Inside the genius, idealistic, cluttered mind of the creative head of accessory label Moynat

Inside the genius, idealistic, cluttered mind of the creative head of accessory label Moynat

Method in madness

Text: Jolene Khor

Six years after its brand revival, Moynat's artistic director Ramesh Nair reflects on his journey in rebuilding one of luxury's oldest empires

Pop quiz.

Who was the first person to walk on the moon in 1969? If you answered Neil Armstrong, you probably paid attention in history class. Let's raise the bar. What about the first person to win the first Pulitzer Price? Jean Jules Jusserand, a French ambassador, bagged it in 1917 by writing about American history. And the first trunk maker in the world? Many would put their money on Louis Vuitton. François Goyard would be an even better guess. They would be wrong. 

The name was Moynat. Pauline Moynat. In 1849, four and five years pre-Goyard and Vuitton respectively, Moynat carved her place in history with the founding of her Parisian house in a humble workshop during the ritzy Belle Époque. Not too long after filing the first patent for her waterproof canvas, she opened her first boutique, situated opposite the iconic theatre house Comédie Française, where she would meet friend and muse, actress Gabrielle Réjane.

Her label grew healthily into the 20th century, backed by her successful lightweight wicker trunks, hatbox trunks, first collection of ladies' handbags and most notably, the Réjane bag. However, when family business eventually shut its  doors in 1976, the Moynat name simmered. That is until Bernard Arnault of LVMH acquired the rights to Moynat in 2011, hired Ramesh Nair — whose CV includes credits under Hermès, Martin Margiela and Jean-Paul Gaultier — to revive the forgotten maison.

Six years, eight cities and 12 new boutiques later, fashion editor Jolene Khor sits down with the artistic director to find out what it takes to simultaneously build upon a historic legacy and start a modern accessory label from scratch.

Before its comeback in 2011, would you say Moynat was a sleeping giant?
It's not a sleeping giant. It's more like a sleeping midget. [Laughs]

Do you think that slumber did Moynat any good?
They say let sleeping midgets sleep. But it's about time somebody woke us up. A lot of times, you want to revive the past because we're all guilty of romanticising it, like when you see a black and white photograph. There's so much in the past that is beautiful, but there's also a lot of ugly. It's a more democratised time now, but back then, the people in the production of leather goods were piss poor. Those who could afford to buy fashion enjoyed a great life but the workers didn't. It's good that we have moved on, have slumbered, and to open our eyes to a world where people have changed, customers have changed, the quality of life has changed. The present is a lot more beautiful that way.

The first Moynat boutique at 5, Place du Théâtre Français.

Tell me about the journey in Moynat's revival. Surprises? Challenges?
The fact that we started at zero, or close to zero, was most difficult. It's not like we were taking over Saint Laurent and we have all the archival materials to help us tweak the Smoking Jacket. We don't have those resources at Moynat. And then there were the matter of suppliers who wouldn't touch us with a ten-foot pole. We were an unknown brand; we only had one store and our supplies are limited. Why would a tannery work with us? We had a battle plan but the list kept growing; every time I had solutions, I find 15 more problems. People ask me why I insist on taking the hard way out but I have no regrets.

What are some of those "hard way outs" that you have opted for?
There are certain leathers that don't exist anymore, nobody knows anything about them. So asking the tannery to make something they stopped doing in the '60s... everyone who knows about it is retired. The archives were not kept or they exchanged hands then got lost, and the kind of skins you get now are different because of the chemicals we use aren't the same.

Why is that challenge important for you to overcome?
There are brands — that made trunks once upon a time — making cloth bags now, or companies that make haute couture and fantastic clothes, that are just selling bags today. I keep getting surprised when I see companies, which have absolutely no relationship with accessories, jumping into accessories.

An ad of Theatre du Vaudeville for the play 'La Passerelle' featuring the leading actress Gabrielle Rejane, Pauline Moynat's muse, carrying a Moynat frame bag.

Your theory reminds me of the popular phrase, "Jack of all trades, master of none".
It's human nature I suppose. If you're good at making cakes and your neighbour who makes coffee starts selling more than you, you try to add coffee onto your menu. But why don't you make your cakes better so the customer buys your cake and sits to have coffee next door? I don't know why the mentality isn't in putting the effort into your speciality instead of dipping your fingers everywhere.

You're here to rebuild an empire.
Maybe I'm not going to be around to see how far we can go, but we have laid a very strong foundation. When I go around Singapore, I see some of the old colonial buildings still standing; they look amazing. They're not eyesores as opposed to some ugly thing we saw in the '70s and '80s.

And you want to do the same for Moynat?
We like to talk about timelessness. You wear a T-shirt for hundreds of years and you don't feel bored, you don't think it's outdated. You don't wait for the next cycle to come through — that's what makes it beautiful. I'm not saying everybody should have that approach to fashion, or to bags, but if you can, why not?

The new Réjane bag in Crocodile Céramique. Each bag takes 20 hours of construction time, including 8 wax applications, from start to finish.

Pauline Moynat was the first trunk-maker, ever. How do you intend on preserving her feminine strength through your designs?
She worked in a male dominated area, dealing with leather and trunks and things requiring serious muscles. In my notes, I write about masculinity and femininity, and blurring the lines between the two; it's a very core part of how I design. There are colours that are very feminine and silhouettes that are structured, which show her strong personality. Women should not be portrayed as softer or more fragile. If you don't have the yin, you don't have the yang; one cannot exist without the other.

Earlier, you alluded to the lack of archival support in Moynat. What happened?
This was a family business that sort of disappeared when the last person passed on in the '70s. We're still locating some of the old pieces in France, across homes in Europe. It's quite sad and a bit melancholic because I do the flea market treasure hunts often. Because I'm a regular in the circuit now, people call me up every other day to tell me they've found possibly Moynat pieces in attics and garages, and I'll pay them a visit. 

A Moynat advertisement promoting its trunks from the late 1920s.

What is luxury to you? Is it in priceless Moynat antiques that money can't necessarily buy anymore?
Nothing. It means nothing to me. It's a stupid word, one that's been overanalysed and killed. When a word is used in a very common way and used all the time, it loses its meaning. It must have meant something, presented a certain level of necessity at some point in time, but nowadays everything is luxurious, it makes no sense. The path to luxury is more important than the end product.

Why is that so?
Because the real meaning of luxury is a formula of time, effort, energy and material. Everything else, like price, is relative; what is cheap to one person may not be cheap to somebody else, what is expensive to one person may not be even be remotely interesting to somebody else.

Nair continues to recover vintage Moynat trunks recovered around Europe.

What are your thoughts about luggage versus baggage?
Everything is a baggage; our personal belongings are baggage. As humans we find it very difficult to let go of things, whether it's a light or a heavy baggage. I admire people who are not only carry less luggage but less baggage also.

Why? Are you a hoarder?
Oh I'm a serious hoarder. [Laughs] At this rate I don't know what I'm going to do.

What do you hoard?
Everything. Just about everything. I hoard books, knick-knacks, bottles... I have stones at home.

Semi-precious stones?
No. Big, big pieces of stones. Rocks. I also collect windows and doors I see on the streets. I had a fixation of putting doors around the house, and it just confused people — they'd not know which is a real door and which is a fake door. Initially I found it funny, but at some point I realised it's going to cause some psychological problems.

Are clothes an exception from your hoarding?
I buy clothes in Japan. I buy costumes, I buy old clothes.

What do you do with them? Do you look at them for inspiration?
No. I have suitcases packed with stuff. Hardly unpacked. People have requested to do photo shoots at my place and it's impossible; it'll take me 60 years to tidy up. I have piles and piles and piles of books, of speakers, furniture.

Has anything from your personal collection inspired you?
I have a cricket ball from my childhood. I got hurt from it — I still have a bump on my head from that incident — but the leather, the stitching on the ball, was what inspired me to work with leather in the first place.