WEARING THE PANTS
AS A WOMAN DESIGNING EXCLUSIVELY MENSWEAR FOR A TOP LUXURY BRAND, HERMES’ VERONIQUE NICHANIAN IS IN A MINORITY OF ONE. STARTING IN THE 80S, WHEN THERE WERE EVEN FEWER FEMALE DESIGNERS, SHE HAS SEEN IMMENSE CHANGE IN AN INDUSTRY THAT IS NOW MORPHING FASTER
There are very few female menswear designers in the fashion industry. There is Rei Kawakubo, designer and founder of Comme des Garçons. There is Vivienne Westwood, Ann Demeulemeester and Margaret Howell. Last month Stella McCartney entered this small group and showed her very first menswear collection. There are other names, of course, but one thing all of them have in common is that they also design women’s clothes (and in most cases their men’s line is secondary). When it comes to naming a female designer who only works in men’s fashion the field narrows – in fact, it more or less begins and ends with Véronique Nichanian, designer of menswear at Hermès. Nichanian is a rarity in the fashion world. Not only is she a woman designing men’s clothing, she has been doing it at the same fashion house for the past 28 years. While a perennial game of musical chairs is being played out in the ateliers of the world’s top fashion houses, she is one of the industry’s few constants.
“When I was 14 years old I was always dreaming of designing clothes,” she says. “I’m still doing that and I’m still very happy and excited and I’m never bored. Sometimes I am anxious because I wonder if I will have any more ideas, but at the same time I’m an optimist. I’m very happy here at Hermès, I think they are happy with me, I am doing good numbers so everything is fine. I have not felt the time pass because I am free to play with lots of possibilities and it is like a dream.”
Designer burnout at fashion houses has been attributed to an ever-increasing demand for new products. When it was announced last year that Raf Simons would be stepping down from his position as the creative director of Christian Dior after just 3½ years at the helm, the esteemed fashion critic Suzy Menkes wrote in Vogue that, considering the pressure to produce six collections a year, where once it might have been four, coupled with “the advertising campaigns, personal appearances, store openings, global visits, trunk shows, museum exhibitions, interviews, Instagram – it’s a wonder that any designer is prepared – or able – to keep up the pace.” Nichanian, however, says it’s not just the work pressure, it’s the confusion that that pressure creates for the designer.
“There is so much change at the top because everybody is completely confused,” she says. “They want to be creative but everything is about the number of followers you have on social media. I really don’t understand it – let’s talk about ideas and talent and creativity, not the number of followers someone has. Yes, the times have changed and we have to adapt to many things that are changing around us [but] things are getting so much more rapid and I think this is why designers are confused right now. They don’t know where they are going and they don’t know where they want to go.”
In fairness to some of the designers who have jumped from house to house in recent years, designing women’s fashion is a much tougher game creatively.