The divisions between fashion and styling are now blurred and Nicolas Ghesquière’s works demand a second look. A designer by profession, Ghesquière’s choice of location permits a survey of his reference culture. The TWA Flight Center at at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport reopened as a hotel, replacing its previous purpose for flight departures with rooms for lodging. A chapter in history for twentieth-century architecture, the terminal was inaugurated in 1962 and was designed by Eero Saarinen in collaboration with Charles J. Parise. It was selected as the venue to showcase the collection that the sector calls cruise in a globalized world: if it snows in Paris, they’re swimming in Rio; straight out of the holiday brochures for exotic winters spent by the well-to-do and aristocracy in the Caribbean or the Indies.
Saarinen emigrated from Finland to America at the age of thirty and was later a naturalized American in 1940. He studied sculpture and furniture design and made friends with names destined to leave their mark: Charles Eames, whose career was influenced by the work of Saarinen’s father; Florence Schust who later married Hans Knoll, the founder of Knoll (the Tulip chair, like much of Saarinen’s furniture, would then be produced by Knoll). On May 8 this year, this white space, with its contours and levels picked out in red cushions, brought to mind the Tulip Chair in the exact same colors. Plants and flowers abounded. Mosaic flooring throughout the airport. Outside is simply a volume of reflected light with curved roofs, and inside there was is sensation of being in an airport; one could be in a laboratory, a tailor shop perhaps or, paradoxically, a spaceship; a a catapult into modernism. Everything was rounded in concrete and contrasting primary colors. Black and white used as structural elements—fiberglass was just starting to be used—spherical coat hooks could be made to look like colored ceramic or even porcelain.
Apart from the definitions, this context allows us to look at the difference between what seemed modern then and what appears contemporary now—bearing in mind that what counts here is the value of the questions, not the weight of the answers. Saarinen never lost sight of his first references to Van Der Rohe, who brought a revolutionary approach to construction that was still classic Victorian and conformist. It was Van Der Rohe who introduced steel and glass as load-bearing structures. It became a question of subtraction for design and interiors: initially a wealth of materials were used, then the choice fell to materials that were readily available.
The TWA Flight Center looked futuristic in the sixties, while now we would call it modern, in the sense of retro, and yet what amazes is how much this design becomes contemporary once associated both with the aesthetics of Ghesquière and the literature of a brand, in this case Louis Vuitton, top of the international turnover tables.
Ghesquière’s idea for Vuitton has taken shape—always complicated, today consolidated. This is what non-runway collections are for, what they excel at: collections presented in a context that is part of the project, in a place that amplifies their intent. Under the voluminous dresses, body-hugging jumpsuits embroidered with mini flowers, mini pearls for a firefly effect. The cloaks are collars that become shoulder capes, playing with geometrics. The extra-terrestrial-volume leather—Saarinen’s style was actually described as neo-futuristic—imbued with a constant masculine attitude. There is clear reference to Saarinen in these stiff hyperbole waving shoulder shrugs that summarize their surroundings. A question of curves and it must be reiterated here that curves, sinuous lines and corners have been a constant for Ghesquière’s art, since his debut. These presented in this architecture by Saarinen, reveal a synthesis that has rarely made a stylist’s work so clearly comprehensible and, obviously, so evocative.
The catenary curve is a plane hyperbolic curve, the one a regular chain assumes under its own weight when supported only at its ends. In mathematics, it is expressed using the hyperbolic cosine function graph.
The first to consider the catenary curve was Galileo in 1638, who mistakenly presumed that the shape of a chain suspended from its ends was a parabola. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Huygens proved that it was not an algebraic curve and called it catenary. In practice, this curve has the characteristic of having uniform distribution of its weight throughout its length—a concept that seemed almost utopia for engineers at that time, in an age that urgently needed to build big structures, bridges, among other things. The structure of St. Paul’s cathedral in London, built in this period, comprised three volumes, one on top of another—three domes built on catenary arches. Gaudì was the one who decided to use the shape of this curve in architecture and therefore not just in engineering: his arches defined his time. But Saarinen was the one who created a style and a poetry, inserting catenary curves into structures and permanently into architectural projects.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that journalists watched Ghesquière’s runway show at the Louvre in February 2014—a wake-up call. The two LVMH flagship maisons, Louis Vuitton and Dior, made an almost simultaneous about-turn. They both went from an eccentric, ironic, all-powerful style designed by Marc Jacobs and John Galliano, to an intellectual game plan by two professionals, designers and never stylists—Nicolas Ghesquière and Raf Simons. Fashion is an elite game that affects everyone; when two labels such as these come out with a shared aesthetic, the world will be invaded by their images and what always happens will inevitably come about. During the first few months everyone outside the sector finds it totally underwhelming—after three years, that very look will be all the rage in department store displays, and even on stalls at summer markets.
The modernity of Saarinen’s legacy is also due to donation of his archive to the University of Yale, a gesture championed by Roche-Dinkeloo. In his lifetime, Saarinen was criticized for his style’s lack of consistency: he was charged with kowtowing to customers and clients rather than following through and cultivating his own style and identity. This attitude sounds modern today, in an age when design blurs with decor, art with crafts, fashion with styling. This fusion of definitions today leads to the discussion that shapes the current market and that of the future. An ability to interpret different points of view in an identity capable of evolving, a symptom of our times. Open dialogue that covers the issue of aesthetics, the culture of fashion that this magazine is all about.