The Wizard of Oz is never who you think he (or she) is. And inside Paris, the emerald city of fashion, behind a curtain in a fitting room, on the third floor above the famed Hermès store on rue Faubourg St. Honoré and rue Boissy d’Anglas, stands a petite brunette with dark bangs who’s been driving men’s fashion for the past three decades as chief designer for menswear at Hermes.
Five US presidents, four French presidents have come and gone, young designers have skyrocketed and cratered, luxury houses have been bought, sold or filed for bankruptcy, and yet Veronique Nichanian endures – still designing suits, jackets, shirts, anything she thinks will help a man express himself better.
And just like the Wizard of Oz, Veronique’s goals is to let everyman find his own courage, brain, or heart when it comes to style. Because to her, a man’s wardrobe should be an extension of himself. Fashion errors to her are charming (because they show audacity and guts). Clothes should mimic how you live, and no, don’t ask her if she’s in “la mode,” because she’s not. “I make clothes. It’s different.”
Hermès’s DNA comes from it’s old horse saddle days. It’s a low-key house with nothing to prove and nobody to impress, and within this environment, Veronique has thrived, blessed with quality materials and the ultimate luxury for any designer, time. Everything is in the texture which Veronique thinks gives her clothing an emotional element. They have identities, sometimes double identities, where jackets turn inside out, secret pockets lurk inside blazers, and the feel and fit of an item is as important as the cut and the form.
Veronique wants you to see the object over the long haul. And don’t worry. That Hermès leather jacket will be here long after you’re gone. Veronique probably will as well. She’s fashion’s diminutive wizard, one who shuns the red carpets and the celebrity hob knobbing, content instead to crank out beauty twice a year, from her small perch atop the kingdom of men’s fashion.
But don’t let the daunting reputation fool you. Just walk up and tell Veronique what you want. Chances are she’ll grant your wish.
JvS: It’s gloomy out there— is it tough to create when the world’s on fire?
VN: It’s tough. Here we are making clothes and peo ple are outside killing each other. When I first started at Hermès, around the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, I had a conversation with Jean-Louis Dumas, the head of Hermès, and he told me, “Only beauty can save the world. That’s what’s going to pull people back up.”
JvS: How do you do that?
VN: This season I wanted to change the discussion, to talk about light, positive things. That’s why I went with really bright colors. Something that wakes you up like the sun.
JvS: What do you aim for with your designs?
VN: I want my clothes to talk to the person wearing them. That’s my signature. For example, a lot of my clothes have this glove-like leather inside the pocket. It’s a secret detail. Nobody knows there’s expensive leather inside the pocket except for you. It’s my way of talking softly to men.
JvS: Do you try to anticipate trends?
VN: No. I’m more interested in cultivating a style than trying to capture a look in the future. I like when men mix stuff from two years ago with stuff from five years ago.
JvS: Do you analyze men’s clothes on the street?
VN: That’s my day job. It doesn’t carry over. I prefer bad taste and fashion failures because I find them super charming. It’s like a crooked nose or a knocked-out tooth. It’s the expression of oneself.
How do the French dress compared with Americans?
The French have a free spirit. I always think of Serge Gainsbourg—that nonchalant chic. I find that less with the Americans. But then the Americans invented sportswear, which is a super intelligent way of living. Comfort is essential in men’s wear. As a woman, I can wear a tight-fitting dress and it’s okay, it’s sexy, and I’ll live. With a man, it’s not the same. If you don’t feel like yourself, that’s a real problem. A man is seductive when he’s feeling good about himself. And Americans are very good at that.
JvS: Do you worry some men are intimidated by the brand?
VN: Maybe they have an old vision of Hermès, or the stores intimidate them, but that’s the great thing about the Internet—you can visit these clothes without feeling intimidated. I think Americans like stuff with a sense of humor, and that’s exactly what I like doing. To have fun around the clothes.
JvS: Have you ever thought of working somewhere else?
VN: I could have gone else-where, but this is like a long, beautiful relationship. Hermès gives me the luxury of time. Here we say, “Time makes things.” And nowadays especially, it’s important to have time to try things, to express oneself, to innovate.