Fashion: She has designs on men

Meet Veronique Nichanian, the woman behind the menswear at the luxurious house of Hermes. By Alix Sharkey
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The Independent Culture
According to received wisdom, real men dislike "beautiful" clothes, distrust luxury fabrics, prefer shirts and ties to knitwear, and value comfort over style. But Veronique Nichanian, the 41-year-old female designer behind Hermes' menswear collection, has stood this wisdom on its head over the last few years. Her menswear designs for the prestigious Parisian label are luxurious and colourful, feel good against the skin, flatter the male body in a way one might expect (whisper it) of women's clothes - yet retain a distinctive manliness.

"Traditionally, there are two kinds of luxury menswear," says Nick Sullivan, the associate fashion editor of the men's magazine Arena. "The Savile Row thing, which is beautiful but stiff, and the Italian luxury look, which is softer and more colourful, but seems rather camp to Englishmen. Hermes is remarkable because it represents the best of both."

Just off the Place de la Concorde runs the rue du Faubourg St Honore, one of the world's more exclusive shopping streets. Halfway down stands the century-old Hermes building. This is not your average department store; an elderly lady in a floor-length fur coat can stroll across the marble floors with a pair of greyhounds on a leash, as she did during my visit, and nobody bats an eyelid.

Six floors up is Veronique Nichanian's atelier, where she works with a team of four assistants to create two collections of around 350 new pieces every year. Dressed in black from cashmere cardigan to pigskin loafers, Nichanian is the epitome of a no-nonsense businesswoman. Yet there is something bashful and girlish about the way she confesses to graduating top of her class at I'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de Couture Parisienne, the country's most prestigious fashion college.

"It was very classic, very strict, very Parisian, not at all like the conventional idea of fashion college. Very precise and fastidious." Her training left her with an obsession for quality, and a hatred of the ephemeral that must make her a ruthless taskmaster. At one point she actually scowls and says, "I detest anything badly made. It is so unnecessary."

After graduating, she landed a job assisting the legendary Italian designer Nino Cerutti. It was her first experience of designing for men. "I realised that menswear is a much more subtle kind of design. Women's fashions can be extreme, even somewhat ridiculous, and still be amusing. With menswear it's much more disciplined - you have to work harder on little details."

Spending six months of every year in Italy, she developed the passion for luxury fabrics which has become the hallmark of her own work, scouting the best hand-loomed wools in Ireland, or cashmere in Italy, and building contacts across the European textile industry. Though she religiously avoids fashion shows, she says, her great joy is Premiere Vision, the Parisian fabric fair. "I practically live there while it's on. It's not just business for me; I meet lots of old friends, and make new ones."

Her insistence on keeping a low profile, and the fact that she is the sole female to design menswear for a major French label, adds to her mystique. Unlike most designers, who fall over themselves for any kind of publicity, Nichanian guards her privacy carefully. She will happily talk about work, but family life is not on the agenda.

"She's well-known inside the business, but hardly at all outside," says Olivia Pomp, the fashion director of Esquire magazine. "Those in the industry hold her in awe, because they know how good she is. She's not shy but she's simply not interested in being famous."

Pomp believes Nichanian has made a virtue of being a female working in menswear. "Designers often design what they'd like to wear. Veronique, as a woman, clearly doesn't do that, so she can abstract herself one step further. That gives her a perspective, a vision that many male designers lack."

Nichanian says she tries to design in an "atemporal" style. "There is an evolution, a gradual change. But you can always put my clothes together, even if you buy them two or three seasons apart."

Nick Sullivan agrees that this is one of the label's strengths. "Unlike most French menswear labels," he says, "Hermes has been able to modernise, to sail above this problem of marketing luxury and quality in an age of mass taste. That's due to Nichanian, and her ability to insinuate fashionable ideas into the collection without looking like she's changing her mind every five minutes."

Though Hermes refuses to divulge figures for menswear sales, Nichanian has undoubtedly played a significant part in the company's outstanding financial growth. When it was floated in 1994, the French family firm had a market value of pounds 400m. Today it is closer to pounds 2bn, and profits have more than doubled, to pounds 85m. Meanwhile, shares have surged by over 550 per cent - a performance unrivalled on the Paris markets by any stock apart from junk bonds.

Unlike rival luxury labels, it has resisted venturing into the mass market with franchised stores or sub-contracted production, the traditional route to profit through branding. Instead, Hermes places itself among the ultra- rich in every corner of the globe. Across Europe, where it generates nearly half of all its business, the demand for certain goods means that even its wealthiest customers often join a waiting list of several months for certain items.

Hermes is enjoying a period of exceptional growth. Stores have recently opened in Hamburg, Antwerp and Turin, and from 21 December, Manchester will have its very own Hermes shop.