SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Véronique Nichanian, the deputy artistic director of Hermès Men’s Universe, shares her sharp sartorial perspectives with Chris Andre
Anyone who’s lucky enough to come across Véronique Nichanian in person, be it at a fashion show or public event, will bear witness to her least talked-about quality—her warm and radiant personality. Despite her formidable skill and reputation as a world-leading designer, she emanates such an unexpectedly fun and inviting persona that you will likely be hooked straight from the first encounter. That’s what I instantly felt at least, as I quietly observed her sprightly moves as she applied the finishing touches to the runway show’s setting for the fall/winter ’14 collection in Palais de Tokyo, right within the heart of Paris.
It was four hours before the Hermès Men’s Universe showcase, where the season’s collection would be revealed to the VIP guests for the very first time. The wintry January sunset in Paris was rather enchanting, with the bewitchingly triumphant Eiffel tower easily identifiable from the venue. Dressed in monochromatic black, Nichanian’s generous smile toward the models and the crew immediately dispelled “The Devil Wears Prada” notion in my head. I’d been told that she was the one who envisioned the entire concept of the show, from the location to the seating arrangement—which featured a variety of quirky seats painted in many dark and deeply shaded hues. While the unfinished pillars standing in the middle of the catwalk may have been even a little too playful for Hermès, the designer certainly hasn’t lost her creative edge, despite working in the beloved fashion house for more than two decades.
The “it” bag of the collection is the plume fourre-tout
Being the deputy artistic director of the Hermès Men’s Universe has Nichanian in charge of overlooking every single fabric, cutting and material (not to mention all the intricate detailing) for the whole men’s collection. One of the longest-serving stalwarts, tirelessly crafting menswear for 30 years—including a stint working for Nino Cerruti as stylist for the men’s collection—her fashion acumen is naturally one of the most revered in the industry.
The depth of her creativity was plainly evident when I got to appreciate firsthand the considered “simplicity” of the fall/winter collection, the flawlessly executed pieces masking the complexity of the fabric construction and coloration processes. Jackets are among her favorite subjects, and her way of waxing lyrical about them tells me something interesting, that she has come to adopt men’s pragmatic approach to style. This is the approach that views fashion as being just as much about functionality and comfort as it is about image.
Such a paradigm serves as the perfect complement to the luxury styling typically favored by Hermès Men’s Universe, which is somewhat reminiscent of the words once uttered by Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Judging by her talent, humility and dedication, it’s fair to say that Véronique Nichanian is a living fashion legend of the 21st century.
Chris Andre: Véronique, how are you doing?
Véronique Nichanian: I’m fine but I’m anxious about tonight’s show! [Laughs]
CA: So what’s the collection all about?
VN: It’s a collection about dark colors, full of very dark tones mixed together, and new proportions—much wider in the shoulders, more layering and much more volume. There’s a lot of work with rich materials, because I have the most beautiful fabrics at Hermès! It’s also about the transgression of fabrics—mixing the fabrics together to create a new attitude.
The black ensemble sports a play of textures and garments
CA: And why did you pick Palais de Tokyo as the venue? It has a very industrial feel.
VN: Yes, exactly for this quality and because it’s a museum of modern art in Paris. I also love the space and I love the volume. I think it’s very masculine, and I like the “raw” architectural appeal in contrast with the beautiful richness of cashmere and leather. I think it’s interesting to have contrasts. You know I used to say I don’t dress only one man; I design for many men. You will see that tonight on the runway show I have black, Chinese, blonde-haired and red-haired models.
CA: What do you regard as the highlights of show?
VN: As I mentioned, it’s all about the transgression of the materials—the new volume of the coat, the sportswear and even the knitwear. I should point out in particular the use of a very old fabric called fleece wool. It’s really beautiful! I also love reversible fabrics or reversible fur. For example, I have a lambskin teddy jacket that’s completely reversible, so you can play with the fur outside and inside. Reflecting the mood of this collection, we selected chairs [for the audience to sit on during the runway show], which each have different colors—very, very deep tones—similar to the season’s clothing pieces.
CA: Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you have a process?
VN: Everywhere! I travel a lot; I love modern art; I love going to the museum; I love looking at people on the street; I love architecture. For every collection, I always start with color cards, then the fabric by going to factories and fabric fairs. Afterwards, my design team sketches the clothes and works on the shapes and the proportions to achieve what I want to express. So, the work process goes from color to fabric to the shape of the clothing pieces.
CA: Is there any particular fashion article that takes much more effort to make than the rest?
VN: Many things are very hard to make, but you have to make them like a ballerina. Though the dance is very difficult, it has to look very easy.
The dark shades are not necessarily black
CA: You’ve been with Hermès for 25 years. How do you feel about this?
VN: It’s been 25 years of freedom, a dream for any designer. I’m very proud and very happy to have been with this beautiful company for 25 years, bringing new ideas and playing with fabulous materials.
CA: But why menswear?
VN: I studied women’s clothes a long time ago in a very classical French school (Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris), but I started my career with Nino Cerruti. So, it was on purpose, and when Jean-Louis Dumas of Hermès asked me to join the company, it was a dream come true, and now I’m here
CA: Is it harder to do menswear than womenswear?
VN: I express my personality through design and so, for me, it’s not hard. There are many things to express in patterns, in jackets, and I’m very surprised that I’m only now starting to see other men’s lines take on such concepts. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and I think it’s very interesting to express what modern men want for their normal, everyday lives.
CA: I heard that your approach to designing has a term: vêtement-objets (clothing-objects).
VN: Yes. I use this term because, for me, Hermès is really a house of objects: bags, scarves, perfumes, and many more. What I want to express with my clothes is that each man can take a piece—a jacket, a coat, a suit or leather pants—and channel his own personality by mixing it with other clothing articles. I don’t work on total looks; I don’t do fashion; I do clothes. I pay a lot of attention to each clothing piece, which in itself is an object ready to be paired with other items. Like in a house, you arrange together some objects, such as chairs, tables and carpet, to create your own world.
Accent accessories complement a sleek look
“Many things are very hard to make. But like a ballerina, though the dance is very difficult, it has to look very easy”
CA: Do you have a fashion design muse?
VN: No, not even my husband! [laughs] I don’t have a muse, but I take notice of many men who are very creative in what they wear. Sometimes I see them on the street, and I think, “Oh, it’s so chic!”
CA: Is there a specific type of man you have in mind when you’re designing clothes?
VN: You’ll see in the show that there are many personalities. It’s very important for me and for my work since the beginning. I really do follow my own style, creating vêtement-objets for different men and proposing new materials, functions, touch, proportions and comforts.
A jacket with exotic leather detailing
CA: Throughout your career, how have you seen menswear evolve?
VN: First of all, it’s a big business and is always growing. Most markedly though, there’s been a big shift in mentality that men who used to buy suits for work can now go to work, show their own personality with what they wear, and still be taken seriously. Also men, generally speaking, now express more of what they wish to. They don’t buy clothes like a coat or a suit just because they need them, but because—like women—they want them, they like them.
CA: What’s the basic styling advice that you usually give to men?
VN: It depends on their life, work, body and many other things. But generally, I don’t give advice; I’m not here to judge whether those are the wrong shoes or if that is a wrong sweater—I’m not that kind of person. Even if a man makes a mistake, I don’t care so much—it’s much more charming to make a mistake like wearing odd socks or two colors that I don’t think would go together well. I prefer people to express their own taste rather than following even a good magazine’s styling advice.
Model Matias Chico Hernandez sports the brightest-colored sweater of the collection;
CA: I like what you just said, that it’s charming to make a mistake.
VN: Imperfection intrigues me, because perfection is, oh, so boring.
CA: So, what makes good clothing?
VN: Comfort and sensuality. Sensuality is when you feel something—you feel it on your body. Sensuality is not only about beautiful fabrics, such as cashmere or linen, but it’s also about emotion—how you are feeling. Although it’s not in most men’s vocabulary to talk about sensuality, men feel it the same way as women do. For example, I use lambskin for the inside of jacket pockets, so when you put your hand in the pocket, you feel the sensuality of the fabric.
CA: Speaking of emotions, what’s happiness to you?
VN: Serenity. It’s when you have the harmony with yourself—even if you have a very speedy life.
CA: Last but not least, what is your favorite color?
VN: I love black. As a matter of fact, I call this collection faux noir (fake black)—that is an almost-black color, such as very deep brown, very deep blue, or very deep khaki. I love neutral color, too, because you can pair neutral colors with a touch of orange or accessories, or knitwear that’s very bright or many colors. But there’s just only one color that I don’t like—that one color I will never use in my fashion collection. But I won’t say it, so you have to discover which one yourself.