A lesson in style from Hermés designer Véronique Nichanian

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“I CAN’T STAND FASHION, IT’S SO STUPID.”

These aren’t the words of your average thirty- something male. It’s menswear designer Véronique Nichanian who just said it. But she’s not your average designer — for a start, she understands the average man.

In the Hermés office in Paris, at the top end of a warren of stairs and narrow corridors, the clothes for one of the world’s most celebrated fashion labels are designed. And it is heartening to know that the person in charge of creating the looks for each new season is not somebody who only has a skinny twenty- something model in mind. The creative outfits on display at the seasonal fashion shows may get the columns inches, but the label only works because regular men actually buy and wear the items that end up in the stores.

“I used to say that at Hermés there is not one man but different men,” she says in English, her French accent so thick and warm it could be worn as a winter coat. “It’s not a question of age but one of philosophy. It’s about how people feel in their everyday life. They should choose clothes to match that mood; it’s the enrichment and refinement of a collection that you can mix and match.” This is a woman who knows her audience.

There’s a stereotypical belief that women tend to buy clothes based on the fashion for that season, whereas men prefer to hang onto to clothes for years. It doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but it certainly rings true at least some of the time. Admit it: we all have that jacket or those jeans that we know we’ll be wearing to the point of destruction, despite the best efforts of wives
and girlfriends to point us in the direction of something new.

Nichanian totally empathises with this traditionally male viewpoint and endorses the eschewing of seasonal trends. “It’s not difficult for me to design with that in mind because I don’t follow trends either,” she explains. “It’s not a question of being fashionable; it’s about being in your time and being modern. And to be modern today would mean not to be fashionable at all.”

For many men, the curse of fashion strikes with the changing of a season when they suddenly can’t find anything that fits. For example, a planet of men woke up one day in recent years to discover the cut of all jeans had gone ultra skinny. “Exactement!” she says throwing up her hands and laughing at the suggestion. “You see only skinny jeans, and when you ask for normal jeans they say [and at this point she adopts a mocking dour voice] ‘It’s. Not. Fashionable’… Oh, it’s so stupid.”

Nichanian began her career in 1976 at the label Cerruti, after graduating as valedictorian from the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris. In 1988, she joined Hermés, where she was appointed Artistic Director of men’s ready-to- wear and in her first twelve months won the Grand Prix at the

Young Fashion Designers competition. Last year she was made the artistic director of the Hermés Men’s Universe. It’s quite rare for one person to be at the same company designing for so long, but Nichanian has an uncommon gift in an industry that traditionally replies on regular change. Her longevity at Hermés fits her philosophy of how she designs menswear.

“Someone once said that I slow down time,” she says alluding to her reluctance to move with the rest of the herd. “I find it difficult to find the right garments myself, so when I do then
I want to keep them for a long time – just as I also like to have friends for a long time. So this is how I design.”

She is also aware that when you pay a lot of money for something then it should last. “When you buy something costly from someone like Hermés, you have to keep it for a long time and I love that idea. We all have a jacket or a sweater or something that you want to keep for years because it’s something that makes you feel good inside.”

But does fashion not exist to help us look good and avoid sartorial mistakes? “I don’t think they’re mistakes,” she counters. “Yes you may pick the wrong tie or socks, but I think that is charming. Occasionally you can make mistakes, but don’t follow fashion. ‘Oh green is in fashion so I must buy things that are green…’ No, no, that is such a feminine attitude. Fashion means that in six months you won’t like it any more, whereas I would rather work on the timeless pieces.”

As a business entity, Hermés has also been playing the timeless, long game. Founded in 1837 it now employs more than eight-thousand staff and reported an income of over €2.4million for 2010. The idea that Hermes clothing is something you keep for years is a long-held view. As the headline to an article on the brand in the early 1970s told us: YOU DON’T JUST BUY – YOU INVEST.

To remind the staff of this principle, there’s a private museum on the top floor of the Hermes HQ. It contains items that have remained in the family for centuries, from Napoleon III’s travel shaving set to a huge collection of hunting knives and riding equipment. Designers often come here to bathe in the past when seeking inspiration for the present.

“I like the idea that men who come to Hermés know themselves and have a sociability and culture to understand the clothes. They understand the craftsmanship and time it takes us to create what they are wearing,” Nichanian says of what draws people to the brand’s heritage. “These men know what they want to express in themselves. They know their bodies and know their style. I also used to say that I do object clothes. I like the idea that each piece is an item that you can mix with other things in your wardrobe.”

There’s a modern, practical element to her work too, with multi-function pieces such as the leather jacket that can be reversed to become a rainproof jacket. It strikes to the heart of male practicality and longevity.

The absence of any obvious branding on Hermes clothing is also something that is important to the designers. “I hate logos,” she groans. “It does not mean anything. Just like people who talk about luxury but it doesn’t mean anything – ‘Everything is luxury, everyone is a star…’ It’s meaningless. Just because you put a big logo on something and make it expensive doesn’t mean that it is nice. For me it’s nice when it’s beautifully made. I want people to want the garment by itself, not because people will see you wearing it and say, ‘Ooh it’s Hermés, he must have a lot of money.’”

Given that spending on luxury items has risen dramatically in recent times, does she think the male attitude towards clothes has changed over the last decade or so?

“Well, they have changed over the last five years,” she explains, suggesting that the shift is fairly recent. “They’ve become much more self confident and take much more care of their bodies. They no longer need people to go shopping with them to say ‘You need this’ or ‘You should buy that’. Men choose by themselves now.”

The best piece of advice she says she can offer men is simply to wear what pleases them: “When you buy something and look in the mirror for the first time, you seduce yourself. You’ll feel more confident.”

It’s a wonderfully French attitude, and after all they did invent the phrase “joie de vivre”. But what about work or social formalities and the role this plays in dictating a certain dress code? “Then try to find the brand that fits you,” she replies with a shrug as if to remind us that it really is quite simple.

And of course this also makes sense. As she explains, all too often we shop based on our ideas of shirt collar size or jeans, waist and leg measurements. But while and inch is always an inch, the cut varies from brand to brand: “It’s a subtle thing to have something that fits you in the way that it should. A lot of the look is about having the right proportions”.

Get it right she says and it’s an item you’ll keep. Then she nods, smiles and says, “You need clothes that follow you in your life.”

For Esquire Magazine.

 

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