Véronique Nichanian has given me homework. Seated in a corner room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul, the slowing bustle of the evening traffic reflecting its halogen headlights onto the walls around us, she turns to me, a cheeky glint in her eye, and asks: how would you define my design style?
“For me, you create contemporary designs with a timeless spirit,” I respond.
“Timeless, yes,” she concurs. “But I always say that what I do is not ‘classic’ because for me ‘classic’ could be boring. And ‘fashion’ is another game. I create things for the long-term but still playing with shapes and colours for the season, but it's not classic and it's not fashion.”
“Would you say ‘slow fashion’?” I proffer.
“Yes, slow fashion, but it’s more than that. I feel it needs to be something more poetic and creative. You are a writer. Can you think of a word after this interview and let me know?”
One word? Superlatives come to mind—‘quality’, ‘craft’, ‘considered’—but they all fall short of the progress that’s inherent in her work. For autumn/winter 2019, she has called her collection, Walk The Line; referencing that balance between tradition and creativity, functionality and sensuality. I could be sycophantic and call it ‘Nichanian’, but that seems like a cop out.
How about two words: evolving alchemy? It speaks of new ideas, carefully incorporated into an existing elixir of time-perfected design, with an inexorable compulsion to create something magical. Hopefully, when Nichanian reads this, she approves.
ESQ: What you create for Hermès always blends a timeless quality with forward-thinking design. Tell us more about this duality in your work.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: This duality has been a hallmark of my work since the beginning. Mixing and telescoping materials, colour, fabric and length; I love that. I think this is the energy of modernity. Can you remember 30 years ago, when Mick Jagger was wearing sneakers and a tuxedo at his wedding? Now it’s time to mix all these things together and to find a new way of looking at clothes, at fashion, at people.
ESQ: Your current collection has a lot of beautiful colours; there’s a strong presence of navy as well as mandarin orange and burgundy. What was the inspiration behind the colour palette?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: For each collection I start with the colour palette as it directs the vision. For the winter collection, I wanted to have brown, navy, orange, dark green and also a touch of the Hermès red. Each season I try and find a new way to mix the colours together, to give something new and refreshing. After that, I start to work on the fabrics—and incorporating exclusive fabrics such as the cosmos canvas which is the shiny silver lining you see in the parka. I love to find new fabrics and to work with them at the manufacturing stage to create a new sensation on the skin.
ESQ: I love your roll-necks made from silk knit. It’s very sensual as it’s worn straight on the skin.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Absolutely.
ESQ: You have a retro feel with some of your pieces. You have this gorgeous Prussian blue leather shirt jacket with bold white lines across the chest.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Yes, it’s like a winding road. The collection is called Walk the Line which can mean many things. There are lines like that winding road on leather jackets, but there are also crossing lines to create cubes on knit sweaters, and then there’s the line of a jacket with a dropped shoulder, or a shorter blouson which is more bulbous. There are many lines and many new proportions all shown together. Also, we have leather pants that are wider in shape.
ESQ: I must say, I love your leather trousers. When I tried on a pair, I noticed the side adjustment tabs, and also the slit pockets in contrast metallic zips. But do you think leather trousers for men is still quite niche?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: I don’t think it’s so niche anymore. More and more men are wearing leather trousers because there is a sensuality to leather; a certain sexiness.
ESQ: And it will age so beautifully with creases naturally occurring over time.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: But even the jacket, that will age beautifully too. There are a few jackets in the collection that are reversible. So there is a rainproof fabric on one side so you can walk on the street and take the metro in Paris and not be worried about the elements. And when you go to meet your friends, you can turn the jacket to the other side and it is sexier and more modern. So, I love playing with these things. And with leather, you can be strong, soft and sexy. Leather is very chic and elegant.
ESQ: For men who are trying out leather trousers. How do you think they should wear them?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Make it part of your personality. I do love wider pants this time, and they come with zip pockets and side tabs as you mentioned that allow you to adjust the width of the trouser. A friend of mine said, “Véronique, I love your leather pants because they give a very sexy butt.” It’s important, because when you have a nice pant, women will look at the back and say “Oh la la!”. You want to feel seductive and self-confident. So I don’t really have any advice on how to wear leather pants. Just follow your own style.
ESQ: But if you do wear it, it will give you a good butt (laughs).
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: (Laughs) Yes for sure.
ESQ: As always, there are plenty of great leather accessories and bags. I’ve noticed that you have introduced a small, Kelly clutch portfolio. We’ve noticed that men’s bags are getting smaller.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Yes, smaller and easier. You have your telephone, your keys, some credit cards, so it all fits. Then you can have nothing in your pocket, it’s very nice. It's a new proportion. But we still have larger luggage—like the Bolide weekend bag.
Each year at Hermès, we have a theme for the year and this year the theme is dreams. I was looking to horses driving a carriage and I was thinking, “What do horses dream about? Maybe they dream about becoming dragons?” So, we put the dragon motif on the Bolide bags, on the T-shirts and knitwear. We also played with the iconic Hermès silver button. You will notice on the pinstripe and double-breasted suits and jackets, there is shiny silver button with the dragon motif instead of the horse. It’s a twist and a conversation starter.
ESQ: The press notes for the show mentions that you ‘create clothing that grows with you over time’. Which, personally, is the epitome of sustainability—key items that become a staple that you want to keep rehashing and restyling as the seasons change. But what does sustainability mean to you?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Personally, it’s very important. I hate buying many things, because I am very demanding, as you can imagine, so I spent a lot of time finding the right things—the right jacket, the right proportions—and when I find the right things, I want to keep them for a long time. It’s interesting to see that millennials are now looking to Hermès because they understand the honesty of creating a product with attention to detail and the best quality. Hermès is costly, that's right, but it’s not expensive, which is a big difference. It’s costly not because it has a big logo, it’s costly because a lot of time, resource and care has been spent in creating that bag or garment. It’s quality that will last.
ESQ: And on that point, with Hermès, the products and garments you purchase can be repaired.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Yes, this is very important. In Paris, we have an atelier where we repair leather jackets, pants and special-order shirts for our customers. If I like something and it’s quality, I want to keep it for a long time, so if something is broken, I want to be able to get it fixed.
ESQ: Have you ever thought of designing things that you can buy to replace a worn-out part of a garment? Or an add-on to an existing Hermès garment? For example, you create a new leather pocket that can be zipped onto an existing leather jacket from a previous collection? That way you make an ‘old’ item new again by adding or replacing parts that might be wearing out?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: This is a very interesting point. We can repair things and give them a new life in a new way. It's a kind of a petit h idea (the atelier in Hermès that uses the discarded resources from other ateliers to create a new product). It is an evolution of the item. It’s a very interesting and great idea. Thank you.
ESQ: My pleasure. Can you tell us about the small design details in the collection that might not be apparent to the customer without trying on the garment?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: I still love creating the inside lining of jackets in leather. Even if you are not wearing a leather jacket or coat, when you put your hands in a coat pocket, you feel the leather skin on your fingers; it’s something surprising and sensual. These kind of details I do love.
ESQ: Do you design menswear to inspire the wearer or to solve a problem?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: No, not to solve a problem; life is so easy. I would say I design to make them dream and to make them more handsome. I don’t want to change a man, not at all. That is not my point, it's a way of talking to a man to say: why don’t you try this colour? Why don’t you try this shape of pant? Why don’t you try leather? I want to create desire.
ESQ: The dragon motif means many things to different cultures. What does it mean to you and what do you hope people will get from it?
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: The way people understand the dragon is very different. For some it is strength, power, prosperity. I didn’t want to make a Chinese or Asian dragon. It’s not my culture, I was just having fun in the creative process. It’s also not Game of Throneseither. (Laughs). It’s my dragon, the Hermès dragon. For sure, it talks to Asia, but I hope it is done in a nice way, and it is not taken in a negative way. I never design something especially for a particular market. It’s not marketing. It’s not like I thought about using a particular colour or symbol for the Asian market, I don’t like that. The dragon was just having fun thinking about what horses dream about. It’s an elevation of the horses dream. That was my starting point and my idea.
ESQ: For a house that is so esteemed and loved like Hermès, what people don’t realise is that, at the heart, there is always fun.
VÉRONIQUE NICHANIAN: Yes, absolutely. People sometimes imagine Hermès is so expensive and so chic, and grand bourgeois. It’s not at all. Life should be light and happy. We create things seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.