Dress Reversal

updated 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1996, when Nicolas Ghesquière mulled the possibility of a job at the Paris-based Balenciaga label, friends considered it a fashion career faux pas. Founder Cristóbal Balenciaga—couturier to Princess Grace in the 1950s and, in Christian Dior's view, "the master of us all"—had been enormously influential. But after his death in 1972, the house lost its luster; by the time Ghesquière, then 25, took over, the label had fallen so low that it could be found even on golf clothes. "But the name was iconic," says Ghesquière, "and I had this Sleeping Beauty fantasy—that it would suddenly wake up."

It has, and to great fanfare. With his leg-lengthening 1998 trousers, a cult hit among celebs and fashion insiders, and then his 1999 must-have "motorcycle" handbag, Ghesquière, 35, has become the handsome prince in Balenciaga's happily ever after. Now, client and friend Nicole Kidman orders multiple pieces every season (and takes pal Ghesquière to events), Jennifer Connelly raves about his "unburdened talent," and Chloë Sevigny runs out of fingers ticking off favorites like his "paisley patchwork" collection and ultrahigh boots, though she admits, "I fell in a pair once."

Perhaps the ultimate compliment: In a retrospective that opens July 6, Ghesquière's designs will hang alongside the master's in the Louvre's museum of fashion and textiles in Paris (see box). Ghesquière concedes that some may find his inclusion in the show "sort of arrogant, but I'm very proud that this house is having new exposure." In fact, many critics are more sure of Ghesquière's place: "He's the most compelling designer of his generation," raves Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune.

Like the models at his shows who practically race down the catwalk ("I like the idea that you see it, you miss it, and you want to see it again") Ghesquière has always been a man in a hurry. The son of a golf-course-manager dad and stay-home mom in Loudun, France (about three hours southwest from Paris), Nicolas showed an early interest in fashion.

By 12, if he wasn't swimming or riding horses, he was sketching subjects like singer Grace Jones in a feathered confection inspired by Azzedine Alaia. At 15, he talked Paris designer Agnès B. into saying oui to an internship (paid in clothes). By 19, toting sketches he says were influenced in part by Wonder Woman, Ghesquière became an assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier, then red hot as Madonna's go-to guy for cone-shaped bras.

When he landed Balenciaga's top job, things could hardly have gotten worse there: Vogue reported that, offended by a live loud band, people had walked out of a show by a previous head designer. But it was that legendary name that had him "terrified," he says with a mock shiver as he sips green tea in his all-white atelier. "But I thought, 'Be yourself, don't try to be the next master.'"

Good call. From the start, he showed looks that were indisputably his own, with devilish details like wet-suit zippers on dresses (he loves scuba) and Princess Leia collars on tops (ditto Star Wars). In 1998, Madonna hit the Golden Globes in a full-skirted Balenciaga gown.

He always loved unexpected combinations of old and new and pays close attention to detail. "He'd spend four hours in a vintage store, drawn to something because of how the button was attached," says Pierre Hardy, the Balenciaga shoe designer who is also an ex-boyfriend. (Ghesquière's current beau, James Kaliardos, is a makeup artist.)

More recently, he has merged his unapologetic love of the '80s (skinny pants, power jackets) with a take on Cristóbal Balenciaga original pieces, such as the mold-breaking bubble silhouettes. Still, he is ever looking forward. Balenciaga rarely produced bags, but Ghesquière launched a whole line after the '99 bag became a must-have. On his watch, Balenciaga has also opened its first store in New York City. So, while his contract is up this month, Ghesquière insists he's going nowhere fast. "I have," he says, "no limits here."

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