Hermès’ VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN, the French house’s menswear designer, prefers to let her exquisite creations do the talking, discovers VINCENZO LA TORRE
EARLY LAST YEAR, as the spring/summer 2013 collections started shipping into stores, the blogosphere went abuzz when Hermès unveiled in its boutiques around the world a “crocodile chiffon” men’s T-shirt, whose €80,000-plus price tag amounts to much more than the annual salary of most Europeans. Far from a mere publicity stunt, this offering was congenial to a purveyor of leather goods that since its founding in 1837 has been delighting lovers of the finer things in life with its exquisitely made and extremely luxurious objects of desire.
The T-shirt at the centre of all the hype is a beautiful piece that took the Parisian craftsmen months of research to create – crocodile skin is notoriously stiff, and achieving the chiffon-like texture of the garment was no easy feat. It exemplifies the many one-of-a-kind stunners that the company produces every season – often in limited quantities – to satisfy its loyal clients and an ever-hungrier segment of shoppers belonging to the top tier of luxury spenders.
That piece was the brainchild of Véronique Nichanian, who for more than 25 years has been the menswear designer at the maison. Like her counterpart in womenswear, Christophe Lemaire, who joined the house three years ago, or Pierre Hardy, who, unbeknown to many, designs Hermès jewellery and shoes, Nichanian has been under the radar for most of her career, letting her collections speak for themselves.
The petite and stylish Parisienne, who’s often clad in her own creations – “I only wear my men’s clothes in the tiniest size,” she says – isn’t, however, as press-shy as you’d think. On a beautiful early summer afternoon in Paris, only two hours before the start of Hermès’ spring/summer 2014 menswear show, Nichanian sat down in the quiet cloister of a former convent in the Left Bank to reflect on more than two decades designing men’s clothes at the house.
Most fans of Hermès aren’t likely to be familiar with Nichanian; she’s been one of the best-kept secrets in men’s fashion for her entire tenure at the house. Her clothes, with their earthy tones, flowing silhouettes and sensual appeal – always modelled by a cast of men that defy the stereotypical canons of male beauty – appeal to both ultra-wealthy globetrotters who don’t think twice of spending a small fortune on a piece of knitwear in neon yellow with leather stitches on its seams, and young fashion lovers who know that an Hermès purchase will stay with them for years to come.
As Nichanian explains, “Menswear is more about fabrics and shape and less about effect. Women’s fashion is more about the effect but men’s is more about tiny things and details, so it fits my character better. When I design clothes I want them to last for a long time. They’re costly because I choose the best fabric. I like the best things and I don’t want people to throw them away after six months because the proportion is not right any more.”
This measured approach to design, which goes against the obsession with change typical of the industry, is a fundamental aspect of Hermès’ DNA, which Nichanian has completely embraced. “When I design,” she says, “I don’t think, ‘Oh, is it Hermès or is it Véronique Nichanian?’ We’re completely married.”
This long-lasting marriage began when Jean-Louis Dumas, an heir of the Hermès family, picked Nichanian to head the men’s division, knowing that she had honed her skills under Nino Cerruti, the founder of the eponymous menswear house. “It was very brave of him,” says Nichanian, “to choose a woman to design a men’s line. It was very rare at that time.”
Indeed, although men have been creating women’s clothes for centuries and are often more prominent than their counterparts of the opposite sex, the opposite is highly unusual. “I’m a woman, so I don’t project myself on my clothes,” she says when asked about the challenge of building a man’s wardrobe, adding that her husband and friends provide her with enough insights and observations about what a 21st-century guy needs in his closet.
Nichanian reveals that she was drawn to menswear “because it’s about expressing your sensitivity, your emotion. If I wasn’t a fashion designer, I would be an architect. It’s the same thing, because when you’re an architect you really affect people’s lives, because the way that you design the city influences how people live in their building. The way I design clothes is the same for me.”
After revealing that in more than 20 years she has only been to the Hermès archives twice – “looking back is not my thing” – Nichanian states, “I don’t want to be ‘classic’ because my father is a ‘classic’ man, so that means he’s always the same. I’m designing clothes that change slowly and still bring many new things in terms of proportion, fabrics or whatever. But it’s not fashion, because to be fashion is to change very fast. We all have clothes that we want to keep for a long time, like a perfect sweater or a pair of pants that fits perfectly. I want my clothing to have a feeling when a man puts it on. I want men to say, ‘Oh, it’s my jacket.’ ”
As someone who eschews fads and trends in favour of beautifully made clothes that can stroll easily from the runway to the boulevards of refinement, Nichanian says that at the start of her career, “People would complain that it’s too normal. But then they realised that no, it’s not normal. It looks normal, but when you touch it, when you put it on, you feel the difference.”
It’s the emotion she brings to her clothes that makes them stand out amid the myriad offerings increasingly savvy male shoppers have to choose from every season. “Function, comfort and sensuality” are the three concepts Nichanian always keeps in mind when designing because “when you put your clothes on, you feel them on your skin, you live with them.” It’s a very Parisian, unstudied sophistication that has come to define the Hermès man – something so simple and effortless that, nevertheless, is not easy to pull off.
Whether it’s a lush piece of soft knitwear – one of Nichanian’s specialities and most widely lauded niches – or a sturdy and practical leather bag, her products have the emotional pull that only beautifully made and flawlessly designed objects can exert on those who really cherish the beauty of things. It’s the same feeling that Nichanian herself felt as a young girl admiring her mother’s treasured Hermès possessions. “I remember my mum owned Birkin and Kelly bags and my grandmother a few scarves, and I remember saying that one day I would love to design a piece that will be as emblematic of Hermès as they were.” Well, if her record at the house is any indication, she’s certainly fulfilled her childhood dream – and those of the many connoisseurs who are fortunate enough to rely on Nichanian and Hermès as their purveyors of the finer things in life.
+Prestige Hong Kong