Autumn de Wilde, a noted photographer in the fashion and music worlds, doesn’t look at cars the way most people do, which is one of the reasons why Cadillac asked her to document the design process of the all-new Escalade. “I’m obsessed with reflection,” de Wilde says during a one-on-one interview following the world debut of the 2015 Cadillac Escalade in New York. “I always have been.”

A music video she directed for the song “Old Enough,” by The Raconteurs, used eight giant mirrors in a forest to create a series of reflections of the band as they played. “You move them an inch and it reflects a whole different part of the forest,” de Wilde says.
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She is intrigued by the images that emerge from the play of light on a variety of surfaces, whether mirrors, ponds, or the doors of an Escalade. “You see a mountain that’s over there, but somehow it’s reflecting in the side,” she says. “To me, the distortion of reality in the side of metal and mirrors is always fascinating.”
De Wilde brought that distortion to life in a series of photographs taken at a ranch in Lebec, Calif. They show the 2015 Cadillac Escalade in the arid environment next to a dazzling art installation of her own creation: two 12-foot-tall, house-like structures made of colored Plexiglass and mirrors.
She says the design of the vehicle, and the headlamps in particular, “totally fascinated” her.
Each headlamp on the new Escalade is bejeweled with 17 light emitting diodes. The tail lights, now twice as tall as before and similar in design to those on the CTS Sport Wagon, have 29 LEDs each.
“On their own, they were especially beautiful,” de Wilde said. “In trying to do something a little different, I wanted to figure out how to exaggerate the feeling you would get when you go up to the sculptures in the car.”
In that regard, the new Cadillac Escalade is a better muse than the version it replaces. Its sides have subtle undulations that catch the light, unlike the flat body panels of the current model.
This artful enhancement to the Escalade’s form is just one example of the evolution in Cadillac design aimed at elevating the status of the brand.
The company’s bold “Art & Science” motif, which debuted on the original Cadillac CTS sedan in 2002, has thus far relied on striking, angular forms to stand out from the competition—which it has done well.
But as with the Elmiraj, a concept car that Cadillac unveiled this summer to show where it is headed with future designs, the creases on the new Escalade seem less dominant visually than on previous models. One reason might be that the surface they are set against is more complex.

Cadillac commissioned photographer Autumn de Wilde to document the design process for the 2015 Escalade. She is standing in front of portraits she took of the craftspeople who helped create the prototypes of this new full-size SUV. (Credit: Cadillac)
“It still has those hard edges, it has to have that,” says Ed Welburn, vice president of global design for General Motors, Cadillac’s parent company, in an interview just after the reveal of the redesigned full-size SUV. “But between those edges is space to do a far more sophisticated surface. You see that in the Elmiraj concept. You see it in the new CTS as well. You see it in all of them.” (Read more about the Elmiraj here.)
Like previous Escalades, the new one shares technology with other full-size GM trucks, including the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. As you might expect from those truck ties, it retains a ruggedness uncommon for a luxury SUV these days.
Unlike others, which have traded their burly underpinnings for lighter, leaner ones, the 2015 Escalade is a true workhorse beneath all the chrome, wood and leather. It has a robust frame and a big V8 engine that produces 420 horsepower.
The engine in the 2015 Cadillac Escalade is part of a new generation of V8s that GM calls “Gen 5,” a version of which also powers the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
The Escalade’s 6.2-liter V8 is one of the most powerful in the lineup. It is not offered on the Chevy Tahoe. It is, however, offered on the top trim level of the GMC Yukon, called the Denali.
The new Escalade also gets an adjustable Magnetic Ride Control suspension system, which includes tour and sport modes. This feature was optional on the previous model and is now standard. It’s not offered on the Chevy Tahoe either, and is only available on the Yukon Denali, albeit without the tour and sport settings.
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Despite having features other GM trucks don’t, the 2015 Cadillac Escalade still has a lot in common with them. But one key difference now is that it has a distinct style all its own, which wasn’t always the case.
When the original Escalade debuted in 1999, about the only thing setting it apart from the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon was the front grille and the wheels. The subsequent two generations of the Escalade were spruced up a bit, but still looked largely the same as their Chevy and GMC counterparts.
Not anymore. The unique vertical headlights, now a Cadillac calling card, are stretched even taller on the new Escalade. The big chrome grille got even bigger. But it’s satin finished this time, which creates a softer effect than the bling-bling mirror finish of Escalades past.
“There’s very little brightened chrome on the exterior or interior of the vehicle. It’s more sophisticated, more refined,” says David Leone, executive chief engineer of GM performance luxury vehicles. This helps it look more contemporary, which is key to ensuring the new Escalade attracts younger buyers.
Just as crucial for Cadillac is elevating the level of luxury on the inside of the 2015 Escalade. The company has the Land Rover Range Rover in its competitive crosshairs—an ambitious target.
To that end, expect a much quieter ride. “We redesigned the whole cabin so the doors are now flushed into the body side,” which helps improve aerodynamics and reduce wind noise, says Jeff Luke, executive chief engineer for GM trucks. The doors are triple-sealed, too.
And, Luke adds, “We’ve got acoustic glass in the windshield and the front side doors, thicker glass in the rear, more insulation underneath the carpet and the front of the dash to block out noise underneath the vehicle.”
Luke is confident the new Escalade will be the quietest vehicle in its segment, beating even the Ranger Rover. “I’m excited about it,” he says.
Each headlight on the 2015 Cadillac Escalade has 17 LEDs. (Credit: Cadillac)
The 2015 Escalade also has a wider rear door opening for easier entry and egress. This addresses an issue customers had complained about. The cargo space improves as well, as the third row folds into the floor now, instead of stacking up on top of it like before. Both features greatly enhance the versatility of new Escalade, be it the standard-length version or the extended ESV version, which is 20 inches longer.
Cadillac’s CUE system, which eschews traditional buttons and knobs, comes standard. This system operates via a large touchscreen on the center console with touch-sensitive controls underneath it. The company has taken flak over CUE, as have other automakers with similar newfangled systems. The critics say removing traditional controls overcomplicates the user experience inside the cabin.
But Leone says CUE, like an iPhone, just needs getting used to.
“I remember when I first got my iPhone,” he says. “I was not totally comfortable with it. I was cussing at it and everything else. But after you get to use it, you don’t want to go back to the hard keys and the hard knobs. I don’t ever want to see a Blackberry again. Same thing holds true here. It’s just got more capability.”
The setup in the new Escalade is improved over previous versions of CUE. “We’ve improved the response time in terms of when you touch the screen and your response occurs,” Leone says. “We’ve been able to take out about 25 percent of the delay that was there previously.”
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As cool as all this new technology is—and the fact that Leone expects the new Escalade to get 10 percent better fuel economy in both city and highway driving—it’s the low-tech features on the interior that could hold sway over many consumers.
All of the Cadillac executives use the expression “cut and sew” frequently to describe the heightened craftsmanship on the 2015 Escalade’s interior. The leather smells good, the stitching is artful, and the wood trim has a deep luster that showcases the grain. There are even suede inserts on the door and dashboard.
Though all of these materials are put together on a modern production line, just like with every other GM vehicle, handcrafting is still very much a part of what goes on in the design studios, as de Wilde discovered during her photography project for Cadillac.
While working on the prototypes of the 2015 Cadillac Escalade, leather workers cut and stitched the hides. Wood workers used hand planes to shave down specially selected wood veneers. Sculptors created clay models of the exterior.
“I didn’t really understand how handmade the beginning of the process was, because, eventually, everything ends up going through a factory,” says de Wilde, who, besides doing a photo shoot of the new Escalade itself, also created artistic portraits of those who played a part in the vehicle’s development.
“I didn’t know anything about clay sculpting, I really didn’t know about all the different techniques they use to experiment with their design,” she says. “So that, to me, in any field is always fascinating.”
The Escalade’s coming-out party is a hip affair in the brick-walled space of a converted industrial building in lower Manhattan, complete with a live band performing. Off to the side, portraits of the craftspeople are on display, arranged as if at an art gallery.
De Wilde says she feels a kinship with the auto workers depicted in her large black-and-white photos.

Matthew Grubba (Left) and John Korpal are wood model makers in GM's design studio. (Credit: Autumn de Wilde)
“I think because I work in fashion too, and I work with designers, I get to watch and hear about the process that they use to tell their team of craftsmen how to bring something they design to life,” she says.
“It’s all, to me, the same process, in that there has to be somebody directing a team of very talented people, and if you don’t have that many talented people working, your vision just can’t come to life. I have the same thing when I work. I work alone sometimes, but most of the time I work with an incredibly talented team. So I guess I felt attached to making their abilities and their faces and their lives sort of flower on camera.”

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