François-Henri Pinault

The chief executive officer of PPR on his decision to hire Alexander Wang as creative director of Balenciaga

As told to Diane Brady

ILLUSTRATION BY JIMMY TURRELL

Balenciaga is an old and a young company at the same time. It started in 1918 with Cristóbal Balenciaga, and he ran the brand until it shuttered in 1968. It was relaunched by Nicolas Ghesquière in 1997. When we bought the company in 2001, it did €15 million [$20 million] in sales. We brought it to €232 million. After 15 years, we decided with Nicolas that it was time to separate our paths.

Within PPR these key positions — CEOs and designers — are my final decision. I have a direct relationship with all the designers. It’s very important that it’s not hierarchical between them and me. I want to make sure they can express themselves to me about anything they want in a completely informal manner.

We could have found a very strong talent who would give no consideration to what’s been done before, to do something completely different. I didn’t want that at all. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand who — not what — but who is Balenciaga as a human being. What are the key attributes? What is the DNA of the brand? We intend to build on what Nicolas has created, the modernity and avant-garde feel, but still adapted to the reality of the street.

Why not Alexander Wang? He’s young. He wants to do it. He’s really excited about it. He’s American. He has Chinese roots — his family is in Shanghai. He’s very multicultural in his approach. Is it important that Alexander has Asian roots? No, but it’s an extra value that he will bring. It was not a criterion for recruitment. And yes, he’s in the contemporary market, where we are not at all. But it’s not a rupture. Balenciaga is a couture, luxurious brand, and we don’t intend to change that.

Usually designers start with existing brands, and over time they get a little bit frustrated with the constraints and feel attracted to building their own. Alexander Wang did the reverse. For the past five years, he has expressed himself with total freedom at his own company.

People ask, is Alexander really ready? The only thing that people look at is what has been done in the Alexander Wang brand, which has nothing to do with Balenciaga. It’s a new adventure for him. He has a great talent, and I’m pretty sure he will demonstrate it.

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