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François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering &
Alexander Wang, creative director of Balenciaga

Dynamic Duos: Kering’s François-Henri Pinault And Balenciaga’s Alexander Wang On Housekeeping

Why tapping a twentysomething American designer to lead a 95-year-old French fashion house is a good look for a CEO.

François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering
Alexander Wang, creative director of Balenciaga

Pinault: "I have a direct relationship with all the designers," the CEO has said. "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."

Wang: "What I wanted to achieve with that first collection," the designer told Vogue, "was the sense that it was a prologue, that there was a ‘dot-dot-dot’ after it; that it had a sense of mystery as to what will come next."

In 2005, Alexander Wang dropped out of New York’s Parsons The New School for Design to launch a collection of androgynous cashmere sweaters—and was quickly embraced for his ability to make slouchy, sexy street-inspired clothes people around the world want to wear.

The young American designer was busy running his eponymous label in New York last year when Pinault made the surprising overture of tapping him to lead the 95-year-old fabled Paris fashion house Balenciaga (following an acclaimed 15-year run by French designer Nicolas Ghesquière). Kering, formerly PPR, had bought the brand in 2001.

INFORMALITY IS IN STYLE

As the appointment of the then 28-year-old (non-French speaker) to the hallowed house rocked the fashion world, Pinault released a statement saying: "Balenciaga is an extraordinary fashion house with inexhaustible potential and it is endowed with a priceless heritage. Alexander Wang will use his creativity and his own research to reinterpret and immortalize the distinctive, modern, and extremely innovative style imposed by Cristóbal Balenciaga."

Kering is the multi-billion dollar French multinational holding company started by Pinault’s father. He now oversees a portfolio of nearly 20 luxury brands, including Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, and Gucci. By all accounts he hand-picks the chief executives and designers and each himself.

LEGACY LOOKS TO THE FUTURE

Pinault has explained why Wang, who still runs his own company, was the right designer to build on such a legacy: "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."

He also chose Wang, born in 1984 in San Francisco to Taiwanese-American parents, in part because of his youth and "universal culture," as he said in an interview with CBS's Rebecca Jarvis last December: "He has a very strong talent, not only when it comes to accessible product, but his talent could also be adapted for couture at Balenciaga."

The move to make Wang the first designer of Asian descent to head a top Paris fashion house was also seen as a move to bolster Balenciaga’s expansion into Asia and appeal to a younger Asian market. The Beijing flagship opened last year.

"Of course Balenciaga definitely stands as a national treasure. You know, it’s iconic," Wang has said. "When I approached it there were keywords I kept going back to: purity and restraint, and also a sense of austerity and strictness that is very adamant and important. Those are codes that I feel I’ll return to as I continue my journey into working here."

RESPECT AND REDEFINE

His first collection for Balenciaga last February was a modern, black-and-white reinterpretation of the house’s signature architectural silhouettes. It received a collective thumbs up from critics, who nevertheless found it lacking in his street-cool sensibility.

Wang’s spring/summer 2014 show at Paris Fashion Week on September 26 seemed to show a little more of his own sensibility. In the New York Times, Suzy Menkes praised the "just-right Balenciaga collection," adding that "as an interpretation of what the American-based designer believes in—sportswear, lightness, and youthful energy—it was well done." But the veteran reviewer did remind the world at the end of her critique that Wang is "following in the footsteps of a couture giant."

It’s an inheritance of which both Wang and Pinault are acutely aware—and intent on advancing. Wang told Menkes backstage that his collection was driven by "the idea of bringing sportswear and ease" to Balenciaga today, "to define Cristóbal’s silhouette but trying to interpret the vocabulary in my own way."

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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