Interview and Photography by Filep Motwary
HAVING DONE STINTS AT THE HOLY TRINITY of minimalist fashion (Maison Martin Margiela, Céline, The Row), Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski, the French graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp, assumed the role of artistic director of Hermès women’s ready-to-wear after the departure of Christophe Lemaire in 2014. She is the fourth woman to hold this position at the historic brand, many years after Catherine de Károlyi, who in 1967 designed its first women’s ready-to-wear collection, Lola Prusac, who designed for the house from 1925 to 1935 and Claude Brouet who was the “directrice de collections” from 1989-1997.. Her appointment was the first major move by the house’s then new executive chairman, Axel Dumas, a decision that marked the new direction that the company was going to take, with an emphasis on prêt-à-porter.
As for Hermès, everyone knows that it’s a family business that was founded in 1837 and is identified with luxury without compromise. From the saddles made for the aristocracy that are its signature piece, for many decades now its creativity has been channelled into other products, such as ties, scarves, watches, perfumes, select clothes collections and, of course, the bags, which are a status symbol and every woman’s object of desire. Other designers, such as Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier before Lemaire, have also served in Vanhée-Cybulski’s position. All three designed clothes for Hermès alongside their own separate namesake collections, although this is not the case for the current artistic director, who has made her talents available exclusively to the house.
Antwerp defines a radicalism that has nurtured artistic movements, which are constant sources of inspiration. Although the well-known Antwerp Six come immediately to my mind, I nonetheless think that their successors, like Nadège, are perhaps closer to the concerns of today’s public. A low-key person, she moves forward with insight and responsibility, managing within eight years to successfully defend the craftsmanship and traditional techniques of the house. The traceability, guarantee of quality and preservation of values that the brand name Hermès represents are for her non-negotiable.
The conversation during our meeting was warm and friendly. I ask her how she managed her entry into the historic house, as such a collaboration can’t but follow certain conditions. “I was excited about returning to France. I’d spent a decade outside of the country and was looking for a way to reconnect with values such as expertise, which for me is the basis for all creative things,” she tells me. “I’d worked with many people and lived in different major cities, which broadened my horizons, so it was natural for me to look for something more meaningful. The big change came the moment I had the need to communicate with an ‘entity’ with a strong background, which is distinguished by a deep knowledge of sewing techniques and their complexity. I confess that I’d missed this while I was in America. Arriving at Hermès, I wasn’t given specific instructions on the direction I should follow. I joined the team with an open mind and with respect, having its historical legacy as a safety net.
Bringing the younger generation closer to Hermès is something she is particularly interested in, as this signifies evolution. How much, though, does the reality of the street coexist with such a high-profile brand? All those of us who lived through the 1990s remember the influence that the large brands had on youth—Miuccia Prada, Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Owen Gaster, XULY.Bët are some of the names that were in a continuous dialogue with boys and girls under the age of 20. Thirty years later, streetwear has gained an ideological angle and new actors, such as Marine Serre, Y/Project, and Off-White. At the same time, since 2020, other priorities have emerged, which the pandemic brought with it, such as comfort and ease.
“I DESIGN FOR women WHO FEEL VERY OR LESS sexy AND FOR OTHERS WHO ARE PERHAPS MORE shy.”
It is surprising, however, that, despite the uncertainty of the time, the industry has found a way to embrace new creators. Nadège sees them as revolutionaries because, as she says, “they are able to resist the disruption and, at the same time, put their radical fashion proposals onto the fashion map”, something that for her is a healthy form of development. I think about the degree of difficulty and responsibility that someone must face when they assume a role such as hers in a company such as Hermès and attempt to make a comparison with the other brands she has worked with. Although in her current situation, values appear to remain constant regardless of the era, it is a fact that there are questions hanging over luxury and its relationship with the present. “Behind each product that we design there must be a relationship with reality as well as imagination and pleasure for the customer. It’s a challenge for us to remain relevant and faithful to the brand’s identity,” she explains. “I express myself and create within a specific context, with respect for what my team proposes. At the end of the day, my job is to design clothes that are functional, inspire emotions and preserve memories. I believe that only if we keep up with the times will we be able to decode the present, bridging it with the past and the future. This approach is in itself evolution. We need to understand people’s needs through a new context of design and production, one based on sustainability. It’s not enough to use safe raw materials such as cotton or ECOTEC® yarns to save the planet. The problem begins with the very mentality of fashion, which needs to change.” And how will we save the industry, I ask her. “There are so many useless things on the market. The change will only come if we’re honest when we create. To take the next step, we must rescue the techniques that are passed on from generation to generation so that there is no inequality in terms of the possibilities that they offer. This can be an achievement for our industry. It saddens me when I hear that a traditional factory is closing because there is no one to continue it. Knowledge must be preserved and perpetuated.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, we are heading towards the future armed with the experiences of the past two years, which have forced humanity to redefine itself and restart. Nadège explains to me that, despite the difficulties, during the daily contact she had with her team through Zoom, an unexpected interest was expressed in the digital design of the Hermès collections. She says that she was satisfied with this, as she was able to maintain her creativity at the same levels as before. She believes, however, that “those who truly struggled were the craftspeople, the seamstresses and the models, because their jobs cannot be done at home. Our work is a chain in which each link has its own significance for the result.”
One might say that the emphasis she places on the sensuality of the Hermès woman is perhaps the biggest risk of her collaboration with the house. I wonder, then, if and to what extent her work clashes with her personal aesthetic style. “I have my own taste, but when you work for someone else, you have to understand their taste too,” she replies. “The Hermès style can be conservative and at the same time carefree and imaginative. Fortunately, I’m able to work without any restrictions. I wouldn’t say that I’m in conflict with my own taste, no. I’m in favour of experimentation and full of curiosity. As such, I might design things that I would perhaps never wear myself. The process of exploration ends up being educational, and this makes the result interesting.”
As I listen to her, I recall the first Saturday of last March, when I was in the Bastille district, for the Hermès F/W ’22-’23 fashion show. Tents had been set up in the inner courtyard for the creative team, who had been working since early morning. The show, however, took place directly opposite, in a high-ceilinged hall filled with people. The clothes were sexy, clearly sporty (!) and modern, based on ideas that a woman can easily adopt. Each look translated values such as classicism and elegant sophistication, while the clothes, every piece, liberated the silhouette. The body and its outline played a primary role in her designs, in tones of brown—primarily terracotta—black, blue and white. As did the play between transparency and opacity, the knitted forms that were sometimes combined with leather, as well as the body-con trend for each body type. “The body is indeed the starting point for my work,” she acknowledges. “My perspective on this is accomplished through the prism of duality, the relationship between the inside and the outside that personifies our products. Hermès is a way of life and our clothes have a physical relationship with the person wearing them. I will never stop exploring the body. I like anything that has to do with progress, I’m not afraid of it. I think courageously and enjoy today and tomorrow as a new experience. For Hermès, the saddle connects the human body with that of a horse, as such it is the link in a symbiotic relationship. When we created this collection, I asked one of the women in my team what she would like us to do that we hadn’t managed to do. ‘To work with fabrics like loden,’ she replied, and we got to work immediately. The feel of this Austrian fabric is intense, like the complexity of nature and woman. With it, I tried to explore concepts such as sexuality and elegance, even if in a clichéd way, yet inspired by the present. Our aim was to design contemporary clothes without nostalgia for everything vintage. It would not be honest of me to say that I’m interested in only one type of woman. I design for women with different sensitivities and concerns, who feel very or less sexy and for others who are perhaps more shy. I design for different cultures and that’s what matters most for me. The essence lies in the beauty. Rick Owens’ heroines, for example, are very specific. If you buy his clothes, you automatically become part of his ‘tribe’, and if you combine one of his pieces with others you are still relaying the message of the designer. Why not? What’s more beautiful than that?”
I ask her to tell me about her earliest aesthetic interests. She thinks that for most people fashion 30-40 years ago was not as affordable as it is today. “I was attracted by the beautiful images in the magazines and was full of admiration for my parents when they got dressed up for a night out. I recognised the power of clothes from early on and think that what drew me to fashion was the cultural context that they are part of. I have different origins, and fashion became for me a way to discover my North African roots, observing what people wore there. There are many members of my family whom I don’t know and clothes became the connecting link between the two sides. I think that in adolescence things start to get confused; there’s a kind of schism between childhood and what you want to become as an adult. That’s when you start to explore your personality through clothes and they in the end contribute to building it. I suppose clothes for me are what social media is for young people, an extension of their reality. For my generation clothes were a further way to hide, to emphasise something, even to transform yourself.” Does she think the ritual of dressing has changed? “People have changed; they want to feel strong, to be sexy and to have fun as though there’s no tomorrow. We change clothes several times a day now, depending on how we present ourselves on social media, when we go out onto the street or go to a party. The mystery and essence of elegance have almost disappeared.”
Before we say goodbye, I ask her to reveal to me what has always inspired her. She replies with a quote from Victor Hugo: “Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine bravery.”
“I LIKE ANYTHING THAT HAS TO DO WITH progress. I ENJOY TODAY AND TOMORROW AS A NEW experience.”
BEYOND THE EQUESTRIAN
NADÈGE VANHÉE-CYBULSKI, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF HERMÈS WOMEN’S READY-
TO-WEAR, BALANCES THE TIMELESS WITH THE MODERN AT THE HISTORIC LUXURY
BRAND, OPENING UP TO A CONTEMPORARY PUBLIC.
The creative director talked to Filep Motwary in Vogue Greece #September 2022
“I design for women who feel more or less sexy and for others that are perhaps a little shy.” she told him
#Interview & #Photography by Filep Motwary
#Thankyou to @epitomexyz #portrait of #Nadege by Inez and Vinoodh. courtesy of #Hermes
Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp. She was the design director at the Olsen twins’ brand, The Row, and also worked at Céline and Maison Martin Margiela.
In June 2014, she was appointed artistic director of Hermès’ women ready-to-wear, replacing Christophe Lemaire. In March 2015, she presented her first collection, and stayed close to the brand’s roots by choosing an equestrian theme