i-D spoke to menswear designer Véronique Nichanian in the City of Angels.
You didn't have to search long for subliminal social messages during January's fall/winter 17 men's shows. Call it the Winter of Love: fashion's immediate answer to a cynical 2016. For Hermès, the only thing more powerful than ringing out its Paris show to The Beatles's "All You Need Is Love" was taking it on the road, to the eye of the political hurricane, to the United States of America.
They're doing so on a sunny March evening in Los Angeles where they've blocked off a few streets in the city's diverse Downtown area for an impressive stateside encore of Véronique Nichanian's spring/summer 17 show, simply titled DWNTWN. "I don't want to talk about politics or economy," the 62-year-old menswear designer — now on her 29th year at Hermès — says over coffee at Chateau Marmont on the morning of the show. Nor does she have to. Like the vast majority of the designers who make up our industry, her concerns as far as world affairs go are pretty clear. To Hermès, this enormous orchestration half way across the globe from its Parisian headquarters isn't about rioting but about lifting the global spirit. "I'm a very optimistic person and I'm convinced that this is a fantastic time for innovation and possibility — for Europe and France, too," Nichanian says.
Classy and lovely with a great bob, she's dressed her petite frame in the handsome elegance she's been refining for nearly three decades at Hermès; the leather goods empire with the equestrian roots, which is hardly reliant on its ready-to-wear but has been turning up the volume on the clothes front recently, both on Nichanian's runway and — just the other day in Paris — in the spirited fall/winter 17 collection of her womenswear counterpart Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski. Yes, things are going well for the 180-year-old French powerhouse, and now it's hitting LA to flex its influential muscle — just don't mention the war, as the Brits say. "Let's go above and look further and give our life more lightness," Nichanian smiles. She's been coming to LA once a year for over a decade. That evening, after an adventurous bus ride through LA traffic, she's turning that notion into an urban oasis on Spring Street. Graffiti-soaked warehouse walls frame her backstreet runway. Everywhere, slogan posters by graphic artist Anthony Burrill — already an Hermès collaborator — are telling you to "Shake Me Up," that "I like it, what is it?" And perhaps most poignant, "It all makes sense."
To Nichanian, showing her invigorating spring/summer 17 collection in LA, with its lightweight fabrication, punches of bright yellow and 60s tie-dye prints, makes it all fall into place. "Masculinity doesn't define the things that matter to me in my work — it's the lightness and timelessness. It's not a male category, I don't like the genre of classifications like that. I try to express something and touch different kinds of men, in terms of sensuality, materials, coloration, construction. It's not a question of age, of body, of types of men," Nichanian says. "But yeah, I think the men here, they feel good, they feel themselves and they express themselves, maybe much more than in some other parts of the US." Is that why she's taking the show to LA? "Life here seems light, with the sun and the blue skies. Everything looks simple and easy-going." She's not talking about Beverly Hills with its white Rolls-Royces, inflated cleavages, and platform heels, even if the luxury allure of Hermès might fall in the favor of those LA residents. The West Coast lifestyle adapted on this evening by the Parisian fashion institution is the free-spirited, all-inclusive spirit of unity embodied by the surfers and rock 'n' rollers, who made LA their own in the 60s.
It's the "Good Vibrations" of The Beach Boys, who wrote that song in 1966 amidst American wars and political assassinations, a year after The Rolling Stones — a musical favorite of Nichanian's — had taken California by storm on their first world tour. "When I listen to The Rolling Stones, who are 70 years old, I feel their music very strongly," she says. "Young people still listen to this kind of music, and for me it's still very right. When I put on an old Beatles song tonight for the show — "All You Need Is Love" — I'm thinking, this is something we should remember." Indeed, following 2016 the fashion zeitgeist quickly looked to the collective mood of opportunity and optimism of the 60s— something very much expressed in the Space Age momentum of the fall/winter 17 women's shows, which drew to a close just two days before Hermès is taking LA. "It was a very light period. Let's go back to these values, or just remember these values and try to focus on them," Nichanian reflects. Zeitgeists aside, at the very heart of this company lies a life-affirming sense of eccentricity, which isn't always expressed in its products but very much runs the ship that is Hermès.
Inspired by his father's jovial approach to commerce, the company's delightful CEO Axel Dumas — the sixth generation to run the family business alongside his Artistic Director cousin Pierre-Alexis Dumas — believes that a sense of fun and togetherness can easily go hand-in-hand with selling the world's finest luxury goods. It's a philosophy expressed not only in events like Hermès DWNTWN in LA, but across the board. From an outsider's perspective the notion is, whether you're the person hand-making, selling, or buying a £6,000 Birkin bag (that also comes with a waiting list), you might as well enjoy it. "To some people it's so statuaire, so grand and bourgeois, but inside we are eccentric and crazy," Nichanian explains. "And we're like that because inside, these are the feelings that give us energy. I don't like boring people. I like a sense of humor, I like just having fun." And so, at the Hermès party that night, after the show featuring a cast of current top boys like Finnlay Davis and Serge Rigvava mixed with real-life Hermès wearers like MoMA director Philippe Vergne and chef Ari Taymor, everyone is taking part in interactive games around the outdoor space and listening to a live performance by Cold War Kids.
No one, of course, is pretending that the locals of Downtown LA can go crazy in the Hermès store on Rodeo Drive on any given Thursday (on the afternoon before the show it's mainly populated by sportswear-clad Yolanda Hadid clones on a quick shop stop back from the gym) but simply that Hermès represents ideals open to all. This isn't some stuffy old luxury giant resting on its fabulous print scarf laurels, but a living fashion organism that moves with the times, reflects them, and does its humble part to try and affect them, too. And as if a story on an event called DWNTWN was going to end without an ode to Petula Clark's evergreen of the same title (amazed we made it this far without it, really) nothing could ring truer for Véronique Nichanian's sentiments than those immortal lyrics: "Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, so go downtown where all the lights are bright," the Singing Sweetheart belched in 1965. "Downtown! Waiting for you tonight. Downtown! You're gonna be alright now."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Edouard Caupeil