balenciaga alum charlotte chesnais makes wearable sculptures
Nicolas Ghesquière’s jewelry designing protégé says her pieces are for everyone.
Photography Adeline Mai
When most French 19-year-olds were enjoying the university lifestyle, with leisurely summer vacations that stretched into September, Charlotte Chesnais had already finished her studies - at the prestigious Studio Berçot in Paris - and, after a brief stint as assistant to Vincent Darré (then-artistic director at Emanuel Ungaro), she was working full time. "You have to return from vacation in August to prepare for fashion week. You start to work at 9am and finish at 2am and you do this for 45 days without stopping. This is why you get so close with the team."
The team she's referring to would be that of Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, where she spent nearly ten years eventually taking charge of the jewelry, VIP, and Edition lines. And if today, at age 30, Charlotte is launching a collection of sculptural jewelry that will arrive in stores in mid-June, including the Parisian store colette, plus Opening Ceremony and the Line in the United States, it's because she survived Ghesquière's departure two years ago, a time she describes as an unmooring. "I began working for him so young. And when you lose your mentor, there's always a period you're a little bit lost. Being stimulated by someone like Nicolas for ten years, you don't replace it."
Since then she's been working for Paco Rabanne as head of leather goods and jewelry and freelancing for buzzy brands like Kitsuné, Kenzo and Maiyet, but eventually she felt that she had something more to say. Enter this new line of covetable, serpentine pieces made from pure silver, gold and vermeil. The collection came about naturally: she already had established relationships with factories thanks to her work for other brands, and emotionally, jewelry had always meant more to her than fashion. "There is something more like art about it."
One of her main criteria was that the jewelry should look like mini sculptures, both on and off the body. This means pieces like the Eden bracelet, which snakes across the palm and up the wrist, the Saturn earrings that seem to orbit the ear lobes, the Hurly Burly ring that coils around the phalanx, or the Punk earrings which loop through the pierced lobe then cuff around the ear's helix. "I didn't work with stones or the texture of the metal. Everything is super shiny, polished, very simple." She adds, "People say the line is very me."
The fact that it's very her might be a clue as to why the line caused a stir during Paris fashion week in March. There's no denying the desirability factor of a collection with a cool girl behind it. And like, say, her friend Olympia Le-Tan's line of book clutches, her creations are inventive enough to be instantly recognizable. It's not impossible to imagine her pieces taking off like the Dior Tribal earring. Incidentally, she cites Dior's success with their punk, double pearl earring as an example of how "maybe jewelry is the new bag."
When I ask her to describe her own style she says, "I never know how to answer this!" She's dressed in a simple Kitsuné sweater and cropped jeans during our interview, though of course, with her genetics (there's something of the doe-eyed woodland creature about her) she looks fantastic in everything.
"To be honest, at Balenciaga I wanted to always have a great look because I wanted Nicolas to be inspired, or happy to see me wearing clothes from the show. But when you work by yourself and you have to go to factories, there's also a practical side. Now I'm less into possession. Maybe it's because I just turned 30." She admits that she can spend hours on the internet looking for the perfect piece of furniture - her living room features two chairs by French designer Pierre Paulin - then she laughs, perhaps because she sounds so much like the 30-year-old who has just discovered nesting. (She and her boyfriend are expecting a baby in July.)
Aside from being like wearable art, she says that it's jewelry's inclusive aspect that appeals to her: it is not ageist and can fit any body. She couldn't have been more proud than when Catherine Deneuve wore her necklace in French Elle. "My youngest customer so far is 12, my oldest is 75. I really love that idea."
On the topic of age, she turns philosophical. Tucking her legs underneath her on her couch, she reflects on the fact that she was only 19 when she started in the business. "I was pushed into, not just a world of adults, but of fashion."
"Yes, it's not the same thing," I agree.
In this business, "Il faut garder la tête froid," she says. (You need to remain cool-headed.) "In the beginning, I really paid attention to what people said about me. I took offense. I was really into my appearance. I'm less like this now, because I care less. I'm more into my collection and my freelancing."
Text Elisabeth Fourmont
Photography Adeline Mai
Lookbook images courtesy of Charlotte Chesnais