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Strokes of Genius: The Designers Breaking Boundaries at the World’s Most Iconic Maisons

Step inside the creative worlds of some of design’s most boundary-defining stars, where fashion is celebrating the changing times.

Riccardo Tisci


Riccardo Tisci at the Shotover House in Wheatley, Oxfordshire, UK.

Photography: Mikhael Subotzky
Words” Sarah Mower

“It’s great to be back in London again!” says Riccardo Tisci as he takes up the reins at Burberry. “There’s been such an incredible evolution since I studied at Central Saint Martins nearly 20 years ago – I really feel the change. But one thing that always remains in this city is its diverse energy and incredible spirit. It’s what I loved so much as a student, and it’s something that’s so important in my work now at Burberry.”

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia

Tisci could hardly be a better standard-bearer for the creative free flow of talent, ideas, and trade that is fashion’s modus operandi: an Italian, tutored in British-style individualism, who honed his couture skills in Paris at the top of a luxury house (Givenchy, which he helmed from 2005 to 2017) and is now chief creative officer of the biggest British brand of all. He fits no mold except his own. In a time when identity politics have become embedded in 21st century consciousness, the fact that Tisci chose the image of a unicorn to accompany him for this portrait reverberates with resonances. Unicorns are symbols in both international pop culture and medieval British history – while a unicorn emoji might summon notions of a unique, wondrous, and sensitive person to a Gen Z-er, to a British person it immediately reads as the mythic beast on the lion-and-unicorn royal coat of arms of the UK, a synonym for goodness and integrity. It was also – according to Tisci’s archival research – engraved on the Burberry family silver, presumably after the working-class owners had risen to wealth on the manufacture of check-lined trench coats.

Is this a picture meant to speak across generations? That would be totally Tisci – and not just because he has a long track record of ranging between haute couture and luxe streetwear. “Openness and breaking down borders have always been very important to me,” says the quiet revolutionary whose actions made him a pioneer in dissolving the white, young, thin, heteronormative homogeneity of fashion and an opener of doors to every shade of gender and color in his time at Givenchy. “I am proud and fortunate to have been able to champion progressive, strong, and forward-thinking people,” Tisci says with a shrug. “This has always felt instinctive for me, and it seems that it is becoming more and more natural and normal for the whole industry now, too.”

It’s a way of thinking, working, and living that fits right into the multicultural ideals of the capital city. “It feels very natural for me to be bringing the house’s British heritage and style to people around the world,” he says.

Karl Lagerfeld


Karl Lagerfeld and his Birman cat, Choupette, at home in Paris

Photography: Annie Leibovitz
Words: Hamish Bowles

Karl Lagerfeld might be the original boundary-breaking fashion designer. Raised in bourgeois comfort in Hamburg, he set off for Paris and Pierre Balmain’s studio when he was a teenager and his work caught the attention of the couturier. Soon bored at Balmain, he left to become the head designer at the staid house of Jean Patou, but he was soon bored there, too, and, disillusioned with the world of the haute couture, left for Rome to study his favorite composer, Bellini. In 1965, however, he met the quintet of formidable Fendi sisters: by his own estimate, he has since traveled to Rome 800 times. In 1982, Alain Wertheimer hired Lagerfeld to revamp Chanel. “When I came to Chanel, I said to Mr Wertheimer, ‘Let’s make a pact, like Faust with the devil,’” Lagerfeld says. “But we don’t know who is the devil and who is Faust.”

In 1992, when the supremely erudite Rosamond Bernier went to call on Lagerfeld, she noted that the designer owned seven houses in four countries, each furnished with museum-quality antiques, state-of-the-art contemporary commissions, and a quarter of a million books. Now he lives with his beloved cat, Choupette, surrounded by the tools of his work and food for his mind.

“I have so much to do that I’m not so much for traveling any more,” Lagerfeld says. “For Chanel alone I do 10 collections, and I do it all myself, all the sketches.” Those Chanel projects include showcasing the Métiers d’Art collections around the world, drawing attention to the skills of the great fashion fournisseurs that Chanel has acquired to ensure their survival – the embroidery house of Lesage, the feather-and-flower establishment of Lemarié, shoemakers Massaro, and milliner Maison Michel – and initiating the trend for exotic destination presentations. After forays to Dubai, Seoul, Havana, Singapore, and Scotland, Lagerfeld staged a triumphant homecoming in Hamburg last year.

Savagely unsentimental, relentlessly unnostalgic, he remains, in his ninth decade, fueled by his insatiable curiosity and a passion for the present and the future. “I have a strong survival instinct,” he says.

Hedi Slimane


Celine returns Hedi Slimane to Paris – seen here on the Pont Alexandre III

Photography: Anton Corbijn
Words: Mark Holgate

In April 2016, Hedi Slimane revealed that, after a rollicking four-year tenure marked by his compulsive and convulsive rewriting of the house’s most revered codes, he was leaving Saint Laurent. Then, in January of this year, the news broke that Slimane was heading to Celine to replace the departed Phoebe Philo – another seismic jolt to the system, one amplified by the briefest of statements (Slimane has long been a man of few words but many actions) outlining that in addition to women’s collections there would also be, for the first time, a Celine collection for men, as well as haute couture in due course – or his version of it, at least.

This is quintessential Slimane: a headlong rush into newness powered by the youthful energy fomenting in the world. “It’s quite liberating to see how new aesthetics can transcend preconceived ideas and conventions,” he says. “It is important not to fall for generic or fake postures of progress, but rather to question a status quo, to have a clear and distinct voice.”

And what of Slimane’s voice, one of the most clear and distinctive out there: how has his time away altered its timbre? That initial announcement aside, Slimane kept his finger pressed to his lips as to what, exactly, his Celine will look like, and so his debut show, held during the Paris SS19 collections, delivered that rarest of things in fashion today: a genuine surprise. Yet it seems that he’s feeling the ground shift under his feet. For one thing, Los Angeles, whose sonic and aesthetic landscapes helped shape his vision for Saint Laurent, is being reevaluated.

“There is clearly a change, a certain edge that feels disturbing,” he says of his adopted hometown. “I’m always attached to the idea of California, but recently less so to the city of Los Angeles. I don’t feel comfortable with the evolution over the last few years – too many people have moved in; we have seen entire neighborhoods destroyed by speculation and developers. Something untouched, mysterious, and magical has gone.” Instead, this serial nomad, who has also lived in Berlin and London, is gazing back to France. “The political shift has changed the dynamics of the city and the country,” Slimane says. “It has moved my focus toward Paris.”

Marine Serre


Marine Serre attends the Raf Simons Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show. Getty

Words: Mark Holgate

It’s a broiling hot July day in Paris, and the electric fan is valiantly whirring away to cool down Marine Serre’s studio. Yet Serre doesn’t seem unduly bothered. Her 1.5m frame is clad in a billowing dress, and she’s sipping water from a tiny glass. But then, heat is something that she has had to get used to lately. While this 26-year old Marseilles native has only been in business for about a year, she now has 15 employees, 70 retailers, one LVMH prize, and three collections to her name. “A year ago I was in school and couldn’t even pay for my apartment,” she says. “But I’m not scared, because I have nothing to lose.”

Serre’s audacious runway debut this past February upended clichéd notions of beauty and power by the way she slyly shot her looks through with political commentary: riotously patterned vintage scarves upcycled into dresses; slick PVC coats; head- covering bodysuits dotted with her crescent-moon logo, a look equal parts athleticism and modest observance. Each of them was imbued with Serre’s exacting, fearless attitude. “I think we need to be a little aggressive in a way, because things are so stuck,” she says. “If you keep doing things the same way, nothing will change.”

Those scarf dresses are a case in point. Serre had to work hard to persuade her factories to make them, given their technical complexities. When she sold those dresses, though, she didn’t make a whole song and dance about the upcycling. “I don’t want to confuse Marine Serre with a brand that wants to make money doing green stuff,” she says. “Everyone should be caring about that already, because otherwise fashion is going to die anyway.”

It’s that stance – pragmatic in its progressiveness – that underscores Serre’s approach to everything she does. She’s of a generation that grew up with the world always at its fingertips thanks to technology. Social media’s periscope into far-flung destinations has allowed her to honor cultural differences while celebrating what’s common to all of us. She recently took a work tour of Asia, and while she was struck by the rush of the new, it was the universality of life that captivated her. Likewise, Serre has been thrilled by how her moon leitmotif has traversed continents, each time interpreted and appreciated differently. “I think it’s quite symbolic with what is happening today,” she says. “There shouldn’t be boundaries when we’re making fashion.”

Demna Gvasalia


Demna Gvasalia at the Vetements atelier, a former electronics factory in Zurich’s Binz district

Photography: Mark Power
Words: Sarah Mower

“This stars-and-stripes jacket, which represents the States, is my favorite – because American culture is what I loved when I was growing up.” The night before his Vetements show in July, Demna Gvasalia paused to pull out a patchworked-leather bomber, then pointed to the slogan on the back. “What I like is that it says America, but in Russian.”

No one in the designer fashion world understands more about the human cost of what happens when neighbors fight over borders than Gvasalia, who was 12 years old when he and his younger brother (now his business partner) Guram had to flee their home during the civil war that overtook Sukhumi, Georgia, in 1993. “Everybody today talks about war, refugees,” he says, “and I am like, yes – I know exactly what that means.” One of the dresses in the spring show was made from a single square of off- kiltered white cotton, a memory of the bedsheets the family grabbed as they fled to bomb shelters before eventually trekking across mountains under sniper fire. (Seen down the long barrel of history, Georgia’s problems then were only a dress rehearsal for the violent displacement of peoples across the Middle East, Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa, which are the continual horrors on our screens now.)

In his formative years, Gvasalia moved to Odessa (which is part of Ukraine but has recently been in conflict with Russia) and Düsseldorf, Germany, eventually studying fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Now he works in Paris – since 2015, as creative director of Balenciaga – and Zurich, where he chose to settle with the Vetements team last year.

Since he took up residence in clean, calm, safely neutral Switzerland – well away from any of fashion’s main drags – Gvasalia has increasingly channeled his past traumas into positive creative energy. National flags have been popping up in his work – in Balenciaga resort prints, on Vetements parkas – but on an equal footing with the international rainbow symbol for acceptance and love. A fake snowboarder’s mountain was installed as the set for the fall Balenciaga show, and on its crests and crevasses were multicolored graffiti – spray-painted, Gvasalia claimed, with words he and his team had been throwing around while in the studio. Among the smiley faces and Balenciaga logos, two slogans jumped out: “be aware” and “no borders.”

Nicolas Ghesquière


Nicolas Ghesquière at work in his home outside Paris

Photography: Annie Leibovitz
Words: Nicole Phelps

In late May of this year, Nicolas Ghesquière took to Instagram, where he announced to his nearly 720 000 followers: “Happy to renew my commitment with the beautiful house of @louisvuitton.” A week later, he presented his cruise collection for 2019 at the Fondation Maeght in the south of France. Inspired by the eccentricity of the museum’s founders, Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, it was his loosest, most spirited offering to date for the label, an eclectic mash-up of sharp tailoring played against soft dresses, delicate peignoirs and ruffled bloomers, hand-painted denim, techno-sneaker boots, and collectible bags made in collaboration with Vogue’s Grace Coddington. Reflecting on his decision a month later, Ghesquière said, “We’re opening another chapter of our story, and the trust we built in the years together is helping me to explore new things – it’s a great feeling.” Bucking the industry trend that is seeing designers come and go from prestigious labels with increasing speed, arguably weakening both the brands and the designers in the process, Ghesquière revealed that he had renewed a multiyear contract with LV.

Louis Vuitton is the most international of brands: Established in 1854 as a malletier, or trunk-maker, it has travel at its very heart – a point Ghesquière continues to make with his round-the-world resort collections. Before Saint-Paul-de-Vence’s Fondation Maeght, it was the Niterói in Rio de Janeiro. At each port of call, nearly half the audience consists of clients, many of whom travel from afar. But if the label is global, it has not always been inclusive. “Vuitton is a very big boat; it’s quite traditional, and it has to be protected – the craft, the savoir faire,” says Ghesquière. “I think some people don’t cross the door of a Louis Vuitton store because it’s too intimidating or because they think there’s not enough experimentation. But I’m here to break the boundaries.” His next five years will bring more experimentation and a greater sense of inclusivity. “We’re all concerned about diversity – more than just in fashion shows. In terms of actions and associations and organizations around the world, Louis Vuitton can do more.”

It’s fair to say the designer has been doing a good bit of self- exploration lately. He’s establishing his archives in Paris, and he’s hired an assistant to begin collecting pieces, both digitally and physically. “I think it’s time for me to have a nice place where my work will be reunited,” he says. “It’s not that I want to be nostalgic, but it’s always great to look back and see your fundamentals. It’s probably where I’ll find my future.”

Virgil Abloh


Virgil Abloh and Bella Hadid on the streets of Paris. Hadid wears Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh.

Photography: Gueorgui Pinkhassov
Words” Nick Remsen

“We’re in a time when this wash of humanity is truly influencing – upstream – what fashion will become,” says Virgil Abloh. The indefatigable multitasker is the designer behind his own label, Off-White, as well as the new head of menswear at Louis Vuitton; a footwear collaborator with Nike; a furniture collaborator with Ikea; an artistic collaborator with Takashi Murakami; a formally trained architect; an in-demand DJ; and the subject of an upcoming exhibition about his own work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Abloh, 38, is relaxed and happy not long after the polychrome storm of his debut at Louis Vuitton, which featured a rainbow-painted catwalk meant to broadcast an international message of inclusivity and show notes with an infographic of the widespread birthplaces of his cast. Though his intention is nothing less than a reset of a company that’s been around since 1854, he’s kick-starting it with an entire world of inspiration – the exact opposite of a blank slate. And this is the thing about Abloh: he travels so extensively for his many jobs that there’s a kind of horizon-surpassing, border-blind eye to so much of what he creates.

Off-White, the label he founded independently, “gives me the freedom to chronicle what’s happening – and a large part of Off- White is the dialogue I’ve had between being from Rockford, Illinois, and spending time in Europe.” Those disparate settings are evinced in the vast range that Abloh builds into Off-White’s lineups: for fall, we see everything from a toile-printed corset (very modern French) to a gauzy ombré tulle dress (very modern Victoriana) to an all-black, action-hero-slick catsuit (very, well… modern American).

How, then, does he collect his thoughts to track, channel, and reflect the forever-transforming world? “It’s like I’m walking down different streets all at the same time, seeing, smelling, and breathing diversity, and realizing that things you grow up with – race, religion, gender – tend to disappear once you’re embedded in a global community.” As for what fuels his engine, particularly when it comes to Off-White: “Young people in every city I go to are loving life and actively participating in it. I am shocked at how open-minded young people of different cultures are compared to the presiding older generations. Australia, Tokyo, Los Angeles: it’s the same community, bound by youth. And that gives me hope.”

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