Véronique Nichanian Makes Clothes for the Thinking Man

“YOU KNOW,” SAYS Véronique Nichanian, “if I were 20, I would dye it green or pink.” It’s a heat June afternoon in Paris, the variety when the solar makes the rooftops of the metropolis’s limestone buildings look as in the event that they’ve been dipped in gold, and we’re sitting beneath a pergola on a small strip of garden behind the Hôtel d’Ecquevilly, a grand 17th-century mansion in the Marais. Nichanian, 67, is speaking about her hair. Throughout her 33-year tenure at Hermès, the place she is at present the inventive director of what the model calls its males’s universe (which encompasses not solely the two annual clothes collections but in addition sneakers, equipment and watches), she has maintained its pure shade of shiny chestnut and worn it in a protracted, layered bob. But lately she has been impressed by the women she sees strolling round the metropolis with vivid neon manes. While Nichanian — who’s sporting a crisp white shirt, darkish boot-cut denims and some items of straightforward silver jewellery — could outwardly embody the tenets of traditional Parisian good style, she has all the time prized, as she places it, “people who are one step to the side.”

The scene round us, too, seems on its floor like a vignette designed to showcase French custom. The Baroque Hôtel d’Ecquevilly, inbuilt 1638 as a non-public residence for a Parisian aristocrat, was later the house of Louis XV’s grasp of the hunt, who commissioned the elaborate bas-reliefs of boars and canine that also decoration its exterior. Inside the constructing’s parquet-floored ballroom, Nichanian’s workforce is becoming the newest males’s put on assortment for Hermès, a home that was based 184 years in the past and has since change into a repository of generations of French savoir-faire. There is a way that Hermès, which is barely occupying this constructing till the assortment is completed, has been based mostly right here for centuries — there’s on-site catering, and a lady in an apron emerges to supply us ice cream — such is the energy of its meticulous, all-encompassing method to each side of its operations.

From left: Hermès coat, $three,925, sweater, $1,700, pants, $eight,100, and scarf, $370, hermes.com. Hermès sweater, $three,200, pants, $980, and necklace, $700.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine Danhier

Yet the historical past of the property is equally marked by excessive rejections of customized: It was completely wrested from the aristocracy throughout the French Revolution, and in 2014 the gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin acquired a ballroom in the constructing, the place he’s proven works by modern artists corresponding to Takashi Murakami and KAWS. Likewise, although Hermès is in some ways indebted to its previous, it’s not outlined by it. The home started as a harness maker and continues to be greatest identified for each its equipment — together with its screen-printed silk scarves and its iconic leather-based purses — and the care that goes into making them: It employs 1000’s of artisans who follow centuries-old crafts at its dozens of ateliers throughout the metropolis. But a spirit of innovation additionally animates the firm, and has knowledgeable all the pieces from its enlargement into other forms of leather-based items in the 1920s, as automobiles overtook horses as the dominant mode of journey; to its transformation, in the 1970s, right into a full-scale luxurious model; and to the founding, in 2010, of Petit H, a workshop that repurposes discarded supplies from the model’s different departments to make new trinkets like animal-shaped leather-based key rings and silk coin purses. Over the years, the firm’s homeowners — every descended from its unique patriarch, Thierry Hermès, and spanning six generations — have discovered that longevity shouldn’t be potential with out change.

Similarly, although Nichanian’s garments are identified for their refinement, discretion and detachment from seasonal traits, she has not change into one in all the longest-serving non-founding designers at a French trend home by doing the identical factor over and over. Like an artist in the late stage of her profession, she has mastered her commerce to such an extent that she has no alternative however to innovate, charting new territory with the seeming effortlessness solely achieved by means of lots of of 1000’s of hours of expertise. “After so many years, so many collections,” she says, “I’m still reinventing things.”

Hermès vest, $1,250, shirt, $890, pants, $980, and necklace, $390.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine DanhierHermès jacket, $four,000, shirt, $1,175, pants, $1,475, bag, $13,300, scarf, $370, and necklace.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine Danhier

THE HISTORY OF males’s trend in the 20th century is, basically, a gradual yielding of ritual to individuality and adaptability, as athletic silhouettes and versatile materials emerged to problem the swimsuit — the de facto uniform of males throughout ages, cultures and professions for generations. For Nichanian, its course modified, decisively, in May 1971, with the St. Tropez marriage ceremony of Mick and Bianca Jagger. He was, she recollects, “the first guy who wore sneakers with a suit,” or not less than the most photographed man to take action, pairing a wide-lapel white three-piece by the Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton with noticeably scuffed-up tennis sneakers. “Everybody said, ‘It’s not elegant,’” she remembers. But for Nichanian, who was then a youngster, it was an inspiring rejection of the establishment and affirmation that ease and character have been the means of the future. “This kind of attitude, not to be conservative, to express something different,” resonated together with her, she says, and it has continued to tell the means she makes garments. She has by no means produced collections that might really be referred to as sportswear, as so many manufacturers have in recent times — quite, keen-eyed and magpie-like, she has extracted from that college of design sure technical advances and concessions to consolation that she makes use of to replace time-honored codes of tailoring, ensuring that her items by no means sacrifice pleasure for sophistication, or sophistication for pleasure. A trench coat would possibly pair a traditional cloth like cotton canvas with an athletic-inspired technical one, like Hermès’s patented shiny water-repellent Toilbright; a blazer with a proper silhouette could be reversible or fitted with zippered pockets. Hers are garments that really feel good in the most literal, tactile sense: smooth towards the pores and skin, accommodating of sensible wants and bodily quirks. They are designed to not impress an viewers however to embrace their wearer with such sensitivity, such sensuousness even, that he can’t assist however venture confidence — and perhaps even a bit of loucheness. As Nichanian places it, “The clothes have to be intimate.”

When we first spoke, earlier in June, on a video name, I requested if she had any favourite particulars from her spring 2021 assortment. “I’m sorry,” she responded politely, “but the details of the last collection are the collection.” In different phrases, every garment is the product of an enormous variety of artistic selections and refinements made every season throughout months of backwards and forwards with textile factories throughout the nation, artisans from Hermès’s workshops and Nichanian’s workforce of seven designers at the males’s ready-to-wear studio above the firm’s retailer on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Everything is taken into account, and nothing is rushed. If a hem or a placket doesn’t match her imaginative and prescient, she is going to gently request that it’s made repeatedly till it does. At the finish of this course of, a set emerges. “It takes time to do really good things,” she stated. “I want to make my clothes beautifully, with the best fabrics and the best proportions.” This dedication to integrity over pace is uncommon in the trend trade, whose scope and momentum have grown exponentially over the previous decade, for causes that embody the addition of resort and pre-fall collections (neither of which Hermès presents for males), rising worldwide markets and social media’s acceleration of fixing tastes. If most manufacturers suppose when it comes to seasons, Hermès appears to understand time on the scale of centuries. Accordingly, it has proved remarkably immune to traits, prioritizing the expert manipulation of beautiful supplies above momentary cultural fluctuations — an ethos that’s extra in step with that of a guild than a trend home, and one which places a premium on educated staff (which is maybe why Hermès’s designers have tended to stick with the firm not simply for years, as is typical elsewhere, however for a long time). Indeed, Nichanian doesn’t see her work as designing trend however as crafting objects. A garment engineered for a sure modern look can change into out of date, however a finely crafted object whose design is knowledgeable by practicality and ease can change into important, and cherished indefinitely. She likens a chunk of clothes that lives as much as this perfect to a doudou, or a baby’s beloved blanket: an emotional totem that’s essentially nondisposable, woven into the cloth of a life.

Nichanian is so targeted on the future that she doesn’t like to speak about the previous, however she was born and raised in Paris and credit her father with sowing the seeds of her perfectionism. A primary-generation Armenian immigrant, he solid a profitable profession working a cake firm, making certain that the household’s house, which missed the Buttes-Chaumont park in the 19th Arrondissement, was all the time a well-liked after-school vacation spot for his daughter’s pals. Nichanian’s mom was Parisian, and when the couple weren’t touring, as they usually have been, they entertained often at house, internet hosting pals from Greece and America, Armenia and throughout France. “It gave my brother and me a larger view of the world,” says Nichanian. But if her dad and mom have been open-minded and cosmopolitan, her mom additionally demonstrated a outstanding power (she carried herself by means of life with unflappable confidence) — “I got that from her,” Nichanian says — and her father “was very demanding” (excelling at college was an expectation). When she advised them she wished to review trend, they gave their consent however with one proviso: She needed to be the greatest.

Hermès jacket, $four,000, vest, $2,325, shirt, $740, pants, $1,000, and necklace.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine Danhier

It probably helped that her dad and mom cared about garments themselves. Her father wore bespoke fits and hewed to inflexible midcentury concepts of males’s dressing, and she or he remembers being captivated by her mom’s silk scarves (they have been Hermès). But Nichanian’s personal tastes have been extra rebellious. As a youngster, she would purchase cloth and make her personal coats and shirts, typically imitating kinds worn by her older brother. When she enrolled in the École de la Chambre Syndicale in 1976 to review trend, attitudes towards ladies’s clothes had already begun to vary in Paris — Yves Saint Laurent had change into the first couturier to launch ready-to-wear below his personal title in 1966, and the well-known Battle of Versailles showcase in 1971, by which 5 American designers tried to unseat the 5 reigning Parisian couturiers with displays of recent, sportswear-inspired collections, instructed that freedom of motion and expression would quickly overcome ladylike decorousness — however the storied French homes, together with Givenchy and Christian Dior, have been nonetheless thought-about unimpeachable, and their beliefs of rarefied class dictated the tone of the college’s syllabus. There, Nichanian discovered precision, and drew plenty of ladies with lengthy, skinny legs. When, after commencement, she was recruited to work as a stylist for the males’s assortment at the Italian trend model Nino Cerruti, she relished the concept of making use of her expertise in a distinct enviornment.

While at Cerruti, she discovered she cherished the rigor of the tailoring world. Cerruti himself, who inherited his household’s textile mill in 1951 and helped revolutionize postwar males’s trend by reimagining stiff Italian suiting in additional trendy, much less structured types, had made Giorgio Armani his protégé in the ’60s, when he labored for the model, and likewise nurtured Nichanian, who nonetheless refers to him as a pal and trainer. In his studios in Milan and Paris, she honed her capability each to appreciate informal however refined silhouettes and to work with a workforce — made up fully of males. “I was the only woman at Cerruti,” she says, recalling how, even together with her mentor, she would often need to struggle to be taken severely; he as soon as dismissed her suggestions on a design as “women’s opinions.” She earned respect by means of the high quality of her work and her dedication to it. At Cerruti, she was additionally in a position to discover her ardour for materials. She would go to the firm’s textile factories in Piedmont in northern Italy, and in the late ’80s she helped create new technical weaves to match the model’s more and more sportswear-inflected temper. By the time Jean-Louis Dumas, then the inventive director of Hermès, referred to as her in 1987, she was Cerruti’s co-director of males’s put on collections and had been with the home for 11 years.

Nichanian initially thought the name was a mistake, or probably even a joke. Dumas, the great-great-grandson of Thierry Hermès, had change into the firm’s C.E.O. in 1978 and had radically reworked what was then an ailing home — it was starting to really feel like a relic from one other period — into a global luxurious model by introducing fascinating objects for a brand new technology (corresponding to the Birkin bag, which he famously developed after being seated subsequent to the actress Jane Birkin on a flight in 1984) and bringing in a roster of gifted, forward-thinking designers. Nichanian was completely satisfied at Cerruti, although, and dedicated to her work there; nonetheless, he persuaded her to cease by his workplace for breakfast. She arrived in September, after her summer time vacation, with a bag of croissants, they usually instantly fell into snug dialog. When they met for a second time, he requested her to take over the firm’s males’s put on division. In a proposal that has since change into legendary in design circles, he promised her full artistic freedom. She remembers his phrases as “Do it as you want.”

Hermès sweatshirt, $three,200, sweatshirt (worn round waist), $four,425, pants, $980, and necklace, $700.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine DanhierHermès shirt, $740.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine Danhier

HERMÈS’S VENTURE INTO males’s put on was, partly, due to the zipper. In 1922, Émile Hermès, Thierry’s grandson, obtained the unique French rights to the closure after seeing it on a visit to Canada, and over the subsequent decade, he debuted a number of new merchandise utilizing the expertise — together with the home’s first leather-based purses and, in 1925, its first males’s garment: a pullover suede golf jacket with a zippered collar. But for a long time, it was the model’s equipment, which, starting in the late 1940s, included patterned silk ties, that held most sway with male prospects. When Nichanian arrived, although, her collections instantly impressed each prospects and critics. Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’s present inventive director, remembers how the first piece he owned by Nichanian, “a jacket with large, padded shoulders — this was the ’80s — made me feel so elegant.” Writing in The New York Times, Suzy Menkes praised Nichanian’s spring 1992 assortment — which comprised laid-back suiting in wealthy shades of sienna, umber and cream — as the greatest she’d seen in Paris. While different manufacturers that season struggled to seek out relevance at the begin of the new decade, both by greedy at the period’s neo-hippie motion for references or straining to include parts of streetwear, Nichanian’s “well-proportioned clothes in fine fabrics, beautifully made and subtly colored,” wrote Menkes, “are men’s designer clothes shaped up for the 1990s.” From the starting, Nichanian has understood that her power lies in interesting to a buyer who’s as demanding as she is, who would possibly even care virtually as a lot as she does. “We talk to people directly, so that they appreciate the value, they appreciate the qualities, the details,” she says. “Even if we’re doing something simple, like a sweater or pants, I’m sure that they feel it, that they understand it.”

Beyond having a discerning eye and a requisite degree of economic success, although, this buyer is loosely outlined. “There is not one Hermès man, there are many Hermès men,” says Nichanian. She enjoys the problem of designing for individuals throughout a variety of ages, physique varieties and backgrounds — in 2017, for occasion, she staged a present in Los Angeles by which the chef Ari Taymor and the curator Philippe Vergne, then the director of the metropolis’s Museum of Contemporary Art, walked amongst the fashions — and contemplating the practicalities of their lives. This, she says, is a key distinction between the small handful of girls who design for males and the legion of males who design for ladies: While the latter group tends to visitors in fantasy (and accordingly likes to reference muses that embody lofty beliefs of femininity), the former extra usually offers in actuality, attending to the small particulars that may make a shirt higher suited for journey or a pair of trousers extra forgiving. It is only one of the causes so few ladies have pursued males’s put on as fervently as Nichanian has: A profession spent obsessing over cuff lengths and waistbands to millimeter levels shouldn’t be the dream that usually propels individuals of any gender by means of trend college.

If she caught largely to trendy variations on suiting by means of the 1990s — informal examine wool jackets with suede paneling, patchwork leather-based waistcoats — by the early 2000s, trend’s temper was extra relaxed, and Nichanian made clear her expertise for imaginatively layering subtly sporty separates. Her spring 2006 assortment, for occasion, featured mixtures which have recurred all through her subsequent choices: delicate cotton T-shirts worn beneath patterned knit polo shirts, zippered suede blouson jackets paired with cashmere crew-neck sweaters and gently crumpled linen-blend blazers thrown over all the pieces from button-downs to vests. And whereas her ’90s-era collections, which bore the sturdy imprint of her time in the Italian tailoring world, tended to stay to the earthy palette dictated by conventional materials corresponding to leather-based and tweed, in the 2000s, Nichanian appeared more and more to America and Japan for inspiration and commenced experimenting with light-weight textiles (high-tech ribbed knits and resilient artificial weaves), in addition to colour: a lilac cashmere pullover, ethereal pistachio linen pants, a cable-knit turtleneck the colour of a sandy seaside. These shades — recent and evocative of summer time — have change into instantly recognizable as Nichanian’s and emblematic of one in all the defining feelings behind her collections: pleasure.

Nichanian delights in her work and understands how fortunate that makes her. “When I talk to my friends at different companies in Paris, everyone is jealous of me because it’s fantastic,” she says with virtually bashful sincerity. As Jean-Louis Dumas promised, she experiences a outstanding degree of freedom. His son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, who has been Nichanian’s boss since 2005, has equally positioned his belief in her. “When I first met Véronique over 30 years ago, I was terribly intimidated,” he says. “I was immediately struck by her energy and determination. She had an open-minded discourse on men’s wear that was a true breakthrough for Hermès.” He describes their relationship as an ongoing dialog that extends far past trend, and in 2008 he expanded her function to inventive director of its males’s universe. Today, she says, her job resembles that of a conductor, making certain that every part is contributing to a harmonious entire.

From left: Hermès jacket, $9,200, sweater, $1,625, pants, $980, and scarf, $370. Hermès jacket, $four,000, pants, $1,475, and turtleneck.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine DanhierHermès cardigan, $9,200, turtleneck, $1,625, and scarf, $370.Credit…Photograph by Bruno Staub. Styled by Delphine Danhier

When the pandemic hit final 12 months, that job turned extra of a problem. Social distancing measures meant the numerous males’s groups couldn’t work collectively in individual or current their merchandise to a stay viewers as standard. For Nichanian, although, this created a chance. She and her workforce of seven designers have been pressured to confront their prospects’ wants extra straight than ever: What do individuals need to put on after they’re barely leaving their flats? The ensuing collections, for spring and fall 2021, have been amongst Nichanian’s most finely tuned and fascinating thus far, balancing options for the current (a work-from-home ensemble of forgiving however refined dove grey poplin drawstring pants worn with a slouchy gentle blue twill jacket, a cross between a pajama prime and a blazer) with optimism for the future (a breezy violet cotton collarless shirt, topped with a fuzzy, vibrantly striped wool vest).

NOW, AT THE Hôtel d’Ecquevilly, Nichanian eats lunch together with her workforce virtually on daily basis, as they did earlier than the pandemic. (The afternoon I go to, it’s sushi from a close-by restaurant.) She thinks of her workforce as household, which displays not solely their closeness — she’s labored with a number of of its members for over a decade — but in addition her understanding of Hermès as a “very human house,” run by an precise household that values the individuals they make use of. One testomony to that is that she is herself in a position to spend actual time together with her husband, with whom she lives in a Haussmannian condominium in the Sixth Arrondissement and to whom she’s been married for twenty years. On the weekends, they drive to their nation home in Sancerre, the place they learn (Nichanian, who’s at present studying the novel “Les Enfants Sont Rois” by the French author Delphine de Vigan, is on the jury for the Prix du Roman News literary award), scour native flea markets and host pals, most of whom don’t work in trend. He is the solely man, she jokes, who protests when she tries to provide him “another Hermès sweater.”

After our interview, she ushers me into the ballroom so I can watch the fittings and see the new assortment up shut. Racks of garments in delicate neutrals and Mediterranean colours (sunflower yellow, sky blue, bougainvillea pink) line the excessive white partitions. She pulls out a pale turquoise shirt reduce from Toilovent, an virtually impossibly easy and light-weight artificial cloth she developed for the home in 1999, printed with a traditional bridle-inspired Hermès motif, and a smoke grey work jacket comprised of a brand new materials: a smooth, textured suede that’s in reality a usually discarded byproduct from the strategy of getting ready alligator pores and skin. She describes how a white cotton blazer patterned with tiny cobalt flowers is versatile sufficient to be thrown in a seaside bag and worn later into city, nonetheless barely crumpled. Nearby, a mannequin is having a pair of pants fitted. “He is quite tall,” whispers Nichanian, “but he has nice legs, which is good because I wanted to do some Bermudas.”

Seeing the principally male stylists and designers at work — a number of of them sporting an Hermès scarf tied loosely round their neck — I’m reminded of how Nichanian defined to me, weeks earlier than, the means she needs her garments to make males really feel. “I don’t want to change them,” she stated. “I just want to make them feel their best, their most charming, comfortable and smart.” To be a lady targeted on the enchancment of males is, in some ways, an odd job. But designing males’s garments has been her personal path to freedom and achievement. She recollects considering as a youngster, “Oh, men are so lucky because they can do everything they want.” Now she says to herself, “OK, I’m a woman. And I have done exactly what I want, too.”

Portrait by Kris Knight. Models: Ottawa Kwami at Premium Models, Ombeni Jean at Tigers by Matt, Mountaga Diop at Success Models and Jodeci Faty at IMG Models Paris. Casting: Suun Consultancy. Hair: Olivier Norz at Home Agency. Makeup: Celine Martin at Artlist Paris. Photo assistants: Michal Czech, Nanao Kuroda. Digital tech: Rebecca Lièvre at Imagin. Stylist’s assistant: Théo Guigu. Hair assistant: Zarah Benghida