There is nothing usual about Hermès. The list of their rare and eccentric attributes runs rather long: Their famous bags are each made by one person from start to finish. Those bags can sell for north of £100 000. However, 100K alone likely won’t get you that bag (see Part 1 on Hermès for more in this). Also, should you manage to spend that money, you best be sure of your purchase since refunds aren’t allowed on such items. Then, having made it rather difficult to acquire their products to begin with, they’ve been known to burn whatever is selling best in a given season to preserve exclusivity. I mean, can you imagine the horror of walking into a room and being met by someone wearing the same $400 scarf as yours? (Now, thankfully, items deemed too popular are repurposed into new wares rather than being burned).
Then there is Véronique Nichanian. She’s the head of Hermès’ menswear ‘universe’ (as it’s known) and is among the most valuable elements of the brand’s singular arsenal. Apart from being a rare female head of the menswear department for a major label, she’s also the longest-tenured non-founding artistic director in all of fashion, having held her position for 31 years and counting.
Hermès’ womenswear department has moved through several high-profile heads — including the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Martin Margiela (whose signature masks you make have seen Kanye West wearing recently) — all while Nichanian has remained the constant and apparently inexhaustible creative force behind Hermès men’s line for over three decades.
She boasts an impressive pedigree, having learnt her trade, beginning at the age of 19, from Nino Cerruti, the Italian master tailor who also mentored Giorgio Armani. But Nichanian shares an attribute with the company she works for that is perhaps the secret to their shared success: an irrepressible desire to look ahead and move forward.
Read anything about Nichanian and the same concepts come up over and again: ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’ — not necessarily what you would expect from the average 65-year-old. The same ideas recur in coverage of Hermès and feel equally surprising for a heritage luxury brand that’s still run by the same family that founded it 183 years ago.
But Hermès, despite its legacy and illustrious past, has long demonstrated a feel for the contemporary. Apart from the slew of early product innovations I mentioned earlier this week, in more recent times, look at their high-profile Apple watch collaboration or the youth-courting Hermès fanny pack. There’s also the surprising modernity of their production facilities (as covered here by Simon Crompton) or their current adoption of novel materials like mushroom leather.
Even the good old Birkin bag isn’t that old at all. A behemoth such as the Birkin might feel as though it has been around since the dawn of fashion, but it’s easy to forget that Birkins were created well within living memory. They came about in 1984 thanks to an episode that is itself illustrative of a keenness to adapt and innovate. As the oft-told story goes, Hermès former creative director, Jean-Louis Dumas, was sat next to the actress Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London when the contents of her handbag came spilling out. ‘You should have one with pockets’, Dumas reportedly said, to which Birkin replied: ‘The day Hermès makes one with pockets I will have that.’ Dumas then duly declared, “But I am Hermès, and I will put pockets in for you,” and had Birkin sketch him a prototype right there on the back of a vomit bag.
But that’s old news by this point and, after all, neither Hermès nor its longest-serving designer spends all that much time looking backwards. When asked earlier this year by the Financial Times whether she pours over Hermès’ illustrious back catalogue for inspiration, Véronique Nichanian replied that, much as she admires the talent and ingenuity of past designs, she does not. Instead, Nichanian offered a very on-brand response:
‘I think now is a great opportunity to express new things with new materials and technologies. I look forward. I know the archive. There’s beautiful things, and beautiful ideas, but I want to express something different — modernity.’Véronique Nichanian