PARIS, France — "It's a new chapter and it's incredibly exciting," Marie-Amélie Sauvé told BoF, sipping a Coke Zero at La Société, the plush Christian Liaigre-designed canteen in the Paris neighbourhood of St. Germain where the fashion elite congregates for power lunches of black truffle risotto. "I will be working with Nicolas [Ghesquière] on Louis Vuitton in the same capacity and in the same way I was doing it at Balenciaga, going to the studio, working on the show, working on advertising and other aspects of the brand."
With the start of the Autumn/Winter 2014 womenswear season only days away, the entire fashion world is waiting in a state of suspense for just one show: Nicolas Ghesquière’s first collection as the creative director of Louis Vuitton. In fact, it’s hard to remember the last time a designer’s return elicited such anticipation.
You always learn and grow from the situations that terrify you the most.
But if all eyes are on Ghesquière, the designer can count on having Sauvé by his side, where she has been for almost twenty years. "I feel that my whole career has led to this," says Sauvé. Understandably, she won’t disclose specific details about what Ghesquière has in mind, but she doesn’t have to say more. With this statement, Sauvé is setting an exceptionally high bar for what we might expect for Vuitton's immediate future.
During Ghesquière’s thirteen years at the creative helm of Balenciaga — with Sauvé as his principal soundboard, muse and confidante — the brand rose from virtual ashes to glory as one of the most directional, exciting and influential fashion brands in the world, known for its unmistakable silhouette: linear, fitted, abstract, warrior-like and ultra-sophisticated.
Apart from advising Ghesquière in the studio, Sauvé (who was also the poster-woman for the designer's creations — strong, intelligent and unafraid of making a statement) has also parlayed her experience into a transatlantic career as a stylist and fashion consultant.
Marie-Amélie Sauvé got her start in the industry in the 1980s with a 3-week internship at French Vogue, but was attuned to fashion long before that. "As a French girl, fashion was part of my life. In Paris, you grow up with it, the same way you grow up going to museums, surrounded by beautiful architecture and drinking good wine."
Even as an intern, it didn’t take long before Sauvé was working with the cream of the crop. "I must have been 19 years old, and they sent me to work on a shoot with Annie Leibovitz for a Vanity Fair cover. So I met her and I was so scared. She was tall and strong and very tough. And the job she asked me to do was totally overwhelming for someone with my lack of experience. But I did it anyway and, in the end, learnt so much. You always learn and grow from the situations that terrify you the most."
After the internship ended, Sauvé was asked to return to work as an assistant at the magazine, which she did for a few years. It was a golden age at French Vogue, a time of "big photographers with big personalities. Everything was a bigger size," Sauvé recalls, “so, of course, I was impressed by it all."
Sauvé says she has “tons of stories” about working with the legendary lensman Guy Bourdin. "I was so scared of him and he had this little voice. But on my first day at Vogue they told me never to say ‘No’ to him, because of how important and special he was. The first thing Bourdin asked me on a shoot was ‘I want the clouds in the sky for my picture.' So, of course, I said, 'Absolutely, sir, I'll get them, no problem.'" To this date, Sauvé says she tries to never say ‘No.’
While she learnt a lot about photography, Sauvé wasn’t able to experiment much with fashion itself, mostly because, at the time, fashion editorials featured total looks, meaning models wore just one brand, head-to-toe. Indeed, Sauvé felt limited at the magazine. "It wasn't enough for me. In a way, Vogue was a little bit too small for me." Moreover, there was a discrepancy between the clothes Sauvé had to help photograph for Vogue — very grown-up brands, like Chanel — and the way she wanted to dress herself.
In 1996, she left the magazine to embark on a freelance career. After a brief stint at Trussardi, Sauvé was asked by Ghesquière, whom she had met a few years earlier, to help at Balenciaga. (Many years later, Sauvé would return to work for French Vogue under Carine Roitfeld.)
Once installed at Balenciaga, Ghesquière began his slow, confident conquest of fashion, embarking, season after season, on a rigorous and highly inventive exploration of form, material and technique, for which he relied, at first, almost completely on his own references rather than looking at the house’s past or what other designers were doing.
The designer’s architectural, forward-looking, and achingly cool designs for the label — in particular his precisely cut, elongating trousers — quickly garnered him a cult following among women and critics everywhere, and it wasn’t long before a lot of what one saw on other runways was somehow, in one way or another, derivative of Balenciaga. With his fascination for hi-tech fabrics, Ghesquière also pioneered the advanced fabric research and development that is more common today.
Beyond saying that she tried on everything Ghesquière designed and gave him her feedback “as a woman,” Sauvé is imprecise about her role at Balenciaga. "I think we were just following our instincts. And we are both very passionate, fearless and strong-minded. We worked very hard, we often would stay late into the night. But it never felt like work.”
But Ghesquière’s reign at Balenciaga came to an end in November of 2012, when the house announced it was parting ways with the designer. And Sauvé exited the house soon afterwards. (Last year, Balenciaga-owner PPR — now known as Kering — sued both the designer and Sauvé over damage caused to the company’s image by declarations they made to the press after leaving their posts, in an alleged breach of their exit agreements. Sauvé declined to comment on the on-going case.)
Sauvé doesn't like calling herself a stylist. "At the beginning, maybe I was a stylist, but after that it changed lot," she says, adding that "after having had that experience in the [Balenciaga] studio, when you come back to do a story for a magazine your perception is completely different than that of another stylist."
Post-Balenciaga, much of Sauvé's work has consisted of consulting and freelance styling for a range of clients. "Today, my role in fashion has many different facets. One day, I may be in the studio with Steven Meisel. The next day, I will be in the studio with Nicolas.”
To wit, the day BoF met with Sauvé at La Société, she was coming from lunch with the head of advertising for Louis Vuitton, after working all morning on a consulting project for a client she chooses to leave unnamed. She will spend the afternoon reviewing elements — amongst them, the set, clothes and location — for an upcoming shoot for Vogue Italia, where she regularly collaborates with Meisel. And, of course, she will do "a few things for Nicolas."
"We are best friends too. When you spent so much time together you become totally synergistic. In a way we grew up together in this world," she says.
But what exactly does Sauvé’s job consist of?
"Whether I am doing a story for W or Italian Vogue, I try to pick up an idea that I want to transmit to other people. Essentially, my job is about ideas, which is what I love. It is about transmitting my point of view and my ideas about fashion."
Besides Ghesquière, Sauvé's closest collaborators tend to be photographers. She describes her workflow with Meisel as a sort of ping-pong of ideas. "We have a dialogue about how we see an idea exist on the page — what the set should be, who the girl is that lives in their story, etcetera. I communicate how I envision the fashion for the concept and how to express that within the story. Ultimately, there is an extensive tête-à-tête to create one image that unites the idea.”
In addition, several brands call on Sauvé to help them develop and implement new creative strategies, resulting in professional assignments that sometimes last for years. "What I give each of the people I advise is my vision." Asked how she comes up with a distinct vision for each brand she works on, Sauvé describes a creative process that is borderline oracular: "It's like I have a computer in my head. Say [the brand] and I have a corresponding vision. Immediately, I have precise images in my mind about how I envision the brand.”
“What is very exciting is to be there from the very beginning and totally build a brand," Sauvé enthuses. “I am doing Paco Rabanne now. We are re-setting, re-starting, re-loading the brand," Sauvé says. "I love challenges, so even if a brand is totally dead — and sometimes I arrive and go, 'Oh my god, this is going to be a lot of work' — I will take it on."
"The most important thing in life, in general, is not about fashion or not fashion. It's to have a vision and to have ideas — and to be able to transmit your ideas as clearly as possible. You have to be fearless, passionate, and have a lot of energy. You have to believe in yourself. But above all, you have to be very personal in your vision. What I mean by that, is that to be successful, you can't be influenced too much by what others are doing, you have and develop your own, totally personal vision."
Asked where Sauvé sees herself five or ten years, she answers: "I am very happy where I am now." Then, after reflecting for a moment, adds, "One day maybe I'll have my own magazine, that would be nice, that could be fun. I love magazines, especially independent magazines."