HEART & SOUL
Avril Mair meets Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, the cool, calm, creative force behind the global success of Hermès
From its elegant equestrian attire to the most sought-after handbags in the world, Hermès has been dedicated to design since it was founded in 1837.
Today, its artistic director Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski celebrates this rich heritage, while also bringing her own assured vision and creative integrity to the fabled French brand
To say that Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski is a study in discreet refinement would be something of an understatement. The artistic director of womenswear at Hermès has an official biography that’s only 55 words long, simply noting her education and experience without any elaboration. There’s no stroking of ego here. Then again, Vanhee-Cybulski – unusually and utterly refreshingly – seems to be able to operate in the upper echelons of the fashion industry without any apparent ego. As a designer, she isn’t interested in making her life the story. We don’t dress up in her celebrity. The work, with quiet assurance, simply speaks for itself.
In many ways, VanheeCybulski is like the clothes she creates: clever and considered, elegant and meticulous. In many ways, she’s also like the house for which she’s created since 2014. Hermès has always been about luxury at its most pure and unshowy. No matter how many Birkins the Kardashians stockpile, this family-owned company – founded in 1837, as resonant in French culture as Chanel or Dior – remains intrinsically linked in our consciousness with the incomparable Grace Kelly, after whom its most iconic bag was named. It has integrity and soul. It is about meaningful beauty, unblemished and uncompromised. As VanheeCybulski says, with some reverence: ‘You feel the imprint of the hand that made each object here.’
She is a striking woman, this 40-year-old: pale-skinned and lightly freckled, with a pre-Raphaelite mane of untamed auburn hair. We meet in her office at Pantin in the suburbs of Paris – a mediumsized room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a wildflower garden designed by the landscape architect Louis Benech and planted in the courtyard of the modern Hermès Cité des Métiers complex. She’s wearing Yohji Yamamoto black trousers, possibly men’s, with a navy silk Hermès shirt and simple flat leather sandals. She has the air of an artist or a free-spirited intellectual; warm and gentle, measured and unpretentious, the kind of person whose company you’d treasure as a cultured though slightly bohemian friend. As a designer, however, she’s in charge of a significant part of this heritage house’s business, with the attendant responsibility that comes with it: while Hermès doesn’t release sales figures for shoes, jewellery and clothes individually, the Business of Fashion noted that the company published a statement at the end of the 2015 fiscal year crediting ‘the success of the latest readyto-wear collections, especially of Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski’s first collection’, for the combined category’s sales of $1.1 billion. In March 2018, this figure had risen to $1.18 billion. ‘I don’t know how responsible creative people are,’ she says, ‘but I really have a sense of duty. It’s about perpetuating a great know-how – and nurturing it too. It’s a beautiful dialogue. This is a place where I’m always invited to bring creation and innovation. Nothing is untouchable.’
Vanhee-Cybulski was born in Lille, northern France, in 1978; she studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp before developing that extraordinary, minimalist CV that extends to only three brands before Hermès: Maison Margiela, Céline and the Row. But oh, what brands they are! All share a common sensibility – a kind of feminist modernism that’s stripped back to a chic pragmatism. The romance of the everyday, if you like: a determination to make clothes that are both beautiful and useful. Vanhee-Cybulski says she learnt different things at each brand, but together it adds up to a specific and unique point of view. ‘I think I work with empathy, in a sort of visceral way,’ she says. ‘It’s a very intimate connection with clothes, which you don’t really have with other things. In this era, when fashion is oriented so strongly towards marketing, it’s important to be grounded.’
Vanhee-Cybulski’s role at Hermès, as she explained when she first joined the brand, is ‘about bringing ready-to-wear to the 21st