A Conversation With Hermès’ Men’s Designer Véronique Nichanian
Ascending the four flights of curved, time-worn, wooden steps to Véronique Nichanian’s immaculate office, one transcends almost two hundred years of history in the three building complex that houses Hermès international headquarters and the Émile Hermès Private Collection. Through a narrow hallway next to her office lies the original saddlery workshop that has produced some of the finest saddles, harnesses, and bridles for the carriage trade since the store moved here in 1880, some years after Hermès launched in 1837. That meticulous attention to detail and craftsmanship is the hallmark expression that has now diffused into tableware, glasswear, silk scarves, watches, leather goods, ready-to-wear, and of course, menswear.
Nichanian became the creative director for menswear in 1988, after a lunch on the terrace above her current office with the then chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. She had previously spent twelve years managing and creating the men’s collection at Cerruti under its founder Nino Cerruti after studying women’s couture at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, a technical and design school based in Paris.
“Men’s fashion has changed a great deal.” Nichanian tells me. “Now there are a lot more interesting propositions for men and many designers proposing different approaches. There are also very different identities that permit men to express more of their personalities.”
Under Nichanian, menswear has grown upon a few essential elements – a combination of the best materials, the best craftsmanship, extreme attention to detail, and a constant fine-tuning and subtle variation in silhouette from season to season. “I have not really changed my way of working in all these years even if I’m sensitive to the deep changes of the world.” Nichanian explains, “My work is to offer clothes to different kinds of men. Today there isn’t just one type of Hermès man but there are many Hermès men – because I address men of different ages, different professions, different physiques and different lifestyles.”
Nichanian sees Hermès diverging from other fashion ateliers in simple but telling ways: “My point of departure for each collection is always the same – a research into colors first, to establish a range of colors for the collection. After I work on the fabrics as all the fabrics are exclusive to the collection. Then I work on the forms, the lines and the silhouettes.”
Double-breasted jackets with lifted seams, two buttoned unlined jackets with topstitched details, narrow trousers with double side – strip, blousons with ribbing and gusset pockets, and even perforated and embroidered sweaters are some of the resulting products from recent seasons. “The beauty of each garment is the perfection that is inherent in each piece – from fabrics to cuts to the finishing details,” Nichanian explains. “A while back I made a leather coat with an inside that was more luxurious and soft than the outside. I also made a lot of reversible clothing because both sides have to be perfect and also because one garment can have two two different lives. I like that clothing can follow how a person lives.”
Anchored by black pins on the walls of Nichanian’s office are pictures of her posing with many of the artists she has collaborated with over the years – the Dutch illustrator Jordy Van Den Nieuwendijk, the Austrian sculpture artist Erwin Wurm, or the Argentinian conceptual artist Leandro Erlich. Below these souvenir photos are original colorful illustrations by Damien Florébert Cuypers of scenes from backstage of one of the men’s fashion shows – one depicting a drawing of Nichanian in a black outfit in front of the line up board covering her face with a show order sheet.
“The artists that I work with are the ones whose work I know very well and admire,” she tells me. “When I start to collaborate on a project, it is like an encounter because it is never a mercantile project. We do not ever ask the artists to make products with us. Each of us brings our point of view so it is more organic and more creative because there are no impositions.” In 2013 Leandro Erlich transformed the Moore building in the Design District into multi-level installations that included a specially built elevator with doors that opened and closed to reveal different models showcasing the fall clothes in the collaboration A Man’s World. The purpose is to enhance the Hermès experience rather than create products to be sold to consumers.
I have been to many Hermès men’s shows over the years and I have always noticed how diverse the casting of the shows has been, long before runway diversity became a subject of discussion and now of activism. “I don’t like standardization so for many years I have always casted my shows with different kinds of guys because that is reflective of the world,” Nichanian explains. “It’s really about the personality of the models that do our shows. That’s the richness of life as well – the charms of other people who all share something together.”
Having done 57 collections, I wondered if she had any favorites. “Yes there are collections that I love more than others because of certain difficulties or certain pleasures in making them but there aren’t any collections that I don’t like.”
Written by Long Nguyen
Photographer: Nicolas Wagner
Stylist: Long Nguyen
Models: Yassine R. for Metropolitan Models, Paris, Djiby Sy for Re:Quest Model Management, Paris, and Fabio Tavares and Dalibor Urosevic for MP Paris
Groomer: Odile Jimenez