Interview by Filep Motwary
I am having a video call with Pierre Hardy, who is known for the various shifts of colour and shape in his work. He appears on the screen wearing a vibrant orange jumper and during our conversation he reveals his fondness for black at a younger age, how he worked simultaneously for Dior and Hermès in his mid-twenties and how dancing and sports formed the man he has become. Confusing? You bet, but his work is creative, constantly flourishing and continues to be copied throughout the world.
FILEP MOTWARY: Thank you for this opportunity. I am sure many people don’t know about your past interests, for example your talent in drawing or that you taught scenography at the ENSATT theatre school and Duperré School of Applied Arts. How did these experiences enable you to focus on shoe design?
PIERRE HARDY: It’s a long process. The scenography, for example, came during the years I was teaching. At the same time I was dancing in a contemporary dance company—a little one but professional with shows, etc.—and because I was deeply involved in the arts, with a deep love for drawing, I was put in charge of the costumes and the visual part of our shows. It was all quite organic. The teaching part was in the middle of everything else I was involved in. Teaching and drawing on one side—a question of space in 2-D—and, on the other, the 3-D with the stage vision and experience. Yet scenography was where these mediums would meet.
During my first job in my early twenties, I suddenly met more and more people who worked in fashion, and in a way I shifted from scenography and stage to fashion. It was through my drawing skills that I got this opportunity; it was one thing I really knew how to do well. So I started doing illustrations—which unfortunately today I don’t do anymore—and that was my drive. It was not only a matter of time, I guess, it was also a matter of occasion. Sometimes I do little drawings for the communication of my work. I regret not doing more, as the first way to present an idea is indeed through drawing. Frankly my favourite moment is when a drawing becomes a real object to be shared with the world.
FM: How did you move from Dior to the Hyères Festival, then Hermès, Balenciaga and Comme Des Garçons?
PH: I was working as an illustrator in a trade office and the woman who was in charge there got herself a new job at Dior as the head of the studio. So I was working with her and the team—that was back in 1987 or so—and she asked me to follow her. I didn’t give it a second thought but I must say I was not aware of Dior’s boldness as a company. Maybe it was not as big as it has become today. Back then the brand was not so focused on commerce and was not so dominated by the market’s needs.
FM: Gianfranco Ferré was the designer back then, right?
PH: Yes, it was Ferré. A year after I was there, someone told me that Hermès was looking for someone to draw their shoes and I soon found myself working for both houses at the same time and there was nothing shocking about it. Can you imagine this happening today?
FM: It sounds almost like Jean Cocteau syndrome…
PH: That’s a big compliment; I would love to be considered as such. Sometimes it saddens me, the lack of links between theatre and fashion, opera or cinema. There were more in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s than there are now. I would love to experience that. And even in the US, through contemporary dance for example, there’s not that much fashion involved. And, speaking of Cocteau, his work was some sort of a passage through fashion, probably because back then fashion was not that “heavy” in terms of business, demand, emergency and urgencies. It was more haute couture than prêt-a-porter and had a freedom in it. Christian Lacroix did something beautiful in opera sometime ago.
FM: Another impressive twist in your career came in 2010 with your Haute Bijouterie collection for Hermès. Decoration has always been embraced by both sexes. Some use it discreetly while others prefer to be bold. What do you prefer and why?
PH: Well, if I had to choose one, it would be boldness, but I tend to shift from one to the other. The shoes or the jewellery I do are not linked at all as they are two different approaches to things to be worn on the body. Yet, both of them are made of stiff material or hardware. In my job, most of the time I have to transform software to hardware, to go from material to immaterial and from something masculine to feminine. But even through a very hard material, something sweet can remain or become the outcome like, for example, when doing a dress in silk chiffon, which is the climax of femininity on the woman’s body. It has lightness, sexuality and eroticism. But, in my case, I work with metal, wood, stone, leather, nails… And all of these materials are the opposite of femininity. So I am trying to create the bridge in between.
FM: How did all these artistic ventures form you as a shoe designer? What were your obsessions and how did you observe fashion at a younger age?
PH: I do not think there was a great “fashion” expectation from me. Like for most men, my mother was my icon. I was totally outside of a fashion context. I was more artistic and sporty. Mum was a dancer and my father was a sports teacher. So all the family was into physique, very active, and the body conscious mood. I loved fashion but it was sort of a taboo, at least for my generation. It also marked somehow someone’s homosexuality if it was chosen as a profession, so you didn’t really want to deal with something like this back then. Fashion was something to do on the side. I chose to do art studies because fashion was not serious for a boy. At the time the only fashion position was in haute couture. I could not see myself in it as it was something out of focus and also in contrast with my home environment. My focus was on art, sculpture, anatomy, painting and history of art. The more I got myself involved in the arts the more I loved it. It was not an emergency for me, fashion. If someone asked me at 19 if I would like to see my name on a shoebox, I would have answered, “Never!” These types of studies back in the ‘70s, I have to say, were not to drive you into a career. You would do it in order to learn something, to broaden your vision and horizons or point of view. Fashion was really a second choice.
FM: I would like to focus on your collaboration with Nicolas Ghesquière and Balenciaga: 11 years of a solid creative marriage. Where did you two designers meet creatively?
PH: Working with Nicolas is a dialogue because we know each other very well. We are close friends; we see each other, spend weekends and we often travel together as well. Probably the success of this collaboration is based on simplicity. I remember sometimes, while working in the Balenciaga studio, people would look at me in fear when I would have an opposite opinion on a heel or a strap. Their faces would be like, “What is this guy doing? Did he actually say ‘no’ to him?” You do understand that sometimes I am obliged to say no for technical issues: we cannot have it this way, or it will not work, the balance of the body will not be right with this heel and so on. Of course Nicolas would always win yet I have to clarify these arguments were pure creativity because they consisted of a dialogue between him and me. It was different; it was not a collective group relationship. Of course I needed to work on the ideas after with the house team, but during the creative session it was different. I know because people who worked permanently in the house told me.
FM: Somewhere there you created the sporty heels which where soon replicated by so many brands. How does it feel to see your work through the translation of other creatives? Does it hurt?
PH: Yes and no. A copy is always a bad version of what I already did before. Of course, what speaks now is my creative ego, but yes it can hurt when your design becomes less and less specific or particular. I mean the origin of a design. On the other hand, it is a good way for me to be creative. You see something and you say, “I was there two years ago.” This phenomenon pushes me as, by the time something is copied, I am already somewhere else working on other ideas. It becomes some sort of dynamic that pushes new things to happen, to move forward and further and invent the new. There is also something exhausting and dangerous in this constant motion but I prefer to see the positive side of it. It is part of fashion and the reason I love fashion: this urge for change. When I was a student I also did a bit of architecture, which I also liked. Today I wonder if architecture would fit me because the procedure of building a house is so far from the urgency of creating a collection, which I love. In fashion you have three months and it’s done, that’s it. And I also like the fact that a failure in fashion is not taken heavily. You can prove your skills again within the next collection.
FM: There is a certain graphic approach in your designs: your use of colours, geometry and futuristic terms and outlines in your work. How would you describe it? Is there a link with mathematics or geometry for example? An intellectualism that goes beyond shoe design?
PH: Oh, I was never good at mathematics but I love geometry—there is something about it that interests me. I say this very humbly: for me it is like Leonardo da Vinci’s man, how his body fits perfectly in the triangle and circle. I try to apply the roots of geometry to my drawings. Yes, perhaps there is a link somewhere, but in my case it is organic and I hope poetic, too. It works like a rule in a way but also allows me to reveal another side of me, my fascination with contrast. My aim is to show the body and I do not need repetition as the element within the starting point. It’s more important for me to use various vocabularies to communicate femininity or masculinity, both in shoes and jewellery.
FM: How does form reflect the way you design? Does the way that shoe design is remote from the body ever mean you become lost in a concept?
PH: The body and its scale are both precise. The jewellery is much more constraining. On the other hand, you cannot escape the form of the foot and the way it needs to function. With jewellery you can work from tiny forms to enormous, as there are not so many boundaries except perhaps the price or weight of materials. The body scale works as a guideline so I cannot really be lost in a concept. Also I feel that my lack of fashion studies— that I didn’t learn how to make clothes, the techniques and so on—gave me the freedom to consider and approach my work as an artist. It is my only chance to express an aesthetic through shoes. When I start a collection my direction always consists of a combination of volumes and forms, colours or contrasts, experimentation and mixing. I don’t work based on scenarios of women’s stories. Perhaps a collection makes you think of the future, or the folies or a reference to something inspiring. But in my work this comes at the end, not at the beginning. I cannot control the stories I create or how people interpret them.
FM: How does the form reflect the way you design your collections? The procedure that begins on the paper or a computer screen, away from the body, how pragmatic is it when that moment of the first shoe fitting arrives?
PH: The body is there from the beginning and my role is to dress it as a designer and not as an artist. This fact I had to accept—that I create a product— but I also learned to love it deeply. My job is to transform the two dimensions of the shoe drawing into three dimensions. It is a continuous process.
FM: I wanted to talk about your cubes. You use them again and again. I wonder how you manage to keep them relevant and new each season? Also, the way you use colour—most of your designs are very vibrant, some even playful. How do you manage to apply this artistic approach in your work and somehow make it desirable to clients who may have a more austere style?
PH: In the early days, I thought I was an austere minimalist because my collections were like a grid. Each model filled one of these cubes. It was at that time that I started trusting colour and different shapes. I think there is a natural growth of the work itself. You start with one thing and through the procedure more layers are born; things become more sophisticated, richer, more complicated, more complex, etc. Still, in the middle you can find the elements that you love more than others and I always hope to find them there too, when I start each new collection. Designing is my only way to express—it becomes an exit. Through it I reflect on things I do in my daily life and put them in the collection as a way to show more of what my world is about. At a younger age I always wore black. Colours were dangerous for me and I didn’t know how to deal with it them. Actually my very first collection was monochrome, all in black, inside and outside. No contrast, no details. By experimenting, I learnt how to use colour.
FM: There has been a visible evolution in accessories. How we put a look together today has changed compared to the last decade or two. Can a hat or a pair of shoes be reinvented? How?
PH: There is a game played within. The more time passes, the more we learn how to play with elements and ourselves. We are more concerned with how to appear in social circles, to be properly dressed or represent a certain status or profession, to be accepted in a group. I think now people reflect this confusion globally. You can no longer tell who is the boss and who is the assistant for example by looking at someone—who is an artist, a banker and so on. The world has become more flexible and perhaps it has to do with how multifaceted the world we live in is. There are so many stimulations for the image. People, most of the time unconsciously even, play with their image. There are so many different styles. You can go from gothic to baroque, from Goa to futuristic, from preppy chic to aristocratic, etc. In the past fashion had a meaning to the person, individually. Today we can be proper on Monday and wear something gothic on Tuesday, or sporty the next day… It is a part of the decadence we live in. The weight of things has changed. At the same time, while for the rest of the world mixing senses and politics can be dangerous, in the case of fashion it can only be fun.
FM: And how is sex involved in creating? How does it reflect in your designs?
PH: In my case it is really underneath and something that I try to play with. Indeed sexiness, especially through a heel, is a subject, simply because women want to be sexy and become sexy with heels, desirable seven days a week.
FM: But, unlike other designers, the last thing one can say about your shoes is that they are vulgar.
PH: That is a pity because a little bit of vulgarity is always better than being boring.
FM: So what is your view on sex in fashion?
PH: I think sex can be playful and it is never a cliché, you see what I mean? It can be considerable and visual. When people refer to something as sexy it is because, in their head, they link it with sex. In that case what might be a cliché could be a low cleavage, big breasts, the colours red or black. But sex is beyond that and in my work I try to translate it through elegance, fashion, emotion and modernity.
A natural talent and love for the arts leads Pierre Hardy to study at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Cachan, graduating with a teaching degree of “aggregation” in plastic arts. He studies dance while completing his degree and joins his first professional dance company upon graduation. It is not long before his passion for dance and his artistic skills converge to lead him to discover shoe design. 1985 Illustrator for Vanity Fair Italy & Vogue Hommes International. 1987 – 1990 Designer of the Women’s shoe collections for CHRISTIAN DIOR. 1990 Pierre Hardy becomes Creative Director for the Women’s and Men’s shoe collections at HERMÈS. 1994 – 1997 Artistic Director of the fashion shows at the Festival de Hyères. 2001 Named Creative Director for HERMÈS Fine Jewelry division. 2001 – 2013 Collaborates with Nicolas Ghesquière at BALENCIAGA developing both the Women’s and Men’s collections. 2010 Launch of the “Haute Bijouterie” collection for HERMÈS. 2012 Pierre Hardy is made “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” 2013 Pierre Hardy designs his first perfume bottle, Jour d’Hermès. 2015 Pierre Hardy is promoted to “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur”.