Out of the Box
Hermès menswear designer Véronique Nichanian knows that taste lasts longer than fashion
Story by Eddie Brannan / Photography by Caroll Taveras
Véronique Nichanian, art director of menswear for Hermès, is charmingly coy when asked what treats await customers inside the house’s new men’s store, currently an alluring four-story tall Hermès gift box complete with embroidered ribbons. “Surprise!” she says. “You’ll have to wait!” We’re sitting upstairs in the current unisex store, directly across Madison Avenue from its brother-to-be, which occupies the lot on the north-east corner with 62nd Street. Mme. Nichanian’s reticence notwithstanding, one thing we know for sure is that we will find the storied French house’s trademark costly to-die-fors. And she does go on to allow that, naturellement, we will find all of the items of menswear and accessories — the sweaters, pants, belts, shoes and sundries — on display, as well as some special (and for now secret) features, which I predict to be the type of bespoke and grooming salons and lounges found in that other mecca of male elegance located just up the street, Tom Ford.
I mention to Nichanian that this move represents a very solid commitment and confidence in the men’s market, notably so when compared with the tentative approach taken by many high-end brands in this chilly financial winter. But as she points out, Hermès has always been “as masculine as feminine,” and that for the company, “finding the right home for the men’s store was always the most important thing.” In other words, market be damned — the right address became available.
In some ways this mentality is symbolic of the way the Hermès brand views itself — as above, in some sense, the vagaries of fashion. In conversations I have had, both with Nichanian and with Pierre-Alexis Dumas, current creative director and a sixth generation scion of the family, there is a palpable sense within the company that theirs is not a fashion brand. They make “objects,” as Dumas puts it (albeit “beautiful” ones, “made with the greatest respect”). In fact, the company sees itself more as an outfitter for people of taste as well as, of course, some degree of wealth. “I’m not doing fashion, I’m doing clothes for a man,” explains Nichanian, “and I treat clothes like an object; each item of clothes is real, and its own object.” It is her sense of taste that unifies the men’s collection and binds it within the larger range of “objects” that the brand produces. “That’s why I’m designing the collection for Hermès for many years,” she says. “I have exactly the same philosophy. I’m very demanding, with regards to the quality and the detail, because I expect these things to be around for a long time.” We discuss a few pieces from the most recent collection, which embody Nichanian’s sense of subtlety and humor. There is a cashmere sweater, plain charcoal gray on the front and sleeves, the parts that will be visible when it is worn under a jacket, but the back is blazing Hermès orange, something that only the wearer will know and be able to savor. “It’s for you,” she explains. “J’aime les vêtements egoiste. I don’t want that everybody looks at it and knows everything from the outside.” She explains other pieces that are superficially plain and yet have lambskin pocketbags, again something only the owner can experience. Hers is an understated taste, one that doesn’t flaunt itself, never déclassé.
Nichanian’s isn’t the season-by-season instinct that guides a designer who is more exclusively focused on the runway, so much as the desire to create a succession of objects — garments — with which a gentleman can outfit himself, and build an enduring and deep wardrobe. “I like that each man can pick the pieces he needs for his life,” she explains, “and I like to make clothes that can last a long time. Everything is… nice — its quite expensive — but you can keep it a long time. ”Equally, there isn’t with Hermès, the kind of rigid devotion to a single physical type, the way there is with, for example, Dior. “It’s about a man’s personality. It’s not a question of age or even of body,” explains Nichanian. “I don’t have iconic men. I always said there is not one kind of man but many.” I ask her if she detects any fundamental differences between her male customers in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré in Paris and those of Madison Avenue “No, no,” she says, professing not to notice any, before astutely pointing out that the man shopping in the Paris store and the New York one are quite likely one and the same guy, as international as the Hermès customer is. I ask her if there is one item in the stores, whether in Paris, New York or anywhere else in the world, that every man should own, and she is absolutely firm in her response. “Absolutely not at all. This is not a diktat, not a uniform. Chacun partirait avec quelque chose de son choix. Et c’est bien comme ça.