Plus LA menswear guru Josh Peskowitz talks to Hermès menswear designer, Véronique Nichanian.
Downtown Los Angeles is a happening place. It’s got the best galleries, the restaurants with a 3-hour wait; it’s got home-grown design talent, and a vibrant artists community, but it also has its rough edges. Therefore Downtown LA is not the first (or second, or third) place you’d expect to find DwnTwnMen, last night’s multi-media, multi-color, multi-room celebration of the Hermès Man. Actually, the 180-year-old maison that produces the rarest, most sought-after accessories, home wares, and apparel in the world would seem entirely more at home on Rodeo Drive. Or Park Avenue. Or Saint Tropez. But for Véronique Nichanian, the artistic director of Hermès’s Men’s Universe (ed note: best title ever) the “natural” environment would be expected, and kind of boring. “Doing it in Beverly Hills would be too obvious” says Nichanian, when we spoke the morning of the event (at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, incidentally, which is very, very close to Beverly Hills). Picking the downtown area allowed Nichanian and Hermès to create a conversation between many neighborhoods—mixing current clients with a creative class who might one day (fingers crossed) be.
It was probably not a coincidence that it’s also slightly easier to find crazy post-industrial warehouses big enough to host this kind of extravaganza down by the Staples Center. The warehouse, reached after about a mile of blocked off roadway starting at the Chinatown Rail Station, was festooned with graffiti (some for the event, some original) as was the open air runway. After an encore showing of the Spring-Summer 2017 collection—highlights include tie-dyed leathers in chartreuse, special capsule collection pieces for the event, and some local fellas like MOCA director Philippe Vergne walking in the show—Hermès’s 6th generation president Axel Dumas thanked the guests, and their GPSs, for finding their way to the event.
The remarkable thing about the Hermès men’s collection under Nichanian’s 30-year stewardship is the versatility. There is an ease and elegance that works for any age or environment. While it’s made of impossibly rare materials (their most recent show included shearlings that looked like cable knit sweaters) the feeling is understated and relaxed—the pieces work just as well downtown as in Bel Air. In addition to the runway, there were 7 rooms, opened after the show, with names like “Give the Joy Back” and “Feel the Color” for guests to explore—and drink in. The slogans were created by graphic artist Anthony Burrill and featured nearly everything that makes up the Hermès Universe. Each vignettes showcased the craftsmanship behind the products: scarf prints were reimagined as record sleeves, leather jackets told the stories of their owners, and an incredible 1935 Voisin C28 Aerosport mingled with a motorbike and other mechanical miscellany. The Voisin was by far the nicest car of the night—despite all the Rolls Royces and Bentleys at the valet.
The crowd of stylists and the styled ranged from the Nick Fouquet-chapeaux’d West Siders, to Hollywood types in evening wear with a certain sequined snake on the back. The New York editors were there, Dita Von Tease was there, Greg Chait of Elder Statesman was there too. In other words, it was—just as Véronique imagined—a meeting of the worlds, mixing of the crowds, a crossing of the paths.
GQStyle: What’s the idea behind the event here in LA?
Véronique Nichanian: The idea of the [capsule] collection starting is very exciting because this collection I designed is full of energy and lightness, and when Bob Chavez [President and CEO of Hermès] proposed to me to do a big event it was very exciting to do it in LA. The Spring-Summer 2017 collection fits perfectly with the spirit of LA. The collection is a big part of the event tonight and of my work, of course, but we are talking all the men’s universe. When I say universe I’m talking about the suits, the shoes, the bags and all those things. It’s going through everything in a very nice and funny way to make a big party.
You’re moving from NY, so I should ask you why LA too! Because LA is a place of change now. Many things are going on in music and art, and the energy and technology are coming from San Francisco. It’s a place where many energies are coming in. You say you’re loving Tokyo, and for many years I’ve been traveling to Tokyo. And I feel the same energy now in LA, but with the sun there’s something very interesting and different. It looks very brand new. I’m a very optimistic person and I think I’m sure that the future is full of very good things, positivity, and you know the light of LA and the sun—it seems so obvious to say, that but it’s a part of this new energy of living.
When you decided what part of LA to do the event in, you guys decided to do it downtown.
Yes, because downtown in the new place to be. We visited many places when I came to LA in October and I fell in love with this huge place, it’s a kind of loft, it’s a very industrial part, huge space, and I wanted to have the space to do something outside and also inside to create things. I don’t know so much about LA as you do living here but I’ve been coming here for 15 years and so I’ve felt a big change in these 15 years.
It has changed, it’s changed a lot.
And all the people. For me, downtown should be the next place for artists to create things.
In terms of the geography of LA, Hermès doesn’t have a presence in downtown LA. But when it comes to creative people that’s really where they’re congregating. Is that someone who you see being a customer for Hermès, or is that someone you want to be a customer?
We don’t have only one kind of customer, we’re just creating a world where everyone is meeting here.
You’ve been designing for how many years?
30 years—can you imagine? My god. It’s a life. But it’s 30 years of freedom and happiness, because when you’re a designer and you’re free to do exactly what you want it’s a joy. So really I feel so good and happy—it’s a fantastic story.
When you think about it now, no creative director lasts longer than five years.
No! Every two years they change, and nobody knows what they want to do exactly and so the brands change, so I feel good—as a company I know exactly where we’re going. There’s an expression in French, it’s an equestrian motto. Go calm, forward, and straight. I know exactly where I’m going, I have a vision for what the casual Hermès man should be, so I propose it. I’m not the kind of person to say, Oh this is it or you should wear that, I just propose a different kind of man.
The fact that you’ve done this for 30 years, at that point you’re dressing generations of men. How do you keep it young and fresh without alienating the original gentleman?
The story is not too focused on one kind of man, it’s not a question of age or body or style of man. So when I designed the collection I used to say that I don’t design fashion I design clothes, so the clothes they fit different kind of men, there’s not one kind of Hermès man. At Hermès we don’t focus on VIP people, we don’t have a star and we don’t want one.
Which is different than many other houses, most have picked a face of the season.
Yes! Absolutely. We dress a lot of stars, we dress a lot of singers, actors, but we never say any names. At Hermès we never do that.
There has to be a real liberty in doing that.
Yes, it’s a choice, it’s a company choice to never say any words and we don’t do it through anyone else. For me it’s about respect and freedom.
Almost all the big luxury firms are owned by somebody bigger now, but Hermès has stayed independent. How much of that plays into the decisions you’re allowed to make?
I can make everything I want. In the beginning when I said that I’ve had 30 years of freedom that’s true! Nobody ever said to me ‘Véronique you have to do more ties’ or ‘this kind of green’ or ‘marketing is doing that very well so try to put it on your collection’—it’s never happened.
Well you haven’t put a tie on the runway in what, four years now!
[Laughs.] Not for a long time. That’s right.
When you’re planning a collection do you go someplace, is there some place you go for inspiration?
I travel a lot. Less than you, but a lot. No I do love traveling, I go twice a year to Japan, Tokyo, or I travel in LA, New York, Italy of course and England. I’m very interested in meeting people. Meeting artists and looking at what’s going on. I’m a very curious person and I’m optimistic, because everything is possible. It’s an exciting time. Funny and exciting. Stop talking about, Oh my god everything’s going so bad and the economy and the politics—maybe that’s true, but…
I want to talk about color, because color seems like one of the biggest things that inspires the collection.
Yes, I do love the colors. For this one it was funny, yes, I wanted the strong yellow, that’s why I told you it fits very well in LA, because when I designed this collection this yellow was for me the evident thing to do. Color is most of the time a starting point.
In my experience there’s only three things men really look for: innovation, craftsmanship, and rarity. Those are the things they’ll spend money on. And those are the three things that Hermès is. People expect things immediately and now, and they want new, new, new, and Hermès doesn’t do that.
No, we don’t play that game because it’s not our game and it’s not our world. We need time to do beautiful things and we take this time. When I select fabric, when I select lining, when I do the shape, I’m a very demanding person and it takes a long time. You know when you want to make a [capsule] collection, it’s a marketing process and it’s a mercantile process. And if we have to talk about luxury, for me luxury doesn’t mean anything in terms of words. Bt having your own time—this is luxury.
How have you seen the taste of the customer change, and how have you helped push them? What I’ve noticed is the whole world is moving particularly men are moving away from ostentatious displays, and are moving more in the direction of what you do now. But have there ever been times when it felt challenging or when it felt like people weren’t getting it? There were times when wealthy men didn’t have very good taste, or maybe didn’t respond to things as subtle as what you do.
Some of them, but in the beginning and in the future it will be the same. I remember my father and all of his friends, English old men they were very chic and very smart. I’m not judgmental—I don’t say oh this is bad taste or this is good taste, OK, this is your taste, who am I to say this is bad or this is good? To be honest, I don’t like big logos, I don’t like golden things, the gold to someone else—they like that. But they come to Hermès if they want much more quality and sociality and lightness and something that can keep for a long time. So it’s different values.
Being a Parisian, working for a French luxury house, how do you keep it from feeling so French? Since you need to appeal to people from all over the world.
Since I’m traveling so much and seeing so many things, I’m not a French person with a baguette and red wine. But you know, doing a collection I’m talking to all these men. I go to Japan and meet all my Japanese friends or American friends, they expect the same things. So I don’t think it’s a very Parisian collection, but maybe there is a French touch, let’s talk about the French touch, I love the use of French words—like Chateau Marmont. [Laughs.] Maybe this story of casual chic is very French, just a way to you know like Serge Gainsbourg used to pick the things that look simple but very sophisticate—it’s a sophisticated casual. It’s a simple shape but in very sophisticated materials or colors or something very special.
What’s your favorite piece from the spring collection that I’m going to see tonight?
Maybe the last one. It’s a tie-dye leather blouson. Yellow everything.
Done deal. I’m very into that.