How Hermès Is Pushing Old-World Luxury into the Future
I am alone in a spaceship, surrounded on all sides by sliding airlock doors. The door in front of me hisses open, and from the inky blackness beyond emerges a pegasus. The majestic white horse trots towards me, massive feathery wings tucked to its sides, and lowers its head. I raise my hand and caress its muzzle as it snorts and paws the ground. The pegasus turns and retreats the way it came, and the room is consumed by a blinding white light. When I come to, I’m floating in outer space, weightless, surrounded by a field of gently drifting asteroids. I bat at one with my gloved hand and it glides off, colliding with another asteroid in a satisfying puff of space dust. The pegasus appears again, soaring through space in the distance.
I’d be happy to remain in this dreamlike world longer — perhaps convince the pegasus to carry me on its back through the frigid nothingness of space — but my time is up and there’s a queue of eager people forming to my left. I pass my VR headset back to an attendant wearing a white jumpsuit and wander away in a daze. Is this the future? It feels like it might be. I’m at a party in what looks like the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one that features cylindrical Ping-Pong tables and a melancholy modern dance show performed by a pair of giant wobbly chess pieces. This isn’t the future, it turns out — it’s Shanghai in 2018. This isn’t just any party, either. It’s the Hermès Men’s Universe.
The evening kicks off with a restaging of the Hermès Spring/Summer 2018 menswear show, cast with up-and-coming Chinese artists, chefs, architects, and TV stars. There is a performance by UK rock band Park Hotel, food trucks and, of course, a plethora of bags, leather jackets, and suits on display. With the futuristic title “Fast Forward,” tonight’s party is the latest in an annual series of Men’s Universe events designed to show off the craftsmanship and inspiration behind Hermès’ menswear.
But before any of this happens, Véronique Nichanian, the artistic director of the brand’s men’s division, is seated in a lounge overlooking the event space, a soaring former Shanghai Expo pavilion that will soon fill with 2,000 Chinese customers, influencers, and media, all of whom are anticipating a spectacle. The set Nichanian envisioned for the party is a series of retro-futuristic lounges and experiential spaces done up in a style inspired by her favourite sci-fi movies, among them Blade Runner and the original Star Wars. It’s an unconventional approach to selling belts, bespoke car interiors, and carry-alls, but Hermès is a company that prides itself on being unconventional.
Founded in 1836, Hermès is among the oldest of the major luxury brands, and one that has maintained close contact with its roots. Originally a harness maker, it still does a brisk business selling a full line of equestrian gear to the horse-and-bridle set. Remarkably, they are also still family-owned, and thus relatively free from the pressures that have caused other brands to sacrifice quality in favour of sustained growth. Hermès is growing rapidly, but instead of subcontracting work to factories in Asia, it makes all of its products at more than 50 facilities it owns and operates, most of which are in France (the rest are scattered across the US, UK, Switzerland, and Italy). With each new atelier, Hermès selects a small town and rigorously trains the local workforce in the art of cutting silk and stitching saddles. Almost 80,000 people applied to the company in 2017, of which a fraction were accepted to attend Leather School, Silk School, and its other in-house programs that prepare them to become master craftspeople. In this way, Hermès ensures both that everything it sells is made to an impossibly high standard and that Hermès will have enough skilled artisans to sustain it for generations to come. “Hermès is not a house that shouts and makes big advertising and says, ‘We are the best!’” Nichanian says vehemently. “We are not playing the same game as the other people.”
Nichanian wants to show her guests a good time tonight, but she’s also here to demonstrate to them this distinction. The runway show later that evening bears this out in its procession of elegant, effortlessly casual menswear. While the season’s boxy shirts and high-waisted trousers drape luxuriously on the models parading down the runway, it’s only up close that one can truly appreciate the clothes’ craft. A baseball-stitched jacket in cognac leather is almost unimaginably soft to the touch, as are the cottons and silks that make up much of the collection. Nary a thread is out of place. While Hermès is known for its work in leather, the most striking pieces in the collection are cut from a shimmering jewel-toned polyester dubbed “Toilbright.” This proprietary fabric developed by Nichanian looks like the kind of thing you’d see worn by the residents of a Martian colony, but it’s also what she means when she talks about Hermès’ approach to crafting luxury.
“I love leather and cashmere, but when I travel I want to have something light and rainproof,” she explains. “Polyester is the best thing for that. So I designed a very special polyester.” Be it cotton or calfskin, Nichanian says, anything can be made into an object of desire, with the right eye for quality, fabrication, and detail. In cashmere, you have beautiful cashmere and very cheap cashmere…when you touch it, you feel it,” she says. “I’m not stuck in the 18th century. I’m not living with a horse and carriage anymore, I’m driving a car…so why shouldn’t I use polyester?”
Nichanian’s creative process reveals as much about tonight’s eccentric sci-fi theme as it does about the products she envisions. Her work, she explains, attempts to meet the needs of a certain, ethereal man. “There is not one Hermès man, there are many. I don’t care about the age, or the body,” she says. “We’re working for a new attitude, a new way of living. It’s mixing modern things together with traditional fabrics. It’s the sensibility, the humour and the sophistication. This is what I propose with my clothes.” Much like tonight’s utopian setting, the Hermès man isn’t American, European, or Chinese, she says, but rather a man of a certain, forward-looking sensibility. A man of the future.