Style is defined by the way you make your clothes work with your body, not by fashion, says the 35-year veteran of the menswear industry.
Véronique Nichanian on life at the helm of Hermès menswear
Véronique Nichanian is having none of it. "If there's one question I get asked that really annoys me," she says, "it's the one that suggests it's a strange idea for a woman to be designing exclusively for men. It suggests there is something surprising in that, although nobody seems surprised by the number of male designers only designing womenswear. But it's also a sign of how society and the fashion industry have moved on that I'm asked that less and less now."
That is probably the best policy. After all, Nichanian is, as it has said on her business card since her promotion last year, "Artistic Director of the Hermès Men's Universe". That sounds like an awfully big job, even for a company not notorious for slapping its name on just anything it might be able to make a euro from. It is also the only pompous thing about the relaxed, chatty and chic Nichanian, who started her career in menswear design 35 years ago, as a stylist for Cerruti. Far from a steady progression up the fashion industry ladder, the next stop was her appointment to oversee the fledgling men's ready-to-wear at Hermès. Hermès itself celebrates its 175th anniversary next year.
And she is still there, making her one of the industry's longest-serving creatives at a single fashion house, seeing the company recently open its first menswear-only store and herself appointed to France's Legion of Honour. Yet, despite this, she is one of the industry's least well-known names, a fact attributable to her willingness to let the clothes do the talking, and her reluctance to have her picture taken at every Parisian soirée.
"I didn't have a planned career when I joined Hermès," she says. "In fact, I only met Jean-Louis Dumas [the late chairman of Hermès] to tell him I was happy at Cerruti. But he sold the job - and its potential - with such passion I was convinced.
“Did I think I’d be there two decades later? Not at all. Where will I be in five years? I don’t know. But as long as I’m happy here, I’ll still be with Hermès.”
The company’s approach to its defiantly logo-free menswear (and this is definitely clothing for men, not for skinny fashion boys) seems particularly timely, focusing on pricey but considered clothing that is slow to date, making the outlay worthwhile and the recessionary purchase all the more sensible. The new spring/summer collection reads like a rundown of menswear staples: two-button suits, double-front buttoning cardigans, sailor neckline sweaters and other miscellaneous bits of knitwear, narrow straight trousers, the only distinctive design touch being a dabbling with the drawstring, be that on trouser waists or the backs of raincoats. The colours are equally safe – navy, white, black and shades of what the fashion lingo that describes them calls “clay” and “tile”.
It is mostly in the fabrics that there is invention amid the classicism: piqué cashmere, raffia-effect cloth, crepe cotton, double-faced and silkscreened lambskin, technical cotton canvas ... And it is talk of fabrics that gets Nichanian most energised, with memories of hanging out around Paris’s Marché Saint Pierre cloth market as a teenager, and tales of how she pushed Hermès’s craftspeople to create, for example, a matt finish on nubuck crocodile, despite their protestations that it couldn’t be done. Even so, there is nothing to scare les chevaux here. And what a relief to be free of the wilfully radical. Unusually for a brand at this level, everything you see on the catwalk will be available in the shops. There are no wacky pieces designed simply to attract press attention.
“I’m interested in clothes more than fashion,” explains the French-Armenian designer, who trained at the noted Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. “I think of clothes as objects – functional and comfortable, both of which are especially important in menswear. It’s a more modern approach to produce timeless clothes than a new ‘look’ every season. In fact, I don’t know if that demand for seasonal change really has a future – surely it’s better to be able just to buy a piece of clothing because you love it, to be able to wear it for years and add it to a wardrobe of clothes you’ve already been wearing for years? Of course, fashion is a business. But I do like the idea of only showing a new collection when the designer has something to say, not every six months.”
With the differences between one of her collections and another measured in maybe millimetres – the slope of a shoulder, the length of a jacket – she works in what she has termed “radical continuity”. That, of course, is in itself a radical idea, albeit one that seems to be gathering momentum. Nichanian fights shy of clothes that overpower the personality of her imaginary man – or her sometime muse-like husband – as much as for herself; for the office she dresses in that characteristically French, sexily mannish way in which the high gloss somehow pulls off a low-maintenance look.
“Although,” she counters, “[stylish dressing] is a question of attitude rather than nationality. Despite the stereotype, French men are no better-dressed than men anywhere else. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it! You can look around on the street wherever you are and see very stylish people – it’s defined by the way they make their clothes work with their body, and the way they mix them together. It’s not about fashion.”
How a Hermès wardrobe is put together is down to the wearer – and with more individuality the better, Nichanian reckons, even if that means an occasional lapse in Parisian haute taste. Certainly, all she wants, she says, is for her menswear “to make the men wearing it feel handsome and good about themselves, as clothes should. Most men like the subtleties, which suits me. I don’t like chichi things. I prefer the simple but precise. For me the real expression isn’t in big statements, but in fabrics and detail.”
It is a definition of the luxury product perhaps – carefully considered, artfully crafted with the best materials and an aesthetic free of any “use by” date. Indeed, perhaps now more than ever, just such a definition needs stressing for those companies for whom it is a genuine stock-in-trade – not for nothing is Nichanian given free rein to create what she wants, regardless of the end ticket price. She also laments the idea that, while Hermès is often referred to as a “luxury” brand, “luxury doesn’t really come into it, especially because ‘luxury’ doesn’t seem to have any real meaning now – it’s like being a ‘star’. It’s a loose word – one of those silly superlatives that now gets applied to anything”.
“What I do with Hermès menswear is luxury by the old definition,” she adds. “And that luxury is actually about time – which is what is needed to give scope to the attention to detail in an object – and the appreciation of particular values. It’s the companies that are seen to support clear values that people are paying more and more attention to now. And after 20 years or more, that’s very refreshing.”