re like, ‘O.K. How can we be of service in a time of need?’” says Cave, who gave me a tour in the fall of 2018, not long after he and Faust settled into the space. Dressed entirely in black — leather pants and a sweater, and sneakers with metallic accents — the 60-year-old artist has a dancer’s bearing (he trained for several summers in the early ’80s at a program in Kansas City run by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and an aura of kindness and irrepressible positivity. One wants to have what he’s having. “Girl, you can wear anything,” he reassures me when I fret about the green ruched dress I’m wearing, which under his discerning gaze suddenly strikes me as distinctly caterpillarlike. It comes as no surprise that Cave’s favorite adjective is “fabulous.”
In contrast to his maximalist art practice, his fashion tastes have grown more austere, as of late, and include vintage suits and monochrome classics from Maison Margiela, Rick Owens and Helmut Lang. “I have a fabulous sneaker collection,” he says. “But you know, the reason why is because those floors at the school are so hard,” he says, referring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is now a professor of Fashion, Body and Garment. (I also teach at the school, in a different department.) “I can’t wear a hard shoe, I have to wear a sneaker,” he says. Faust teases him: “I love how you’ve just justified having that many sneakers.”
Cave met Faust, who runs his own business from Facility, in addition to supporting the artist as his special projects director, when he happened to stop by a sample sale of Cave’s clothing designs in the early 2000s. The Soundsuits are, for all intents and purposes, a kind of clothing, so fashion has been a natural part of Cave’s artistic practice since the beginning — he studied fiber arts as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he first learned to sew. In 1996, he started a namesake fashion line for men and women that lasted a decade. If the Soundsuits resist categorization as something to wear in everyday life, they arrive at their unclassifiable beauty by taking the basic elements of clothing design — stitching, sewing, understanding how a certain material falls or looks with another kind of material — and exaggerating them into the realm of atmospheric psychedelia. That he teaches in the fashion department at an art school further underscores the thin line Cave has always walked between clothing and sculpture, all of it preoccupied in some way with the human body, its form and potential energy. His own clothing designs are slightly — only slightly — more practical variations on the Soundsuits: loud embroidered sweaters, crocheted shirts with sparkly jewelry. “He came in and was like, ‘These clothes are so out there, I can’t wear any of this,’” Cave recalls, laughing. (Faust politely bought a sweater and still wears it today.) At the time, the artist was about to publish his first book and asked Faust to design it; the collaboration was a success, and Faust has subsequently designed all of Cave’s publications. About eight years ago, the nature of the relationship changed. “Before that, I was single for 10 years. I was always traveling, and who is going to handle all of that?” Cave says. “But Bob already knew who I was, and that makes all the difference. Being with someone who is a visionary in his own right and using this platform as a place of consciousness — it’s very important to me.”
Upstairs is the couple’s living space and selections from Cave’s personal art collection: a Kehinde Wiley here, a Kerry James Marshall there. (A lesson from Cave: Buy work from your friends before they become famous.) Cave and Faust opted to leave the floors and walls scarred, bearing the traces of its former use as an industrial building. In a small, sunny room off the kitchen, one corner of the ceiling is left open to accommodate an abandoned wasp’s nest, a subtle, scrolled masterpiece of found architecture. Faust’s teenage daughter also has a bedroom, and Jack, an artist with a design bent, has an adjacent apartment.
Downstairs, in the cavernous work space big enough to host a fashion show, musical or dance performance, are Cave’s and Faust’s studios. Some of Cave’s assistants — he has six of them, Faust has one — are applying beads on a vast, multistory tapestry, a project for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport called “Palimpsest.” “It’ll all be gathered and bustled, so there’s layers and layers of color. Kind of like an old billboard that, over time, weathers, and layers come off and you see the history,” Cave explains. A front gallery is a flexible space where video art visible from the street could be projected — a nod to Cave’s first job out of art school, designing window displays for Macy’s — or young artists could be invited to display work around a shared theme. Facility has already established an art competition and prizes for Chicago Public School students and funded a special award for graduate fashion students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There are lots of creative people that do amazing things but just have never had a break,” Cave says. “And so to be able to host them in some way, these are the sort of things that are important to us, so we thought, ‘Why not?’”
AWKWARD PERSONAL disclosures. Long evaluative silences. Talk of “coming to form.” Art-school crits — sessions in which a professor reviews his students’ work — are all pretty similar, but Cave’s are famous both for their perspicacity and warmth. For all his multi-hyphenates, “teacher” may be the role that best sums up his totality of being. “When someone believes in your work, it changes how you see your future,” he says when we meet in the vast, light-filled studios in downtown Chicago, where the graduate fashion students are working.
It’s the second-to-last crit of the year for Cave’s first-year students in the two-year M.F.A. program, and the pressure is on to develop their own distinct visual language before they begin their thesis projects in the fall. One woman from Russia has made a set of dresses from delicate organic 3-D-printed shapes — mushrooms, flowers — sewing them together and arranging them on a mannequin; they resemble exquisite body cages. Cave suggests that she should work in muslin on a flat surface rather than directly on the mannequin in order to make the silhouette “less uptight.”
Next up is a student from China, who directs our attention to an anchor-shaped object suspended from the ceiling. It is made of small blue squares of fabric she’s dipped in batter and deep-fried to stiffen. She plays Björk’s “The Anchor Song” for us on her iPhone and explains that the textile sculpture is an expression of homesickness, longing and the mourning of a long relationship. We stare up at it silently. There’s a faint whiff of grease. After some back and forth with the student, Cave delivers his verdict: “Your tent is big, but you need to get on your boxing gloves and get in there,” he says. “You should be completely, 100 percent in it, and not let your will dictate. Bring all the parts together.”
“That was pretty raw,” says Cave, once we are back in his office, noting that, when given a push, the student with the anchor astonishes everyone with what she can do. He clearly adores all of his charges, and sees teaching as a way of passing on his own teachers’ lessons: a way of liberating the creative subconscious within the technical rigors of design. “You’re looking at what’s there — fabric, shape and form — and asking, ‘How are you coming to pattern, how are you coming to design?’ And some have just opened up for the first time, and the moment you open up, there are bigger questions, there’s a lot more responsibility, there’s so much more to grapple with.”
A second-year student, Sean Gu, stops by to say hello. He’s just returned from China with a suitcase full of completed samples he wants to show Cave. The garments, jackets and vests, have zips and seat-belt-like buckles and artfully drooping corners that were inspired by Chinese political slogans. Cave and I take turns trying them on: One piece, a vest made of reflective polyurethane with multiple armholes and zippers, is our favorite. (Cave wore it best, of course.) The look on his face is one of pure delight in the cool, fabulous thing his student has made.
Where, one might ask, did Cave’s seemingly boundless reservoirs of optimism and joy and productive energy come from? The short answer is Missouri, where Cave, born in Fulton, in the central part of the state, and raised in nearby Columbia, was the third of seven brothers. His mother, Sharron Kelly, worked in medical administration (Cave’s parents divorced when he was young), and his maternal grandparents lived nearby on a farm filled with animals. “Now that I look back, it was really so amazing for my brothers and myself to be in the presence of all of that unconditional love,” he says. “We were rambunctious, and of course you fight with your brothers, but we always made up through hugging or kissing. It was just part of the infrastructure.” Personal space was limited but respected, a chart of chores was maintained, and creative projects were always afoot (his aunts are seamstresses; his grandmother was a quilter). Hand-me-downs were individually customized by each new wearer. “I had to find ways of finding my identity through deconstructing,” he recalls. “So, if I didn’t want to be in my brother’s jacket, I’d take off the sleeves and replace it with plaid material. I was already in that process of cutting and putting things back together and finding a new vocabulary through dress.”
The artist tells an illuminating story about his mother, who managed the household on one income and would still often find ways to send food to a struggling family in the neighborhood. Once, during a particularly tight month, she came home from work to realize that there was no food left in the house except dried corn. And so she made a party of it, showing her sons a movie on television and popping the corn. “It doesn’t take much to shift how we experience something,” says Cave, recalling how she would entertain them simply by putting a sock on her hand and changing her voice to create a character. “It’s nothing, but it’s everything,” he says. “You’re just totally captivated. It’s these moments of fantasy and belief that’s also informed how I go about my work.”
Fashion’s transformative power was also something he understood young, beginning with watching his older female relatives attend church in their fancy hats. In high school, Cave and Jack, who is two years older, experimented with platform shoes and two-tone flared pants. High fashion came to town, literally, via the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling show launched and produced between 1958 and 2009 by Eunice W. Johnson, the co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony and Jet magazines, both cultural bibles for black America. “Ebony magazine was really the first place we saw people of color with style and power and money and vision, and that fashion show would travel to all of these small towns,” he reminisces. “Honey, black runway back in the day was a spectacle. It’s not just walking down the runway. It was almost like theater. And I’m this young boy just eating it up and feeling like I’m just in a dream, because it’s all fabulous and I just admire beauty to that extreme. I was just completely consumed by that.” His high school teachers encouraged him to apply to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he and Jack would stage fashion shows, which felt more like performance pieces thanks to Cave’s increasingly outré clothing designs. “I just had what I needed to have in order to be the person I need to be,” Cave says.
Also harrowingly formative to Cave’s outlook was the AIDS crisis, which was at its deadly height while he was in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the late ’80s. He became painfully aware of the function of denial in our culture, and the extent of people’s unwillingness to see. “Watching my friends die played a big part in my perspective,” he says. “In those moments, you have a choice to be in denial with them or to be present, to be the one to say, ‘This is happening.’ You have to make a decision to go through that process with them, to pick up their parents at the airport, to clean to get their apartments ready for their parents to stay. And then you have to say goodbye, and then they’re gone, and you’re packing up their belongings to send to their families. And then you’re just left there in an empty apartment, not knowing what to feel.” In a single year, he lost five friends and confronted his own mortality waiting for his test results. “Just — choosing not to be in denial in any circumstance,” he says.
THE VULNERABILITY OF the black body in a historically white context is a subject generations of African-American artists have contended with, perhaps most iconically in Glenn Ligon’s 1990 untitled etching, in which the phrase “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” adapted from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” is printed over and over again in black stencil on a white canvas, the words blurring as they travel the length of the canvas. In her book “Citizen: An American Lyric” (2014), the poet Claudia Rankine, writing about Serena Williams, puts it this way: “The body has a memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
The individual body has a memory, and so do collective bodies, retaining a longer and longer list of names — Eric Garner on Staten Island, Michael Brown in Missouri, Trayvon Martin in Florida and so many more innocent black people who have suffered violence and death at the hands of police — within it. But that day in 1992, hurrying back to his studio with a cart full of twigs and setting out to build a sculpture from them, Cave had no idea that the result would be a garment. “At first, it didn’t occur to me that I could wear it; I wasn’t thinking about it.” When he finally did put it on and moved around, it made a sound. “And that was the beginning,” he says. “The sound was a way of alarming others to my presence. The suit became a suit of armor where I hid my identity. It was something ‘other.’ It was an answer to all of these things I had been thinking about: What do I do to protect my spirit in spite of all that’s happening around me?” Throughout the Soundsuits’ countless iterations, Cave has tinkered with their proportions, thinking about the shapes of power, constructing forms that recall a pope’s miter or the head of a missile. Some of them are 10 feet tall.
But no matter their variations, these Soundsuit designs have always felt personal and unique, as if only Cave himself could have invented them. And yet he is also aware of how the pain he is addressing in these works is also written into our culture: There is a long lineage of casual cruelty that has shaped Cave’s art. His 2014 installation at Jack Shainman Gallery, “Made by Whites for Whites,” was inspired by an undated ceramic container Cave found in a flea market that, when pulled off the shelf, revealed itself to be the cartoonishly painted disembodied head of a black man. “Spittoon,” read the label. Renting a cargo bay, Cave toured the country in search of the most racially charged memorabilia he could find. The centerpiece of the show, “Sacrifice,” features a bronze cast of Cave’s own hands and arms, holding another severed head, this one part of an old whack-a-mole type carnival game — simultaneously lending compassion to the object while implicating its beholder. Look, Cave is saying. If we’re ever going to move past this hatred, we have to acknowledge what it is that produced it.
“It’s not that Nick doesn’t have a dark side,” Denise Markonish, the senior curator and managing director of exhibitions at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., tells me. Markonish approached Cave in 2013 about planning an exhibition for the museum’s largest gallery. “He wants to seduce you and punch you in the gut.” The result, the artist’s most ambitious seduction to date, was his 2016 show, “Until,” a twist on the legal principle of innocence until guilt is proven. For it, Cave transformed the football-field-size room into a sinister wonderland, featuring a vast crystal cloudscape suspended 18 feet into the air made up of miles of crystals, thousands of ceramic birds, 13 gilded pigs and a fiberglass crocodile covered in large marbles. Accessible by ladder, the top of the cloud was studded with cast-iron lawn jockeys, all of them holding dream catchers. It’s an apt and deeply unsettling vision of today’s America, land of injustice and consumer plenty, distracted from yet haunted by all of the things it would prefer not to see.
While they were sourcing the materials for the show, Markonish tells me, they realized how expensive crystals are, and one of the curators, Alexandra Foradas, called Cave to ask if some of them could be acrylic. “He said, ‘Oh, absolutely, 75 percent can be acrylic but the remaining 50 percent should be glass.’ She said, ‘Nick, that’s 125 percent,’ and without pausing he said, ‘Exactly.’” After the show, Markonish asked Cave and Faust to create a graphic expression of the exhibition, which resulted in a tattoo on the inside of her index finger that reads “125%.” “Of course, at that point, it wasn’t about his use of material,” she says, “but about his dedication and generosity. It was his idea to open up his exhibition to people from the community, to performers or for discussions about the difficult things he wants to talk about in his work.”
One of those themes is the gun violence that has ravaged many black communities; Chicago, Cave’s home of three decades, had more shooting victims (2,948) in 2018 than Los Angeles (1,008) and New York (897) combined, largely concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. (Cave had hoped to open Facility on Chicago’s racially diverse West Side, only to run into intransigent zoning laws; he wants to find a permanent home there for “Until” and has art projects planned with the area’s high schools.) Cave’s most recent gallery show, “If a Tree Falls,” which featured sculptural installations and opened at Jack Shainman Gallery in fall 2018, strikes a more somber, elegiac note than his previous work, juxtaposing body parts in bronze monochrome, including casts of his own arms emerging from the gallery walls, holding delicate flower bouquets, which suggest a sense of renewal, of hope and metamorphosis. He’s now working on a new series of bronze sculptures, which include casts of his own hands, topped with cast tree branches, birds and flowers, the first of which is meant to debut at Miami’s Art Basel in December. The sculptures will be on a much bigger scale — a human form made larger than life with embellishment, not unlike the Soundsuits in approach but with a new sense of gravity and monumentality (they are intended to be shown outdoors). The man famous for bringing a light touch to the heaviest of themes is, finally, stripping away the merry trappings and embracing the sheer weight of now.
When I ask Cave how he feels about the critical reception of his work — he is one of that select group of artists, like Jeff Koons or David Hockney, who is celebrated by both high art and popular culture — he tells me that he stopped reading his shows’ reviews, but not because he’s afraid of being misunderstood or underappreciated; instead, he seems to be objecting to a kind of critical passivity. “What I find peculiar is that no one really wants to get in there and talk about what’s behind it all,” he says. “It’s not that I haven’t put it out there. And I don’t know why.”
I push him to clarify: “Do you mean that a white reviewer of your show might explain that the work provides commentary on race and violence and history but won’t extend that thinking any further, to his or her own cultural inheritance and privilege?”
“They may provide the context, but it doesn’t go further. They’re not providing any point of view or perspective, or sense of what they’re receiving from this engagement. I just think it’s how we exist in society,” he replies.
Is art alone enough to shake us from our complacency? Two decades into a new millennium, these questions have fresh urgency: By turning away from stricken neighborhoods and underfunded schools, we’ve perpetuated the conditions of inequality and violence, effectively devaluing our own people. We’ve dimmed the very kind of 20th-century American dreaming that led so many of us, including Cave, to a life filled with possibility. Whether or not this can be reversed depends on our being able to look without judgment and walk without blinders, he believes. It means reassessing our own roles in the public theater. It means choosing not to be in denial or giving in to despair. It means seeing beyond the self to something greater.
“I just want everything to be fabulous,” he tells me, as we part ways for the afternoon. “I want it to be beautiful, even when the subject is hard. Honey, the question is, how do you want to exist in the world, and how are you going to do the work?”
FROM THE Louis Vuitton headquarters, which is housed in a corniced 18th-century building some 500 feet from the Right Bank of the Seine, one has a direct view of Notre-Dame. In February, Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of the Parisian fashion house’s women’s collections, urged me to look out of his office window, where the cathedral’s spire and bell towers could be seen shining against a pale winter sky. He shook his head slightly and shrugged a bit, as if to admit, wordlessly, to his good fortune, and to concede, again without saying anything, that when one is permitted proximity to such obscene beauty and physical evidence of humanity, it is barbaric to turn away.
Two months later, Notre-Dame was aflame. Ghesquière and his team, who usually work well into the night, had already gone home by the time the fire broke out around 6:30 p.m. on April 15. “Nobody stayed,” he recalled. “It was bizarre. It was like, ‘Let’s go, on y va, we have an early night! There’s nothing to do — we’re done for the day!’” It’s something, he said, that “never happens.” By the time Ghesquière arrived at Le Bristol, the hotel where he was living while his apartment in the Marais underwent renovation, he could see the smoke from the balcony of his top-floor suite. Within a few hours, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and C.E.O. of LVMH — and one of Ghesquière’s bosses — had pledged 200 million euros to the restoration efforts.
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Over the following weeks, the question of how, exactly, the 856-year-old church should be rebuilt became something of a national preoccupation in France, with politicians, activists, art historians, urban planners and philanthropists all weighing in. Some said Notre-Dame should be recreated to look exactly as it did just before the fire; others, citing the fact that the building as we knew it was actually an amalgam of many centuries’ worth of work, argued that from the ruins should come something contemporary; a small group contended that the charred wood should be left exactly as it is: a kind of architectural memento mori. “It’s a very interesting discussion,” Ghesquière said in late May. “It’s very symptomatic of our times, this discussion between the people who say we should reproduce [it] as it was and the people who wish instead for evolution.” He smiled a bit sheepishly while fantasizing about something “super, super modern.” “One of my wishes for Paris is of course more modern architecture,” he said. “I would love to ask the most crazy architect to do it.”
It could be argued that Ghesquière actually has a relevant perspective on the matter — that these were more than the idle, extemporaneous musings of a man famous for his futuristic fashion designs. Ghesquière, whose “favorite way to start a collection is with an anachronism,” arrived at the now 165-year-old luxury luggage company in 2013, after 15 years at the helm of another storied French fashion house, Balenciaga, where he was the artistic director from 1997 through 2012. He is familiar with the challenges of simultaneously preserving and updating a cherished symbol of French opulence and craftsmanship. “Don’t forget,” he likes to say, “that what you think of as normal and classic was once new.”
At 48, the designer compares his professional course to what has become the common Hollywood career trajectory of Marvel tapping young, independent filmmakers with little studio experience to direct the biggest movies ever made in the history of cinema. “If I were a director or an actor,” he said, “it would be like, ‘O.K., I did my indie movie, I did my small-scale thing. But then the indie movie became known — it went to Sundance, I got distribution, and then I went to do a big blockbuster.’”
Ghesquière often discusses his ascent in these terms. Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand, has a logo — three quatrefoils and a serifed monogram against a dark-chocolate canvas background, iterated constantly — that is, like Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s munched-on McIntosh, one of the most recognizable (and counterfeited) on the planet. More than just a symbol of wealth, it’s become a symbol of the unabashed pursuit of it. It’s not all that rare to see people who have literally branded themselves with the logo, the pattern repeated, in tattoo ink, up necks and across forearms. “Louis Vuitton,” said Ghesquière, “is the most visible, the most showy, in a way. Some people think it’s terrible, some people love it, some people just have a fascination with it, some people think the brand is cheap because there are so many copies of it.” He calls it “the big game.”
But what got Ghesquière into the big game in the first place was his transformative tenure at Balenciaga, which is considered to be one of the most important reigns in modern fashion history, one that permanently changed the way women dress. When Ghesquière began working there, he was a 24-year-old freelancer. It was 1995, and the house, which had been founded by the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1917 — and had at its height, in the 1950s, been worn by Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner — was floundering in obscurity. The only reason it hadn’t been shuttered completely was so that it could continue to license its name for fragrances. It was a blank slate, albeit one with an illustrious history. Over the next decade and a half, Ghesquière would create clothes — minidresses with football-player shoulders laser perforated with watercolor-pink peonies; a modernized cocoon coat with pinched shoulders in a sapphire-hued shaved bouclé tweed; biker jackets and slim-cut, high-waisted cargo pants; a schoolboy-inspired rowing blazer; shoulder-padded metallic tops and drape-waisted double-sided satin miniskirts (a “Dynasty” girl and Joan Crawford rolled into one); a skillfully tailored evening jacket cut in cascading cream organza and white lace whose bell sleeves and high ruffled collar resembled a courtly tailcoat; latex dresses with hand-printed motifs inspired by 18th-century chinoiserie screens — that were so distinctive, so harmonious, that even today they remain recognizable as his. The designer’s love for the uniforms of fencing and horseback riding, sports he practiced as a boy; a jolie laide palette of brash primary colors mixed with muddy earth tones; Mondrian-style color blocking; and his fearlessness in mixing silhouettes from the 18th century, the ’40s and the ’80s with classic couture shapes and high-tech, futuristic fabrications (sometimes all in one look) came together to create a singular vision that was — and still is — famously Ghesquière. His work at Balenciaga did nothing less than change how a woman occupied the space around her; they were clothes made for the street, not the runway. “My principle is to do clothes that I put on the catwalk, not clothes for the catwalk,” Ghesquière said. He spoke of the temptation to make “show clothes,” which he dismissed as possible to design according to “formulas” and “tricks.” His clothes, he said, had to make sense on their own; the spectacle of the show had to be incidental to the experience of seeing and wearing them.
Another reason Ghesquière’s aesthetic remains so dominant — in many ways, it’s the look of the 2000s itself — is in part because he trained so many designers who went on to lead houses themselves, and in whose own designs one can see echoes of their former boss’s. For his first few years as the head of Balenciaga, Ghesquière worked with a staff of four. By the time he left, he had a staff of over 400, 60 of whom were in the design studio. Among them was the now 39-year-old Natacha Ramsay-Levi, his deputy for over a decade, who currently leads Chloé; you can see Ghesquière’s influence in her fluid, athletic trapeze dresses, her equestrian-inflected jewelry and footwear and her attraction to earthbound color. There’s also Julien Dossena, the 37-year-old creative director at Paco Rabanne, who departed Balenciaga when Ghesquière left for Louis Vuitton. Dossena calls him a “life changer,” and in his designs as well — an expertly draped, flower-printed cocktail dress, a skinny rock-star pant or a decadent, ’80s-style rhinestone earring — Ghesquière’s influence endures. Dossena sees Ghesquière’s current work at Louis Vuitton to be something like “making personal style mainstream.” It’s important to Ghesquière, Dossena said, that his designs be legible: “He cares that people can read his clothes and that they desire them.”
Many of Ghesquière’s signature innovations from Balenciaga have traveled with him to Louis Vuitton: In the fall 2019 collection, you can see them in a floral blouse with a black lace panel, or a camel-colored double-wool-blend cocoon coat with black leather trim. The clothes are still wearable. What’s different is that the textiles Ghesquière now uses — thick cashmeres, hand-embroidered Italian silk brocades, ornate lace — are some of the most finely made and expensive in the world, a fact that has come to define his vision for the brand. “I still work with the same passion, fascination and involvement,” Ghesquière said. “At the same time, I’m not going to lie — I was 25 [when I became the artistic director at Balenciaga], and I was doing the cool thing. What I’m interested in today is how to talk about a brand that is the biggest in the world, that has the highest sales point. … The reason for Louis Vuitton’s success are the resources — the industrialization, the production sites. It’s a machine that has a weight. If you try to fight against it, you are dead.”
A FEW DAYS before his fall 2019 runway show, Ghesquière and I met at Le Voltaire, a stately restaurant not far from his Paris office. The seats were upholstered in velvet; the walls were mirrored; the radishes were buttered and provided automatically. We spoke for well over an hour, and he interjected only to provide advice on the menu. He was very French about it — thorough, serious, somehow at once joyous and grave: “I usually take a beetroot and avocado salad to start, but there is also grapefruit and avocado in the same way. There is a crab salad that is quite good that could be taken as a main. The mushroom salad is the specialty of the starters. There is carpaccio of Saint-Jacques, but they put truffle on it. The steak is amazing, but I’m not going to prefer it today.”
Ghesquière was raised in Loudun, a three-hour drive southwest of Paris in the castle-dense Loire Valley, which he considers to be a “big village” but which his parents called a small city. Only in retrospect does he see that his childhood, which was wild and rural and free, was in fact “very extraordinary.” He lived with his parents (his father managed a golf course, his mother stayed home) and his older brother. He grew up sketching dresses and making jewelry out of chandelier crystals, and by 14, he was interning with the French designer Agnès B., who was at the height of her fame (she had opened her first boutique in the United States on SoHo’s Prince Street in 1983, two years earlier); in 1988, when he was 17, he forwent fashion school and moved to Paris, where he took a bedroom in an apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement without really knowing anyone working in fashion. “It’s funny to think about how I would sit around and think, ‘I’m a loser. I don’t have friends. I’m biking around in Paris alone on Saturday night,’” he said.
Then, in the fall of 2013, Ghesquière was summoned to a meeting by Bernard Arnault (Balenciaga is owned by Kering, LVMH’s chief competitor). The two began a casual but detailed conversation about handbags. Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 by a French box maker who had witnessed the rise of leisure travel and presciently expanded his business into trunks; European royalty hired him to, in the words of one empress of France, pack “the most beautiful clothes in an exquisite way.” Over 150 years later, packaging, in every sense of the word, remains central to the brand. Ghesquière, who at Balenciaga had designed the distressed, studded and tasseled Lariat bag (renamed the City and the Motorcycle over its years of popularity), which became one of the most iconic accessories of the 2000s, was interested in the luxe practicality of Louis Vuitton’s origin. The story — the resourcefulness of a founding artisan becoming, first unwittingly and then enthusiastically, a businessman — appealed to him.
“This job puts you in different spaces and times,” said Ghesquière, who renewed his contract last spring. “I know that this sounds mystical, but you have to be someone who lives in the present.” He explained that one of the existential oddities of the job is having to be simultaneously a person constantly confronted with “quotidian questions” of budgeting and expenses while also being capable of quickly and seamlessly assuming a spirit of “fantasy and lightness and intensity that gives you the freedom to escape and come back with something that is honest and creative.”
The forthcoming fall 2019 collection had been inspired, Ghesquière said, by a mélange of Pompidou-adjacent neighborhoods he encountered upon his arrival in Paris as a teenager in the ’80s. He recalled coming upon Les Halles, whose marketplace had been razed and turned into a mall and train station after close to a decade of being only a gaping excavation site known as “the black hole of Paris.” There, he was struck by the intersection of the city’s chic and avant-garde with the demimonde — hustlers, drug dealers and prostitutes — and fellow youth stumbling off the train and into the city for the first time. Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler all had stores nearby; Philippe Starck had recently designed the instantly popular Café Costes, with a deep red, Memphis-style décor. With the contentious openings of the Pompidou in 1977 and the Forum des Halles shopping mall in 1979, the area had become a revolutionary scene in a city obsessed with the past.
In three days, the Pompidou replica would be installed at the Louvre. Ghesquière’s idea was to create a physical confrontation between one of the purest expressions of French culture and one that had once been considered monstrous — his love of aesthetic friction and contradiction on display once more. A day after that, he would present his fall 2019 collection: a decadent parade of leather skullcaps, exaggerated ruffles and bibs; a minidress in pink- and blue-marbled rooster prints; a clown shirt tucked into Katharine Hepburn-style caviar wool trousers; a lace ensemble embroidered with silvery sequins; jodhpurs cut from buttery scarlet lambskin; and an asymmetrical faux-fur cape in Lichtenstein green. It was a captivating scene, with confrontational clothes. Fashion critics for the American and British newspapers were divided: Was the collection an unwearable overload of prints, decades and materials — or a new look that hadn’t quite been seen before? The clothes felt rebelliously outré, somehow old and somehow new.
BARELY TWO MONTHS after his Paris show, Ghesquière was in New York City, where he hadn’t shown in almost 20 years, to present his cruise 2020 collection. In the amount of time it takes a normal person to successfully change internet service providers or polish off a small jar of mayonnaise, Ghesquière had devised and fabricated an entirely new 59-look collection and shown it at the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport in Queens for an audience of about 1,500 people.
The 1962 terminal — all bright lights and biomorphic lines, once the picture of American neo-Futurism — had, in reality, been abandoned for 20 years. It would soon reopen as a hotel, but before that, Ghesquière wanted to exaggerate its now-neglected nature. Canopies of live plants had been trucked in to convey a sense of lush apocalypse; faint recordings of birdcalls played out through hidden speakers. Before the show commenced, actresses and faces of the brand (Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Williams, Léa Seydoux, Zhong Chuxi) arrived dressed in Ghesquière’s designs; they mingled with billionaires and Russian women with silicone faces. In the audience was a group of students invited from a local fashion college, some ostentatiously underdressed young people and several representatives from that anonymous class of very wealthy people who exist, usually invisibly to the rest of us, in major cities (and ski resorts) around the world. Many of them spend a lot of money at Louis Vuitton stores, and they were invited as a kind of thanks.
This collection was inspired by the idea of Gotham as it exists in the world of the DC Universe, but also the energy, power and privilege of Manhattan that Ghesquière remembered from the first time he visited the city, in 1990. There was a split-personality cape — the top half of a white-and-red leather motocross jacket tapering into a rhinestone- and bead-encrusted bed-skirt ruffle — worn over a silken sky-blue blazer, a patent-leather and Pepto-pink cashmere toggle-style coat, ultrahigh-waisted silk gabardine schoolboy trousers with kneepad-esque panels, Mennonite bibs and Victorian ruffles, belted striped safari dresses, combat boots with tongues discreetly printed with the house monogram and Siouxsie Sioux-style makeup. Some of the models carried minaudières shaped like the tip of the Chrysler Building; others had handbags whose flexible sides were actually screens, projecting images of “Blade Runner”-like cityscapes. They stomped past curved benches cleverly arranged so everyone in attendance had a front-row seat: a demonstration of democracy in a not-so egalitarian place. A lavish fashion show is perhaps the purest and most antiquated expression of luxury. It’s the representation of the best technicians and artisans collaborating on an originally soundtracked, dramatically lit parade of the world’s most beautiful people that lasts fewer than 20 minutes. Even if you are a person who cannot bear witness to one without mentally calculating how many lives could be saved with the amount of money it costs to put on, the sheer excellence is overwhelming, and it is impossible not to be impressed.
The next afternoon was a Thursday, and Ghesquière had a hangover. Over the course of the previous week, he had taken a trans-Atlantic flight, personally supervised 120 fittings, given nine interviews, escorted the actress and Louis Vuitton brand ambassador Emma Stone to the Met Gala, driven from Manhattan to Queens six times, presented a collection, attended the show’s after party at MoMA PS1 and celebrated his 48th birthday at a penthouse at the Greenwich Hotel, which he stayed at until 4 a.m. He had not not worked — not for one day — for months, and was looking forward to returning to Paris and enjoying a staycation, a portmanteau that charms him but which he can never quite remember. What Ghesquière finds the most tiring is not the creative effort but everything that surrounds it: the constant exposure to other people, the business demands, the meetings, the “amount of decisions or what you think are decisions.” He confirmed many times that he loved the job but that he found it draining. “Sometimes I have exhaustion,” he sighed.
Ghesquière’s job at Louis Vuitton — big and loud and important — doesn’t quite square with the actual nature of his influence, which while celebrated and known, is so pervasive as to be invisible. Ghesquière is, and has been for decades, at the top of his industry. But his impact on fashion — both on the runway and off — runs beneath it, deeper, like an undercurrent. He’s why our day-to-day handbags tend to be floppy, and why for years every third person you saw under 30 seemed to be wearing a kaffiyeh. Imploring people is easier than coercing them. Of course Ghesquière was tired.
Ghesquière’s hair: Alexander Soltermann. Ghesquière’s grooming: Min Kim. Models: Jing Wen at Women Management and Sara Grace Wallerstedt and Blesnya Minher at The Society. Hair by Jimmy Paul for Susan Price NYC. Makeup by Diane Kendal at Julian Watson Agency. Set design by Andrea Stanley at Streeters. Casting by Nicola Kast at Webber Represents. Production: One Thirty-Eight Productions. Manicure: Naomi Yasuda at Management Artists Group. Digital tech: Matthew Cylinder. Photo assistant: Isaac Rosenthal. Hair assistant: Cassandra Normil. Makeup assistants: Jamal Scott and Hiroto Yamaguchi. Set assistants: Phoebe Shakespeare and David Gimbert.