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August 28 2014

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Niche Appeal: Two-Plus Decades Of Véronique Nichanian At Hermès

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If Hermès has become a byword in and of itself for luxury, part credit goes to Véronique Nichanian, the house’s longtime menswear designer. Her colleagues on the women’s side—including Martin Margiela (1997-2003) and Jean Paul Gaultier (2003-2010)—have come and gone, but Nichanian has been at her post for some 21 years, during which time she’s injected a dose of levity into the house’s super-rich offerings and, over time, introduced the world’s first men’s-only Hermès boutique, on Madison Avenue, and a bespoke service that covers everything from suiting to shirting to knitwear. In New York last week to promote the personalized services at the 690 Madison store, Nichanian sat down with Style.com to talk history, longevity, luxury, and the only two bespoke commissions she’s ever turned down.

I hadn’t realized how many years you’ve been with Hermès—21, isn’t it?
Yes, I don’t count. Yes, it’s a long time, it’s a long story—a nice story. A love affair, almost. Still happy.

You’ve seen the menswear business change enormously in that time.
Oh, yes. The business is changing, and men generally speaking are changing.

How has that affected you?
It’s more fun. Everyone’s more interested in the men’s business, how men dress.

Do you feel like it’s changed the way you approach design?
Not at all. I’m still doing the same thing, the same approach, still considering in the same way the men’s universe and trying to propose things which are right for now—modern and exclusive at the same time.

How has the customer changed? You’re now dealing with a business that’s much more global than the one you entered into.
It’s a big business now. But generally speaking, that’s right that men are much more self-confident in the way they want to dress, and feel much more their own personality. They look at the magazines, of course, but they know themselves much more; they want to express their personalities. They’re less focused on having a suit to be serious. [They want] to have their own mix, to choose. They’re much more aware of what different [brand] names propose—different cut, different feelings, different philosophy. I think it’s a question of philosophy when you choose a house more than another one.


You mention modernity as a key part of your philosophy. How so?
Modernity for me is mixing innovation and tradition in the same time. This is the definition of the Hermès house from the beginning, but this is also from my past. That’s why it’s a long story between Hermès and I. Because I feel comfortable playing with the beautiful material—the most exclusive leather, or crocodile, or cashmere, or the most beautiful linen or cotton…And also to play with the innovation in terms of fabric, yarn, mixing those things.

How do you work with the ateliers to innovate with materials?
If I should define myself, [it is that] I love material and I love fabrics, since the beginning. That’s why, when I was a child, I wanted to do fashion. I love feeling those things, and I love the emotion you can have with a rough tweed, a rough Shetland, a beautiful cashmere, a sweet leather. I love that. I’m an emotional person, and I try to express the way I design clothes, the emotion of the rough and the soft—different feelings. I love going to the factory directly, working with the technicians. I think when you’re in front of a technician, you say, I was thinking of doing that, a stretch linen. He says, No, it’s impossible, because a stretch is… And I say, But if you do that way… It’s like a game! Because I’m stubborn. I know that I want to imagine something new. I’ll do a pinstripe jacket but I want to see it rain-proof, because my husband is doing motorbiking and I want him to be chic and also rain-proof, so I do a neoprene jacket [mixed with] flannel. Now there is neoprene everywhere, but I’ve done that for years.

But I don’t think of you as being a designer who follow trends, or even sets trends. To me, your work seems much more classic.
I don’t know what you mean when you say my work is “classic.” I don’t want to be fashionable because for me, fashion is something more…éphémère. I like to play fashion, to buy something not too expensive, and after one season, OK, I don’t like it anymore. I want that my clothes, people who wear them, to like them for a long time. I don’t want to [exaggerate] the fashion, because it’s another game. I don’t do fashion, I do clothes. For me, it’s really different. I want to consider each [piece of] clothing like an object. “Classic” has become a cliché. It’s like “luxury.” It means many things, and not anything anymore. When you say all the brands do luxury, or everybody’s a star…I prefer to talk precisely. I’m a person who is doing work very precisely. I prefer to talk about clothes. It’s another chemin, another route. It’s my route, for over 20 years.

I don’t want to trot out another cliché, but I do want to ask about the word “luxury.” For me, luxury has gotten very cheap, but Hermès has a good claim to be the true luxury.
I’m talking about quality. I don’t know what luxury means—it’s very subjective. In France, we have so many brands who say, “oh, it’s luxury.” For me, let’s talk about quality.

But in terms of quality, one of the things I like about Hermès is that you have a way of treating quality quite lightly. It doesn’t feel too precious.
This for me is the point of the modernity. The way you consider mixing things together and playing them together. It’s important, it’s a new way to dress. If I have to define the modernity of the clothes today, it’s légèreté—lightness. In spirit and also in reality. My father used to be a very elegant man, but when I see his suits now, they are so heavy; the construction of the suit was very well done, but so old-fashioned. So let’s consider those things together. It’s not to be serious all the time. A lot of men consider themselves very serious, but you can be very good at what you’re doing and not be too serious.

There is obviously a very high price associated with quality, and the Hermès price is quite expensive. Do you feel a need to justify that?
I used to say that it’s not expensive but it’s costly. For me, it is a big difference. Many brands choose a €20 or €30 cashmere, but at the end, they arrive at a price that is incredibly high. I feel comfortable with [my] idea. I’m not born from a fantastic rich family. I know what costly means. When I design for Hermès, I can buy and play with the most incredible fabrics. I want the best and I want the best to stand a long time.

Do you have any interest in the other side of the market—the inexpensive end, the fast-fashion end?
Yes, I love to go to H&M, to buy T-shirts and things that I can use for a summer and then throw away. I think this is very right, and I like to play and mix the things together. For me, this is modern, too.

But I suspect there won’t be an Hermès for H&M collection.
No, this is not the point. We are talking about myself. This is the modern way to live. If something is right, it could be Hermès, but if it’s right at H&M…the problem is, after two weeks, it’s over, but for two weeks, it was good.

How much interaction do you want or need with your customers? Or is it more that you’re proposing something and allowing them to customize, to make it their own?
I added a few years ago the services of bespoke, because at Hermès we are doing the most beautiful things we can imagine, but I like the idea of men dreaming of a beautiful coat he’s never found, or the sweater that he wanted to have in incredible colors. I’ve done that for actors and a few VIPs. I want to do that for men who have the money to realize their dream.

Have you had any outrageous dreams brought to your door?
In my life, I’ve [only] refused two orders. One man, he wanted me to do half a jacket. I said, half a jacket? I’m sorry, I don’t know about that. He wanted to have one side a jacket, the other side, avec des bretelles—braces. I said, I’m sorry. The other was a man who wanted to have a mink pink coat. I said, I’m sorry, too—I think you’ve picked the wrong door. Try somebody else.


And yet when I think of your runway shows, some of my favorite pieces are the unexpected ones, the outrageous ones. A few seasons ago, there were amazing leather motorcycle jumpsuits near the end of the show (left). They felt like a cold shower.
It was not so special, no?

I thought so. Did you sell many?
Not a lot, but a few.

They put me in mind of fetish objects. And that idea of fetish is, I think, very alive on the women’s side of the Hermès business—the way that women feel about the Birkin or the Kelly. They’re bags that are more than just bags. I’m wondering if you create any other equivalents on the men’s side.
That was exactly my work when I started at Hermès, as I explained to [former Hermès chairman] Jean-Louis Dumas. I wanted to make something a bit more like an object. My mother and my sister used to have a Birkin, or a Kelly, or the scarves—I wanted to design something that could stand like these things. That’s why I consider each piece like an object. For one man, it could be the leather blouson, for another it could be a sweater…

Do you wear the men’s collection yourself?
I do, yes.

You’ve mentioned your father a few times. How did he dress?
He was a very chic man. He was a very elegant man, in the old way, but he was not a fashion man.

But it sounds like he has influenced you very much.
Well, I can talk about my mom, too, if you want.

Photo: Carole Bellaiche (Nichanian); Yannis Vlamos/GoRunway.com (runway)

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