She has the reputation of being a quiet designer—a reluctant fashion star who prefers success over celebrity, rarely gives interviews and shies away from social media. But when I meet Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, Hermès’ artistic director of women’s ready-to-wear, on a bitingly cold morning in Paris, she is anything but reserved.
Maybe it’s the double espressos we just sipped at the historic French luxury brand’s headquarters on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré or maybe the designer is finally coming out of her shell. After all, she’s celebrating three years at the famous fashion house since taking over from Christophe Lemaire in 2014.
Vanhee-Cybulski had already earned her fashion stripes working at Maison Martin Margiela and then moving on to roles as senior designer at Céline and women’s design director at The Row, and she rightly deserves her place at the creative helm of Hermès.
Today she is in her element as she runs her hand along a clothing rail showcasing her new collection, fingering the fabrics, stroking the sleeves, admiring the cuffs and collars, like a proud mother inspecting her children before their first day at school.
Looking casually chic in the way only French women can, she’s dressed head to toe in black, with chunky sneakers poking out from beneath a huge, fuzzy black coat, pale skin free of make-up, and wild, windswept auburn hair.
She speaks softly but with intensity. Despite apologising for her “bad English,” she has an evocative way with words. “So, what would you like to know,” she asks. And off we go…
When did your relationship with Hermès begin?
As a French person, I feel Hermès is embedded in our culture—not that we are born with an Hermès bag in our hand, but I was certainly introduced to the house at a very early age. As a child, I remember seeing the beautiful fairytale worlds created by Leila Menchari [the designer of Hermès’ window displays from 1978 to 2013].
Leila’s windows showcased dreams and sparked imaginations. I think speaking directly to their imaginations is the most powerful and efficient way of speaking to people, to customers. I think Hermès is quite unique in doing this. I’ve always felt love for the house, and now I work here!
What’s it like?
How do you work with these other Hermès galaxies?
We work in parallel. We are very autonomous, like a guild of experts. We all work to our own rhythm. We exchange ideas—we engage, we intersect, we create.
When it comes to the bag galaxy, for example, people mainly know the Kelly and the Birkin. Of course we love those bags and we wouldn’t be here without them, but you can’t imagine the array of new creations that exist alongside them.
I work very closely with the leather department in order to have the relevant bags match my collection; it can be new creations or models inspired from the archives.
Do you ever feel there are constraints on your creativity?
Not at all. Hermès’ artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, presents us with a vision, not a restrictive brief. There’s no sanctified concept. It’s like a philosophical riddle, which you must ponder, incorporate with your own reality and then interpret. It’s a generous, rich and amazingly fertile environment. It’s never static.
How do you create movement in your designs?
I like to challenge gravity and play with the way you cut a fabric, the way you direct it. The straight grain has a more controlled attitude, whereas the bias cut is more feminine, it waits for its owner before taking its final shape—then it comes alive.
Does the slowdown of the global luxury market weigh heavily on your mind?
I’m aware, of course. I’m not alone in my ivory tower, sketching and cutting. I think knowledge and understanding of the economic situation are important. You have to be responsible. I think about what I create and how it will be understood.
I am lucky to work for a house driven by the desire to create emotion. The creative people are not exposed to the more commercial challenges. We are asked to make things that are desirable and beautiful. We aren’t about trends—we’re about something more fluid and timeless.
What is timeless beauty to you?
You can’t just create something and say, “this is timeless.” You have to let time itself decide. After 20 years, if it is still as beautiful as the day it was made, then, voila! Quality is also timeless. The very best craftsmanship, the very best materials—these allow Hermès objects to age but never deteriorate, and this to me is also timeless beauty.
How do you make the brand’s history relevant for today? Hermès is a house which is always moving.
It’s very dynamic. The concept of playing is something that is definitely part of its DNA. For example, when people think of an Hermès scarf, they probably think of iconic prints such as Grand Manège or Cavalcadour, which were created by Henri d’Origny [a designer with Hermès since 1958].
I like to take these heritage prints and deconstruct them, open the valves and bring in a bit of air. Create something a bit lighter, fresher.
Do you find technology a help or a hindrance?
I love sketching on my iPhone. They are rough, brutalist, primitive little sketches. I find them comforting. I also love the way the internet has opened a world of images to us. I love compiling my favourites into libraries for inspiration. But I also have a bag full of pens and notepads and paper, so I think I’m a bit of a traditionalist/techie hybrid.
Who do you consider your mentors?
I love the musician Brian Eno, the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs and the filmmaker Orson Welles. I am inspired by the way they pushed boundaries, their progressive way of thinking, their strong vision and how they managed to modernise their chosen fields.
The new Hermès flagship store opens in Landmark Prince’s in Hong Kong on January 11, 2018.
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