The French house just held a ‘Fast Forward’ event in China, but it’s not getting caught up in fashion’s dizzying pace
Shanghai is a city that exists on fast forward. Click between images of its Pudong financial district in the late 80s and the 21st century, and the change is jaw-dropping – in a couple of decades, a seemingly quiet harbour has been transformed into a futuristic vista staggered with skyscrapers. Visit today, and you’ll find a place where cars fly along Ballardian super highways, neon-lit towers reaching into the clouds display constantly revolving, technicolour advertisements, and everywhere you look, construction workers are flattening buildings to erect shining new ones.
The change was particularly striking for Hermès’ artistic director of menswear, Véronique Nichanian, who last week touched down in the city with one of her Men’s Universe events – travelling fashion shows which bring the world of the storied Paris-based house around the globe. Taking place in the sci-fi-esque China State Shipbuilding Corporation Pavilion on the city’s Huangpu river, the ‘Fast Forward’-themed evening included a fashion show of her SS18 collection (modelled on some local personalities alongside an international cast); a games room boasting old-school arcade machines; custom Hermès VR headsets; a bar surrounded by spacesuits, and a laboratory full of test tubes and precisely placed product.
“There’s the old and the new here – it’s a metaphor of Hermès. The quality and the past are now going towards innovation and modernity” – Véronique Nichanian
With its tunnel of lights and 60s-style furniture, the setting was like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Retro-futuristic,” sums up Nichanian, citing the aforementioned Kubrick epic as well as Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner as reference points. “I was imagining a crazy spaceship from Hermès coming in and landing!” The designer – who has been at Hermès for a staggering 30 years – first put on an event in Shanghai a decade ago, and was thrilled to see how the city had changed. “I’m very excited about how fast China moves; I thought it was exactly the right place to talk about speed,” she says.
Speed, modernity, and futurism are one thing (and appropriate concepts when considering the world of fashion) but Shanghai also has its history. At the centre of the city is the French Concession – bustling tree-lined streets of the former-French settlement along which people ride bicycles and laundry hangs in alleyways. “This is the heart of Shanghai,” Nichanian surmises. “There’s the old and the new here – so for me, it’s a metaphor of Hermès. The roots of Hermès, the quality and the past, are now going towards innovation and modernity.”
Hermès was founded by harnessmaker Thierry Hermès in 1837, introduced bags and clothing in the 1920s, and its iconic silk scarves in 1937. Today, it’s run by Axel Dumas, a sixth generation member of the founding family, and boasts over 300 stores around the world. Despite its scale, the house juggles international growth with real integrity – the value placed on its heritage and the traditions of its craftsmanship remain immovably at the heart of the business. If you’ve ever read up on how difficult it can be to buy a Birkin bag (introduced by Jean-Louis Dumas in 1984, and handmade by incredibly skilled artisans just outside of Paris), you’ll know that this isn’t a company keen to flog as much product as possible, as fast as possible, and for as high a price tag as possible. Hermès does things differently, and it pays off – the Birkins are supposedly a better investment than gold.
Still, despite its storied heritage, with iconic signatures (from the chaîne d’ancre bracelet, introduced in 1938, to the 1949 collier de chien) forming the backbone of the brand, modernity is central to to the house. It’s best expressed for Nichanian in terms of textile innovations. “I go to the factory and I work with them to try and do exactly what I want,” she explains. “Maybe they say it’s not possible, and I say let’s try again, let’s find another way. It’s like in chemistry, sometimes you get something you didn’t expect – it’s about experimentation.” This experimentation doesn’t always happen overnight – the brand could be pioneering a fabric for two years – but this doesn’t faze Nichanian and her team. What matters is the final result. “At Hermès it’s not a question of time,” she says simply. “We take time to do things well.” This could be the house’s motto, so important is its sentiment. “It’s not because it’s expensive that makes it luxury. Luxury for me is excellence and time,” asserts Nichanian. “Time doing the things in the best way and the excellence of choosing the best material. The price should be the result of all these things and not the opposite.”
In this way, Hermès feels a lot like the antithesis to the fashion industry of today, where a hoodie can set you back several hundred pounds for no better reason than the brand name stamped on it. Despite the frenzied enthusiasm that exists around many of its products, the house remains about as removed from the cycle of hype as you can get – Nichanian’s three-decade tenure is a testament to that. “This changing every year or six months,” she says of the industry’s designer switch-arounds, “I think it contributes to the acceleration (of fashion).” That acceleration is counter-intuitive to what Hermès is – it doesn’t want to sell you something new every five minutes that you’ll be bored of by next week – it wants to sell you something you’ll treasure for life.
“We really take care of the planet or the way we are doing things, the way the people are working,” says Nichanian – with the formation of Petit h, the product line made entirely of reused scrap materials, an impressive example of this. “It’s responsibility and honesty. I’m sure that means a lot for the young generation, much more than somebody on Instagram just (making) fashion for fashion’s (sake) and to sell more things.” Even in the midst of one of the most modern cities on earth, the values of Hermès are immovable – alongside the VR and an impressive dance performance choreographed by Yoann Bourgeois, the event also featured an artisan at a bench, carefully crafting away. “We know who we are, we know where we are going and we pay attention doing the things we are doing,” Nichanian concludes. “We don’t play the same game.”