Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, the artistic director of womenswear at Hermès, has a resume that checklists the who’s who of cult luxury brands. A member of the anonymous troop that made up the design studio at Maison Martin Margiela in the mid-2000s, she was by Phoebe Philo’s side when Céline catapulted into the fashion stratosphere in 2008 before she relocated to New York to head up the design studio at The Row. (All of which made her well placed for her current post, surely one of the most coveted in the industry today.)
Despite the cool-girl cred, however, Vanhee-Cybulski is very discreet and unassuming in person. Born and raised in the northern city of Lille in French Flanders, she has a porcelain pale face that is as serene as those immortalised by Vermeer in oil on canvas. We meet just before the Christmas break and as she politely pours me tea and nibbles on the delicate chocolates that have been artfully laid out, it’s apparent that she’s as considered as the legendary house for which she works.
Much has been made of the fact that Vanhee-Cybulski is the Maison’s first female in the post in recent history — her predecessors make up a motley crew that includes Martin Margiela, Jean-Paul Gaultier and, more recently, Christophe Lemaire. Dig a little deeper, though, and the archives reveal that one of the first ready-to-wear designers at Hermès was in fact female. Polish-born designer Lola Prusac designed the first women’s collection in 1929 and was known for her knack for colour combos — she most notably drew inspiration from the likes of Piet Mondrian (some decades before Yves Saint Laurent). It was to this particular epoch that Vanhee-Cybulski was drawn to during her initiation at Hermès in 2014, a subject that kicked off our hour-long chat on a wintry Parisian afternoon.
Alice Cavanagh: I understand that when you looked through the archives, you delved a long way back, rather than looking at more recent history. What did you find?
Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski: I wanted to go back to the origins of clothes at Hermès, because they came later, and to look at how they came about and I was interested to find that clothes were tailored to ease the daily life of the wearer. The first object that you might find for a woman was a leather coat, or a bomber — clothes for the car. This was quite a bold and visionary time — the shift from coach to car — and I loved this whole leap towards the assumption of this new society. There’s something quite utopian in it.
AC: You’re the first female designer the house has had in some time. Do you think this gives you an advantage?
NVC: I don’t think about it that much, for me it is just intuitive. Perhaps I project myself when I think about the practicality of a situation: like being able to sit down, or being at work, or driving a car, or moving to grab something. I always want to see the clothes in motion. That is very important for me. I love fashion and how it expresses sensibilities — you know, the way aesthetics can develop in different ramifications — but I’ve got this purist way of working with volume and fabric, and I always relate to motion. It is interesting to talk about femininity in fashion because we are designing clothes for women, and it’s true that you have different codes and different cuts and a different language. For me, as the house is known for the way it cuts leather for a bag, then the house has to be known for the perfect fit and cut. That’s something that a woman demands and wants.
AC: I know you’re a big fan of photography, how does image play into your role here? How do you like your clothes to be presented in photographs?
NVC: I focus on the look book, which for me is almost like a manual for a wardrobe. It’s not about hammering how you should wear something but making suggestions. I want the clothes to be incarnated in motion, and it’s important to bring about this dimension. It’s also important to show how intricate the clothes are, in terms of texture, cut and fit, and photography can bring all this out through the subtlety of the light or the way the model folds her arms.
AC: I wanted to talk to you about the thread of minimalism that has so clearly defined your career. It’s deeply ingrained in your aesthetic. Did that start in your student days?
[This question causes Vanhee-Cybulski to pause.] “How do you define minimalism?”
AC: Simplicity and certainly purity, I offer.
NVC: Yes. There is also a sense of integrity in my definition of minimalism because you’re trying to respect the natural state of your material. If you alter that, then it’s because you want to reveal the nature of a technology or technique. When I talk about integrity, it’s really about that. But, yes, I guess for me it’s an innate sense of taste. It’s how I function.
AC: Was it always the case? Does it infiltrate other parts of your life?
NVC: Yes, but you know when I was 17 and 18 years old I was obsessed with garage rock and post-punk bands like The Fall and Wire because there was something very pure and very raw about them.
AC: What are some of your earliest memories related to fashion?
NVC: Definitely when I discovered vintage shopping.
AC: As a teen?
NVC: Yeah. It was a moment when I could express myself outside of my family through different kind of clothes from past eras.
AC: Was there a particular era you loved most?
NVC: Not necessarily, it was more of an act of eccentricity. I wanted to have this sense of being different. That was something that was very attractive to me.
AC: Were you were looking at the misfits at school?
NVC: Yeah. It was the misfits I was attracted to.
AC: And when was the moment you knew you wanted to work in fashion?
NVC: Very early because beyond the passion I realised that I could fulfil so many interests, ideas and concepts.
AC: Were you sketching clothes or was your interest more conceptual?
NVC: I never sketched, but in Antwerp at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, we had to sketch nude figures. I loved nude drawing — the real life, the composition and the volumes — but to me, the fashion drawing was a bit philistine. It was not something I liked to do because you can’t just crystallise clothes in a sketch: you do a collage, you think about a shape, and then you go into draping, then you have a conversation, and then something changes.
AC: The Academy is known for offering a well-rounded experience.
NVC: They unlock that, yes. There are so many layers to being a fashion designer. Artists like Cy Twombly and Donald Judd kind of removed my inhibitions about becoming a fashion designer. They showed me another way of creating that was not just about a big pen and pads of paper and sketches. That was liberating.
AC: How does visual art feed you today?
NVC: I love looking at the young, contemporary photographers but also at the old masters like Alfred Stieglitz. I’m a really big fan of Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg and The Black Mountain College people — the guys who combined archaism with modernism and unlocked the cognitive way of creating. Actually [Nadège now becomes particularly animated] you have to go and see the Cy Twombly show at the Pompidou. I walked around like, “Huh” [gasps]. People kept looking at me strangely.
[A few days after our interview, I make a point of going to this Twombly retrospective. The scope of the exhibit retraces his 60-year career, featuring paintings, drawings and photographs. It is Twombly’s arresting use of colour — lavished onto the surfaces of his immense canvases — that captured Vanhee-Cybulski’s imagination.]
AC: How does a great exhibition influence you?
NVC: It’s abstract. I hate being literal. I guess I feel something. A colour might trigger something in my brain, and after two or three months it might come back. With my collections, I’m not going to tell you how to look at it or what you should understand — I hate stereotypes. But for Spring/Summer 2017, for example, there’s a sense of release and freedom that I wanted to express.
AC: Spring/Summer 2017 was so feminine — with those pinks and the elegant silhouette tapered at the waist. I thought it was so confident. Did you feel that when you were designing it?
NVC: It takes time to absorb where you are and to absorb the language and incorporate your own. People expect things to happen so fast, but for me, two years was just the beginning. I’m not someone that counts, but it’s definitely a time of growth within the house, and it’s about an amplification of the ready-to-wear within the house.
AC: You have the pre-collection presentation in January 2017, so that’s just around the corner already...
NVC: Yes, I am excited about that, but it can also be a tense time because it’s really about releasing. People always talk about the main collection and the show that you see in March or October that encapsulates a very specific moment, but those shows are a conclusion of a whole process. When you see the pre-collection, it’s the genesis of that show. It is interesting to see how that has evolved and I treat pre-collections in the same way, I give the same amount of energy.
AC: It’s strange, all that work and then it’s over in 20 minutes. Does it feel like that for you?
NVC: I think it’s a great moment because it’s so precious to have this focus for 20 minutes. It’s like an act of performance in which you’re able to show five months of gestation and work.
AC: I imagine everything is very organised and ready on time. I’m sure you’re not running around last minute with pins in your mouth?
NVC: Ha ha! I am interested in why you think that. Yes, it is organised, but we have some troubled kids [styles] that come in last minute. But generally, I try to be fair and give myself a good amount of time to design and for the team to process it.
AC: How does it work with artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and the other universes at Hermès? What is the conversation that takes place between the different métiers throughout the collaborative process?
NVC: There’s something quite fluid about the fact that each creative person here has his or her expertise and we all relate it to a very strong DNA. We connect with Pierre-Alexis around the theme of the year, and then people interpret that in many different ways. It’s a very free process, but at the same time we have such a deep respect for the house. For instance, the Spring/Summer 2017 show introduced the theme of the object. So for me, it was really about the clothes I designed having a sense of utilitarianism.
AC: How would you describe your creative processes? Do you have tricks that help with the creative flow or any particular things that need to be in place to allow you to be productive?
NVC: I work by blocks. Sometimes I think it scares people, but when I do a fitting, I want it to be the whole day, and I want it to be all about that. That’s quite specific. And then when it comes to collections, I have a ritual of first isolating myself for two or three days and having this flood of ideas and images and collecting everything in a short amount of time. This usually happens at home on the weekends. I think I have also developed a bad habit of creating boards. I’ve even created a library for the boards. A friend of mine I used to work with at The Row once said to me, ‘Nadège, I think Michel Gondry should observe you with your boards and do a strange kind of dreamscape.’ [Laughs]
AC: Both The Row and Hermès are family run. Do you sense any similarity in the company cultures?
NVC: I don’t want to compare Hermès and The Row, and you have a lot of businesses that are still run by families in Italy, for example. But in France we don’t have so many family-run fashion businesses. When you work at a brand that has a strong sense of family, they do share a core; I don’t want to say ideology, but there are values that are transmitted.
AC: You’ve lived now in all the major fashion capitals — London, New York and Paris. Do you see them as chapters?
NVC: Yes, or more like a big road trip with pit stops along the way [laughs]. Paris is a moment where I can finally put everything I’ve learned into practice and can create my own story.
AC: You lived briefly in Paris before, though.
NVC: I left France when I was 18 to study in Antwerp, and then I came to Paris to work at Martin Margiela, but I spent most of my time in Italy. So, really, I’ve been away from France for 15 years.
AC: Do you find Paris changed?
NVC: Not really, but I’ve changed, and it’s quite surprising how I can express myself in English on a creative level and then I have to translate into French… Some words can be easier or stronger in another language. I love collecting vocabulary.