Lined up on a ledge next to Véronique Nichanian's desk is a group of candy jars. But rather than filling them with bonbons, the 60-year-old Hermès men's-wear designer has stuffed hers with colour-coordinated material scraps. One contains red remnants, another yellow. The rainbow continues down the line to a container of blue and violet swatches.
Not long after Nichanian joined Hermès in 1988, she began collecting and sorting these haphazard materials to help jump-start her creative process; each collection, she says, inevitably begins with selecting a range of shades from the jars.
Knowing this, the near-absence of colour in the Hermès Homme offering for fall is surprising. But in limiting herself to such a tight neutral palette, she can better showcase the line's knack for surface details and unconventional proportions, from a sumptuous crocodile down-filled jacket to an irregularly knit cable sweater to sleek trousers that marry neoprene with wool.
"Each time, I try to go deeper," the petite Parisian says in an amalgamation of English and French. "But the subject I'm trying to convey is always the same: simplicity [and] the masculine elegance of Hermès. The story is never a total look but a mix of clothing and – this part is important to me in 2014 – [I want] to propose a wardrobe that is modern technologically. As we evolve, our wardrobe should be evolving with us, too."
Nichanian's own evolution of Hermès Homme began when Jean-Louis Dumas, the company's long-time chairman until his retirement in 2006, invited her to breakfast in his garden 26 years ago. At the time, she was co-managing Italian couturier Nino Cerruti's men's collections, having been recruited straight out of the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne 12 years earlier. As she describes it, the maison's patriarch offered her fashion's holy grail: carte blanche to reimagine its men's ready-to-wear.
"Of course it was freedom, but the freedom was so large," she explains. "The thing that is so wonderful about Jean-Louis is that, when he chooses you, he has complete trust in you. And that changes everything. Because when someone has confidence in you, you want to be the best in the world; you want to surpass their expectations."
Today, she likens her expanded role overseeing all the men's categories – including footwear (which is still designed by Pierre Hardy), bags, belts and silks – to an orchestra conductor. It's an apt analogy. Like musicians who play one instrument exceptionally well, the Hermès artisans and design teams remain highly specialized. Hermès, meanwhile, has bestowed Nichanian with the lofty title directrice artistique l'univers homme or "artistic director for the men's universe." She welcomes the broader responsibilities but downplays the influence she wields.
"I don't like the big effects. I am not doing my job for the fame. And that makes a lot of difference," she says. "I have no issue with ego."
Still, surpassing the quarter-century mark with a single label is an achievement. Until Hermès appointed Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski as women's-wear designer in July, those collections had been under the direction of a string of talented men – Martin Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier and, most recently, Christophe Lemaire – whose tenures were far shorter. Nichanian is also among the few active female designers in the men's-wear industry, especially now that Ann Demeulemeester and Jil Sander have left their own labels.
Pinpointing the reason for Nichanian's enduring success is akin to overanalyzing the longevity of a Birkin bag; her elusiveness is a major part of the formula. It also helps that she has always rejected the obvious notion of a masculine ideal, an archetype that is evolving faster and faster in fashion and popular culture. And because her motivation originates from materials rather than the men themselves, she often bypasses the trends that trap a collection in a fleeting, must-have moment.
These are, of course, qualities that could all be assigned to Hermès itself, but Nichanian also possesses a convivial ease that reflects the playful culture beneath the brand's lustrous surface. You can see this, for example, in the way an embroidered spider weaves its web across the shoulder of a cashmere sweater. But you can also sense it in the way she becomes giddy with satisfaction when describing how men grow attached to her clothes.
Occasionally, she will compliment someone she spots wearing Hermès without revealing her identity. In one instance, her seatmate on an airplane was sporting pieces from a range of seasons.
"He was exactly my man!" she exclaims. "When you buy something costly, you want to keep it for a long time. And I love this idea that you have new friends and old friends and you mix them together."
This story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.