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Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2006

by Susannah Frankel .

The silhouette is less about a performance. It’s the craft that is a performance here.

'I wanted to do a very ornamental and embellished collection,' says Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière which seems all the more remarkable given the much talked about ‘new minimalism’ that is currently in the air elsewhere. But then, Ghesquière has been there, done that. In fact, he and a handful of others were responsible for ushering it in the first place. It is testimony, then, to his status as amongst the most important designers in the world that he has the confidence in his own judgement to run against the pack.

'The idea was to explore something much more decorative than what we usually do,' he continues. 'That was the starting point. Although I described it as Baroque in the first place, it is, in fact, many different expressions of ornamentalism including - especially - rococo. Maybe it’s a reaction to last season which was quite minimal for me.'

Of course, even at the most pared down of times, minimal is never quite what it seems. 'In fact, my clothes are always elaborate,' Ghesquière confirms, 'but graphic. This season is much more busy: a lot of different fabrics, a lot of different shapes, textures, curvy lines, patterns...'

It is, of course, just this willingness to stand out in the crowd that earned Ghesquière that rare thing, a standing ovation, following the unveiling of this particular collection in Paris last October. While the rest of the world was concerned with a discreet, understated glamour that seems, at time, almost to be working against our preconceptions of what statement dressing - and indeed designer fashion - should be, this is dressing to impress at its most accomplished. And for Ghesquière to demonstrate his talent in such an overt way is nothing if not apposite. After all, after a tough few seasons, Balenciaga is financially exceeding all financial expectations and looks well on its way to break even in the spring of 2007, the target set by the Gucci Group, which owns the company, for its most recent acquisitions including Balenciaga and also Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, to move into the black. Most importantly, this is one particular designer who has developed his company commercially without ever compromising the vision that drives it. It is no secret that this has not been an easy position for the designer to maintain. He has done so, however, and against all the odds.

'I protect my expression and my freedom fiercely,' Ghesquière says and anyone who has spent more than five minutes with the man will know that this is most certainly the case. 'I suppose I wanted to demonstrate that with a very opulent collection. Maybe it’s an insider’s message but it felt important for me to say it after a few more challenging years.'

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, while lesser design talents have been flirting with historical dress for years now, this take on it is so precise in both execution and reference, so brilliant in its mix, that it puts any other half-baked take on costume to shame. 'It was interesting for me to explore an evocation of historical clothes but not a citation,' Ghesquière explains. 'I was thinking about those textures, those materials, those embroideries, those registers but for wear by a woman now, not as costume, but as wardrobe. I also looked at the history of interior design from that period. I wanted to say something about the fabric, the plates and cups...'

While ruffled collars, rich embroideries and brocades and jewelled buttons all apparently point to seventeenth and eighteenth dress - and French seventeenth and eighteenth century dress in particular - it should perhaps come as no great surprise that there is a loud and proud nod to that firm fashion favourite the rock star also to be seen. Any study of peacock dressing would be incomplete without it, after all, and rarely has it been given such an accomplished makeover from skinny 'angels in Balenciaga' T-shirts to silver filigree belts printed to circle around the hips of equally skinny trousers. 'When I started to explore the Rococo style,' Ghesquière argues, 'I found so much rock in Rococo.' He laughs. 'So I created the middle section which is about the deluxe Rococo rock star. It was inspired by prints and decoration and how something very embellished can travel from historical clothing to something much more about music, about someone on stage.' Patch-worked dresses in white and inky black, meanwhile, spring from a more youthful muse. 'It’s almost like the younger girl, the campus girl,' Ghesquière says. 'There is that movement of young kids who have this Gothic inspiration. I was thinking it was interesting to evoke that type of girl also.'

Finally, it seems not insignificant that the man who famously claims not to be interested in occasion - and even eveningwear appears to be softening this determinedly argumentative standpoint somewhat. 'It’s one of the first times I’ve shown long dresses,' Ghesquière says. 'In a way they are more pure in term of line than the rest of the collection, but they are also very elaborate, very patchwork. Status dressing is cool depending on the woman who is wearing it. These dresses are not originally done for the red carpet but, in the end, it’s about the woman who embodies those clothes. I think people want to be dressed up again. I don’t know if it’s about the celebrity thing that is not always very chic but some of these women are and they have a fantasy about going to an event, about going to parties again. There are so many parties, all the time. For sure people have this fantasy of ‘I want this occasional dress’.'

It should come as no great surprise, however, that all thoughts of embellishment aside the rigour that both this designer - and indeed the house’s esteemed namesake before him - are famous for is very much in evidence too. 'You know, this collection, as always, is a lot about volume. The balloon skirt, the bubble dress, we’ve done them before and we’re still on those lines, we’re making them more extreme but those dresses are more modern and more about now. They look simplified but they’re not.'

He sums this particular, more architectural side of things up perfectly: 'The silhouette is less about a performance. It’s the craft that is a performance here.'