Véronique Nichanian is sick. Not as in, super rad and awesome, which she is — helming the Hermès men's universe as artistic director for 27 years — but sick as in red-nosed and sniffly. Nichanian is down with a cold, and so am I.
"You're sick too?" she asks, rather concerned. "I have a whole bag of drugs for you."
A large zip-lock bag of pills and packets appears on the table.
"What symptoms do you have?"
"Runny rose, sore throat and congested sinus," I reply.
"Okay, take this." A green metallic sachet is passed my way, inscribed with indecipherable kanji.
"Japanese drugs are the best," says Nichanian with a flourish and a whip of her right hand. "It will help your throat and clear your sinus. And take a picture of this. Buy it at a pharmacy and you'll feel better for tonight."
We're seated on the seventh floor of the Hermès Ginza store in Tokyo. An ivory tower constructed entirely of square translucent bricks; like staring through a rain-drenched window, it teases with blurred silhouettes and smudges of colour, hinting at its covetable creations without revealing their identity, inviting you to enter. And when Nichanian refers to "tonight", she's talking about 'The Nature of Men' event by Hermès taking place at Haneda International Airport.
"I just arrived into Tokyo myself and started sneezing," shares Nichanian. "So I went out and bought all these drugs. Do you have a headache? This is great for headaches." She points to a white carton in her stash.
"It's okay, I have taken some painkillers already," I respond, thanking her for the green sachets.
"Okay, just let me know. That was mint flavour. But I also have melon if you want?"
Internal dialogue: Who is this lady? A menswear designer or a general practitioner?
As if reading my thoughts: "I can talk about menswear and fabric innovation all day," she says, and then with a grin, "but I can talk about medication all day too."
Never one to do things by half measures, Hermès has booked out an entire aircraft hangar to showcase its fall/winter 2016 menswear collection in Tokyo — building a city of 12 structures; each representing a different facet of its men's universe — for select clients and media, for one night only. Inspired by the colour-blocked illustrations of Nigel Peake, everything is bright and bespoke: There's a whisky bar serving cold cuts and cheeses; an arcade games room for guests to play 'Sharkman' (think: Pacman, but you're running away from a shark icon — the same motif on the maison's Bolide bag shown on the FW16 runway); a bedroom plastered with Hermès shoes hammered into the floor, ceiling, and walls; a music store called 'Silk Records' playing vintage records covered in, you guessed it, Hermès silk; and towering above this little metropolis, a yellow chimney blowing out bubbles. Magical.
Overheard after the event, an exchange between two male partygoers, through the nasal drawl of unmistakably American accents: "That felt right. That felt good." Yes it did. Yes it was. After almost three decades of designing clothes and accessories for men, it's clear that Nichanian knows what guys want.
So over glasses of water, and inbetween blowing our noses, here's what I learnt about men — and other life lessons — from the esteemed Hermès artistic director. Some people call it 'wisdom', but I'm calling it 'Nichanian knowledge'.
MEN DON'T WANT LUXURY
Why? Because through overuse, luxury has lost its lustre.
Nichanian knowledge: "The word luxury doesn't have a meaning anymore. I believe that we live in a period where everything is very superficial and everybody says, 'This is a luxury brand, this is a luxury food, this is a luxury car, this is a luxury perfume.' I don't think this is real luxury. For me, what is more important is time. Time is needed to create something of quality and value. For something to be luxurious, in the real sense of the word, it has to be long-lasting and you need to have time to do research and innovate."
"For example you can say, 'I have a cashmere jacket.' But the material itself can be just forty euros a metre but the ones that I use are cashmere that would cost something around 180 euros a metre. When you touch them, you can feel the difference. But both of these jackets will still be called 'cashmere jackets'. Same name, but the reality is they're different. So the words are actually hiding different realities."
SEE-NOW-BUY-NOW IS A MARKETING SCAM
Why? Because the men that buy Hermès, are men who want to buy something that lasts.
Nichanian knowledge: "I think that see-now-buy-now is not really in the values of Hermès. What we have always done is work with time and timelessness, and see-now-buy-now is more like a marketing idea where you want people to buy and consume. So we have an approach that has been quite different. We've always tried to show that time is necessary to build the perfect fabric, to work on the details, to finalise all the little things. This has always been our message. And when somebody buys an Hermès suit, or any Hermès piece, usually they want it to last, that it's not going to be just for one season. It's going to accompany that person for a long time."
"For one of the rooms at The Nature of Men event, we've asked friends and journalists to lend us Hermès jackets that they've bought — maybe two years ago or 20 years ago — and to show how these leather jackets have changed with time for the better. They have developed a beautiful patina."
MEN CAN BE GREAT AND GOOD
Why? Because the quote from Charles Colton — the English cleric and writer who said, "In life we shall find many men that are great, and some men that are good, but very few men that are both great and good" — no longer holds true. We're more confident and comfortable in our skin now, compared to the social strictures of the past, to better express ourselves.
Nichanian knowledge: "In the 19th century, when Colton was alive, there were more social conventions about what men should wear, which might not necessarily reflect who they were. At that time, you might have men who were called elegant, but not smart, and smart people who didn't have enough money to be elegant. Right now, things have changed, men have much more freedom and there's more tolerance in society for self-expression. They reflect what's inside, whatever their age, whatever their physical appearance, whatever the job. Men are now more attentive to their own body, which is a good thing, and what has changed is the way they look at themselves."
"I want men to feel well in the clothes I design, because if you feel well in the clothes, then you can express your own self, and that is very important. I don't like clothes that change you. I don't like people who say, 'Well, I have a total look from this brand. And therefore I feel good.' This is not how things work actually. I really believe that it is important that you can express and put forward your own character, and you can maybe just take one piece of the Hermès collection and mix it with other brands, and express your real self. This is what is great."
DIGITAL IS ONLY PART OF THE STORY
Why? Digital amplifies the brand, but you have to feel the product to love it.
Nichanian knowledge: "Digital should be about getting people excited about the brand and bringing them into the stores. Communicating the brand digitally is good, because you can see things more easily and it's very convenient, but also we see that people who shop online, they still go to our stores to feel the products. We are a very material house, and my work is very sensual."
"I think shopping online and shopping in-store are really two different experiences, and they're complementary. If you shop online, it doesn't mean that you won't go to a real shop. But, of course, it's very convenient to be able to stay at home and have a quick look at everything online and then say, 'Okay, I'll go and see this and that.'"
THE FUTURE OF MENSWEAR IS IN THE DETAILS
Why? It's the unseen little things that matter most.
Nichanian knowledge: "The future of menswear is not just playing with silhouettes or fabrics. Maybe sometimes the proportions change slowly, but what you don't see on the runway are the little details. I like to have a lot of hidden elements that can only be seen by the person who wears it. For example, there was a jacket I did for last winter that had tattoo embellishments on the inside. And I also included soft lambskin in a pocket that can only be discovered by the wearer."
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. For more columns from @MusingMutley, click here.
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