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Véronique Nichanian Makes Clothes for the Thinking Man – The New York Times

The longtime artistic director of Hermès’s men’s universe has perfected her craft, designing clothes as easy as they are meticulous.
To accompany this profile, the Toronto-based artist Kris Knight painted a portrait of the fashion designer, titled “Véronique Nichanian” (2021), made exclusively for T. Credit…Oil on paper, courtesy of the artist. Source photograph: Olivier Metzger
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“YOU KNOW,” SAYS Véronique Nichanian, “if I were 20, I would dye it green or pink.” It’s a warm June afternoon in Paris, the kind when the sun makes the rooftops of the city’s limestone buildings look as if they’ve been dipped in gold, and we’re sitting beneath a pergola on a small strip of lawn behind the Hôtel d’Ecquevilly, a grand 17th-century mansion in the Marais. Nichanian, 67, is talking about her hair. Throughout her 33-year tenure at Hermès, where she is currently the artistic director of what the brand calls its men’s universe (which encompasses not only the two annual clothing collections but also shoes, accessories and watches), she has maintained its natural shade of glossy chestnut and worn it in a long, layered bob. But recently she has been inspired by the girls she sees walking around the city with vivid neon manes. While Nichanian — who is wearing a crisp white shirt, dark boot-cut jeans and a few pieces of simple silver jewelry — may outwardly embody the tenets of classic Parisian good taste, she has always prized, as she puts it, “people who are one step to the side.”
The scene around us, too, appears on its surface like a vignette designed to showcase French tradition. The Baroque Hôtel d’Ecquevilly, built in 1638 as a private residence for a Parisian aristocrat, was later the home of Louis XV’s master of the hunt, who commissioned the elaborate bas-reliefs of boars and dogs that still ornament its exterior. Inside the building’s parquet-floored ballroom, Nichanian’s team is fitting the latest men’s wear collection for Hermès, a house that was founded 184 years ago and has since become a repository of generations of French savoir-faire. There is a sense that Hermès, which is only occupying this building until the collection is finished, has been based here for centuries — there’s on-site catering, and a woman in an apron emerges to offer us ice cream — such is the power of its meticulous, all-encompassing approach to every facet of its operations.
Yet the history of the property is equally marked by extreme rejections of custom: It was permanently wrested from the aristocracy during the French Revolution, and in 2014 the gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin acquired a ballroom in the building, where he’s shown works by contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami and KAWS. Likewise, though Hermès is in many ways indebted to its past, it is not defined by it. The house began as a harness maker and is still best known for both its accessories — including its screen-printed silk scarves and its iconic leather handbags — and the care that goes into making them: It employs thousands of artisans who practice centuries-old crafts at its dozens of ateliers across the city. But a spirit of innovation also animates the company, and has informed everything from its expansion into other kinds of leather goods in the 1920s, as cars overtook horses as the dominant mode of travel; to its transformation, in the 1970s, into a full-scale luxury brand; and to the founding, in 2010, of Petit H, a workshop that repurposes discarded materials from the brand’s other departments to make new trinkets like animal-shaped leather key rings and silk coin purses. Over the years, the company’s owners — each descended from its original patriarch, Thierry Hermès, and spanning six generations — have learned that longevity is not possible without change.
Similarly, though Nichanian’s clothes are known for their refinement, discretion and detachment from seasonal trends, she has not become one of the longest-serving non-founding designers at a French fashion house by doing the same thing over and over again. Like an artist in the late stage of her career, she has mastered her trade to such an extent that she has no choice but to innovate, charting new territory with the seeming effortlessness only achieved through hundreds of thousands of hours of experience. “After so many years, so many collections,” she says, “I’m still reinventing things.”
THE HISTORY OF men’s fashion in the 20th century is, essentially, a gradual yielding of formality to individuality and flexibility, as athletic silhouettes and versatile fabrics emerged to challenge the suit — the de facto uniform of men across ages, cultures and professions for generations. For Nichanian, its course changed, decisively, in May 1971, with the St. Tropez wedding of Mick and Bianca Jagger. He was, she recalls, “the first guy who wore sneakers with a suit,” or at least the most photographed man to do so, pairing a wide-lapel white three-piece by the Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton with noticeably scuffed-up tennis shoes. “Everybody said, ‘It’s not elegant,’” she remembers. But for Nichanian, who was then a teenager, it was an inspiring rejection of the status quo and confirmation that ease and personality were the way of the future. “This kind of attitude, not to be conservative, to express something different,” resonated with her, she says, and it has continued to inform the way she makes clothes. She has never produced collections that could truly be called sportswear, as so many brands have in recent years — rather, keen-eyed and magpie-like, she has extracted from that school of design certain technical advances and concessions to comfort that she uses to update time-honored codes of tailoring, making sure that her pieces never sacrifice pleasure for sophistication, or sophistication for pleasure. A trench coat might pair a classic fabric like cotton canvas with an athletic-inspired technical one, like Hermès’s patented glossy water-repellent Toilbright; a blazer with a formal silhouette might be reversible or fitted with zippered pockets. Hers are clothes that feel good in the most literal, tactile sense: soft against the skin, accommodating of practical needs and bodily quirks. They are designed not to impress an audience but to embrace their wearer with such sensitivity, such sensuousness even, that he can’t help but project confidence — and maybe even a little loucheness. As Nichanian puts it, “The clothes have to be intimate.”
When we first spoke, earlier in June, on a video call, I asked if she had any favorite details from her spring 2021 collection. “I’m sorry,” she responded politely, “but the details of the last collection are the collection.” In other words, each garment is the product of a vast number of creative decisions and refinements made each season during months of back and forth with textile factories across the country, artisans from Hermès’s workshops and Nichanian’s team of seven designers at the men’s ready-to-wear studio above the company’s store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Everything is considered, and nothing is rushed. If a hem or a placket doesn’t match her vision, she will gently request that it be made again and again until it does. At the end of this process, a collection emerges. “It takes time to do really good things,” she said. “I want to make my clothes beautifully, with the best fabrics and the best proportions.” This commitment to integrity over speed is rare in the fashion industry, whose scope and momentum have grown exponentially over the past decade, for reasons that include the addition of resort and pre-fall collections (neither of which Hermès presents for men), growing international markets and social media’s acceleration of changing tastes. If most brands think in terms of seasons, Hermès seems to perceive time on the scale of centuries. Accordingly, it has proved remarkably resistant to trends, prioritizing the skilled manipulation of exquisite materials above momentary cultural fluctuations — an ethos that is more in line with that of a guild than a fashion house, and one that puts a premium on knowledgeable workers (which is perhaps why Hermès’s designers have tended to stay with the company not just for years, as is typical elsewhere, but for decades). Indeed, Nichanian doesn’t see her work as designing fashion but as crafting objects. A garment engineered for a certain contemporary look can become obsolete, but a finely crafted object whose design is informed by practicality and simplicity can become essential, and cherished indefinitely. She likens a piece of clothing that lives up to this ideal to a doudou, or a child’s beloved blanket: an emotional totem that is fundamentally nondisposable, woven into the fabric of a life.
Nichanian is so focused on the future that she doesn’t like to talk about the past, but she was born and raised in Paris and credits her father with sowing the seeds of her perfectionism. A first-generation Armenian immigrant, he forged a lucrative career running a cake company, ensuring that the family’s home, which overlooked the Buttes-Chaumont park in the 19th Arrondissement, was always a popular after-school destination for his daughter’s friends. Nichanian’s mother was Parisian, and when the couple weren’t traveling, as they often were, they entertained regularly at home, hosting friends from Greece and America, Armenia and across France. “It gave my brother and me a larger view of the world,” says Nichanian. But if her parents were open-minded and cosmopolitan, her mother also demonstrated a remarkable strength (she carried herself through life with unflappable confidence) — “I got that from her,” Nichanian says — and her father “was very demanding” (excelling at school was an expectation). When she told them she wanted to study fashion, they gave their consent but with one proviso: She had to be the best.
It likely helped that her parents cared about clothes themselves. Her father wore bespoke suits and hewed to rigid midcentury ideas of men’s dressing, and she remembers being captivated by her mother’s silk scarves (they were Hermès). But Nichanian’s own tastes were more rebellious. As a teenager, she would buy fabric and make her own coats and shirts, sometimes imitating styles worn by her older brother. When she enrolled in the École de la Chambre Syndicale in 1976 to study fashion, attitudes toward women’s clothing had already begun to change in Paris — Yves Saint Laurent had become the first couturier to launch ready-to-wear under his own name in 1966, and the famous Battle of Versailles showcase in 1971, in which five American designers attempted to unseat the five reigning Parisian couturiers with presentations of modern, sportswear-inspired collections, suggested that freedom of movement and expression would soon triumph over ladylike decorousness — but the storied French houses, including Givenchy and Christian Dior, were still considered unimpeachable, and their ideals of rarefied elegance dictated the tone of the school’s syllabus. There, Nichanian learned precision, and drew a lot of women with long, skinny legs. When, after graduation, she was recruited to work as a stylist for the men’s collection at the Italian fashion brand Nino Cerruti, she relished the idea of applying her skills in a different arena.
While at Cerruti, she found she loved the rigor of the tailoring world. Cerruti himself, who inherited his family’s textile mill in 1951 and helped revolutionize postwar men’s fashion by reimagining stiff Italian suiting in more modern, less structured forms, had made Giorgio Armani his protégé in the ’60s, when he worked for the brand, and likewise nurtured Nichanian, who still refers to him as a friend and teacher. In his studios in Milan and Paris, she honed her ability both to realize casual but refined silhouettes and to work with a team — made up entirely of men. “I was the only woman at Cerruti,” she says, recalling how, even with her mentor, she would occasionally have to fight to be taken seriously; he once dismissed her feedback on a design as “women’s opinions.” She earned respect through the quality of her work and her dedication to it. At Cerruti, she was also able to explore her passion for fabrics. She would visit the company’s textile factories in Piedmont in northern Italy, and in the late ’80s she helped create new technical weaves to match the brand’s increasingly sportswear-inflected mood. By the time Jean-Louis Dumas, then the artistic director of Hermès, called her in 1987, she was Cerruti’s co-director of men’s wear collections and had been with the house for 11 years.
Nichanian initially thought the call was a mistake, or possibly even a joke. Dumas, the great-great-grandson of Thierry Hermès, had become the company’s C.E.O. in 1978 and had radically transformed what was then an ailing house — it was beginning to feel like a relic from another era — into an international luxury brand by introducing desirable objects for a new generation (such as the Birkin bag, which he famously developed after being seated next to the actress Jane Birkin on a flight in 1984) and bringing in a roster of talented, forward-thinking designers. Nichanian was happy at Cerruti, though, and committed to her work there; still, he persuaded her to stop by his office for breakfast. She arrived in September, after her summer holiday, with a bag of croissants, and they immediately fell into comfortable conversation. When they met for a second time, he asked her to take over the company’s men’s wear division. In a proposal that has since become legendary in design circles, he promised her complete creative freedom. She remembers his words as “Do it as you want.”
HERMÈS’S VENTURE INTO men’s wear was, in part, because of the zipper. In 1922, Émile Hermès, Thierry’s grandson, obtained the exclusive French rights to the closure after seeing it on a trip to Canada, and over the next decade, he debuted several new products using the technology — including the house’s first leather handbags and, in 1925, its first men’s garment: a pullover suede golf jacket with a zippered collar. But for decades, it was the brand’s accessories, which, beginning in the late 1940s, included patterned silk ties, that held most sway with male customers. When Nichanian arrived, though, her collections immediately impressed both customers and critics. Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’s current artistic 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 collection — which comprised laid-back suiting in rich shades of sienna, umber and cream — as the best she’d seen in Paris. While other brands that season struggled to find relevance at the start of the new decade, either by grasping at the era’s neo-hippie movement for references or straining to incorporate elements 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 beginning, Nichanian has understood that her strength lies in appealing to a customer who is as demanding as she is, who might even care almost as much 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 level of financial good fortune, though, this customer is loosely defined. “There is not one Hermès man, there are many Hermès men,” says Nichanian. She enjoys the challenge of designing for people across a range of ages, body types and backgrounds — in 2017, for instance, she staged a show in Los Angeles in which the chef Ari Taymor and the curator Philippe Vergne, then the director of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, walked among the models — and considering the practicalities of their lives. This, she says, is a key difference between the small handful of women who design for men and the legion of men who design for women: While the latter group tends to traffic in fantasy (and accordingly likes to reference muses that embody lofty ideals of femininity), the former more often deals in reality, attending to the small details that might make a shirt better suited for travel or a pair of trousers more forgiving. It is just one of the reasons so few women have pursued men’s wear as fervently as Nichanian has: A career spent obsessing over cuff lengths and waistbands to millimeter degrees is not the dream that typically propels people of any gender through fashion school.
If she stuck largely to modern variations on suiting through the 1990s — casual check wool jackets with suede paneling, patchwork leather waistcoats — by the early 2000s, fashion’s mood was more relaxed, and Nichanian made clear her talent for imaginatively layering subtly sporty separates. Her spring 2006 collection, for instance, featured combinations that have recurred throughout her subsequent offerings: 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 everything from button-downs to vests. And while her ’90s-era collections, which bore the strong imprint of her time in the Italian tailoring world, tended to stick to the earthy palette dictated by traditional fabrics such as leather and tweed, in the 2000s, Nichanian looked increasingly to America and Japan for inspiration and began experimenting with lightweight textiles (high-tech ribbed knits and resilient synthetic weaves), as well as color: a lilac cashmere pullover, airy pistachio linen pants, a cable-knit turtleneck the color of a sandy beach. These shades — fresh and evocative of summer — have become immediately recognizable as Nichanian’s and emblematic of one of the defining emotions behind her collections: joy.
Nichanian delights in her work and understands how lucky 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 almost bashful sincerity. As Jean-Louis Dumas promised, she experiences a remarkable level of freedom. His son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, who has been Nichanian’s boss since 2005, has similarly placed his trust 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 conversation that extends far beyond fashion, and in 2008 he expanded her role to artistic director of its men’s universe. Today, she says, her job resembles that of a conductor, ensuring that each section is contributing to a harmonious whole.
When the pandemic hit last year, that task became more of a challenge. Social distancing measures meant the various men’s teams couldn’t work together in person or present their products to a live audience as usual. For Nichanian, though, this created an opportunity. She and her team of seven designers were forced to confront their customers’ needs more directly than ever: What do people want to wear when they’re barely leaving their apartments? The resulting collections, for spring and fall 2021, were among Nichanian’s most finely tuned and desirable to date, balancing solutions for the present (a work-from-home ensemble of forgiving but sophisticated dove gray poplin drawstring pants worn with a slouchy light blue twill jacket, a cross between a pajama top 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 with her team almost every day, as they did before the pandemic. (The afternoon I visit, it’s sushi from a nearby restaurant.) She thinks of her team as family, which reflects not only their closeness — she’s worked with several of its members for over a decade — but also her understanding of Hermès as a “very human house,” run by an actual family that values the people they employ. One testament to this is that she is herself able to spend real time with her husband, with whom she lives in a Haussmannian apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement and to whom she’s been married for two decades. On the weekends, they drive to their country house in Sancerre, where they read (Nichanian, who is currently reading the novel “Les Enfants Sont Rois” by the French writer Delphine de Vigan, is on the jury for the Prix du Roman News literary award), scour local flea markets and host friends, most of whom do not work in fashion. He is the only man, she jokes, who protests when she tries to give him “another Hermès sweater.”
After our interview, she ushers me into the ballroom so I can watch the fittings and see the new collection up close. Racks of clothes in subtle neutrals and Mediterranean colors (sunflower yellow, sky blue, bougainvillea pink) line the high white walls. She pulls out a pale turquoise shirt cut from Toilovent, an almost impossibly smooth and lightweight synthetic fabric she developed for the house in 1999, printed with a classic bridle-inspired Hermès motif, and a smoke gray work jacket made from a new material: a soft, textured suede that is in fact a typically discarded byproduct from the process of preparing alligator skin. She describes how a white cotton blazer patterned with tiny cobalt flowers is flexible enough to be thrown in a beach bag and worn later into town, still slightly crumpled. Nearby, a model 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 mostly male stylists and designers at work — several of them wearing an Hermès scarf tied loosely around their neck — I’m reminded of how Nichanian explained to me, weeks before, the way she wants her clothes to make men feel. “I don’t want to change them,” she said. “I just want to make them feel their best, their most charming, comfortable and smart.” To be a woman focused on the improvement of men is, in many ways, a strange job. But designing men’s clothes has been her own path to freedom and fulfillment. She recalls thinking as a teenager, “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
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