In this digital age where fashion consumption is immediate and global, fashion brands are more than ever expected to churn out covetable product and attention-grabbing imagery at a breakneck speed. But for the house of Hermès, who's foundation is built upon meticulous handcraftsmanship, that mentality is eschewed in favor of what feels right and at the right time. So when the invitation came through for A Man's World this past Saturday, a one-night-only presentation by artist Leandro Elrich in Miami featuring deputy artistic director Véronique Nichanian's Spring 2013 collection, I knew I wasn't about to walk into just any run of the mill fashion world fete. Whereas most fashion designer and artist collaborations yield some sort of limited edition t-shirt, a Nichanian and Erlich team-up produces one massive art fair level installation.
Held in the historic Moore Building, located in Miami's reenergized design district, which permanently hosts Zaha Hadid's 'Elastika,' A Man's World represents every corner of the Hermès menswear landscape, from ready-to-wear to shoes and accessories and even special order, all built into an three story exploratory exhibit of eleven separate installations. Elrich is an artist known for playing with perception and A Man's World proved no different, as what appeared to be a single, three-mirrored dressing room readied with a print shirt and pair of sneakers turned out to be an interconnected 18 room complex. And not to be confined to just the physical space, the event incorporated personalized RFID technology that would interact with guests on site, capturing their experiences to be viewed online the next day. The sheer scale of the event proved Hermès' unique status as a brand that's more concerned with precision and its patrimony than omnipresence.
The Moore Building, featuring Hadid's 'Elastika'
That spirit was reflected in the event's layout, one that encouraged guests to move through each floor, from mirror image apartments to one realistic locker room, all while elevator vignettes on the first floor ushered Hermès-clad models into the 800 person crowd. In fact, the entire evening was less of an obligatorily attended branding event, as most are, and more like a gallery opening as I overheard several guests call it. Making the night experiential and engaging was at the forefront of Nichanian's and Erlich's collaboration, values the duo bonded over at the outset of the project only three months earlier. I sat down with the twosome just hours before their immersive works would be revealed to talk about how the project came to be, why a creative process can be as enjoyable as the end result, and what makes Nichanian's clothes unique (hint: it has something to do with stopping time)
'Dream Climbers' featuring models in the Nichanian's Spring 2013 collection, over Erlich's 'Paralell Universe' mirror installation
A collection of changing vignettes titled 'The Elevators'
Mirror images of the same space, and inhabitants, in 'The Apartments'
The seemingly endless 'Changing Rooms'
Miguel Chevalier's H8 tie patterns projection installation
'The Locker Room,' featuring interactive RFID technology and 'Boxing Ring' photo booth
GQ: How did this partnership come together? Véronique Nichanian: I discovered Leandro's work at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He was presenting his famous swimming pool, which I thought was a masterpiece--so interesting, so clever, so charming, and so poetic at the same time. It represented everything I like in the arts. I came to Miami last fall and thought it full of energy. This collection is sporty and full of color, so I thought it was nice to do something special in Miami and maybe ask Leandro to participate and give him carte blanche with my whole collection. We met for the first time in February in the Moore and discovered the space together. It was so funny because it was as if we had known each other for many years. And we've done this thing in three months, which is a big challenge.
GQ: Leandro, what did you think when you first got the call to collaborate on this project? Leandro Erlich: I was very excited. First of all, I was very flattered that Véronique thought about me to create something with her collection.
GQ: Were you familiar with Véronique's work prior to this project? Erlich: Yes, of course. But I didn't know Véronique personally. It was very, very exciting from the beginning because, as Véronique said, we saw the building at the same time, we realized how difficult it was, and we both got excited with that challenge. It was fast and at the same time intense and I think it was a real collaboration for both of us. I would say it wasn't until late yesterday that we ultimately saw what our collaboration was about. When the last shirts were hung in the installations we realized that things were melting together, two languages were interacting. There's nothing to sell. It's a celebration of creativity.
GQ: Would you say that your collaborative process has been as fulfilling as the final project? Nichanian: Absolutely. It was not so easy to realize because I was in Paris, he was in Buenos Aires, the team was in New York. It was a collaboration on the phone, on the screen. And at the beginning we spoke the same language but we did not understand each other exactly so it was difficult. We really wanted to work together. It's a mix of innovation, my creations, the Hermès world of men, from the shoes to the bags and all the accessories, and this fantastic creation.
Erlich: I would say it's an event talking about creativity, about innovation. Hermès is a very established brand and has its own identity and as soon as you imagine that something is established you really think to yourself, "why keep trying?" I would say that this, from an artistic point of view, keeps looking forward.
GQ: Why do you think that so often the worlds of fashion and art collide? Erlich: Because fashion is art.
Nichanian: All the details I put into clothes--it's not a total look effect, it's one piece. It's always very interactive to work with an artist because they know the way to emphasize an idea. And what I do love in Leandro's work is the generosity. Because it's not a piece that you look at from outside--it's very interactive. It's the same effect when you put on clothes. It's for yourself. I feel that each piece he does gives you an emotion and that is very important.
GQ: You both mentioned pulling this massive installation together in such a short time. Does problem solving in your design work bring each of you satisfaction? Or as artists are you never satisfied? Nichanian: I'm never satisfied. Well, there is a moment you have to stop and say this is the deadline, so I have to fix it or keep the new idea for the next collection.
Erlich: When I think about satisfaction I'm thinking about the process, I'm thinking about things I learn, and for me this was a very enriching experience doing something new that was really a challenge. Overall I am very satisfied with this project because I feel in a period of three months I learned a lot of things. And to work with Véronique is really a pleasure.
Nichanian and Elrich
GQ: The three months it took from concept to final installation for such a large-scale project can be a constraint on creativity. Do you find that having a deadline helps or hinders your creativity? Erlich: I work on several projects at the same time and through this you learn, I guess as part of the dynamic that you have to deal with, how to do it. When you start to discover your world and the language that you want to own and the things you want to express, it is probably not the moment to be brash. But when you're more familiar with who you are, there is a rhythm to things and you already know how to respond. Now I would say this rhythm fuels this creativity.
Nichanian: For me, I realize I have a real schizophrenic attitude. I would like to not have a show every six months and just present when I have something new to tell. But at the same time, I appreciate the obligation to something every six months that gives you a deadline that you have to focus your energy on. I would like to slow things down. I think that this acceleration of the calendar in fashion has become really stressful and stupid. Everybody wants to make a pre-collection and I hate that. I don't want to do that. People have to propose something new every month.
Erlich: And what about traveling or having the time to be in a situation that lets you be inspired for a future collection?
Nichanian: You're right. I used to travel a lot more. I love big cities. It nourishes you to travel, to see new people, to see new things, to see the way they live and what they like. I'm really like a sponge, so having time to see an exhibition is really important and in this rush, it's becoming crazy. Somebody told me a very nice compliment; they said with my clothes, which I try to make timeless, that I'm a "slow downer" person. And I love that. If I can slow down the time, then good.
GQ: This collaboration and resulting installations are focused more on the experience than promoting a single product. How important is it to create experiences today when there's so much access and information available to everyone? Nichanian: It's very important because for me it's a dialogue. I want to show people the entire Hermès men's world because they don't always understand that there's more than ties, or my clothes, or the accessories; we propose the entire guy. I thought it was more interesting to show menswear through the eyes of an artist. It's not every year we choose an artist to do something. It's the same way that we find a beautiful building on Madison Avenue so we decide to open a store. It's not marketing. I discover his work and asked him to make this happen.
GQ: Why do you think other fashion brands don't follow the same path? Most do something because they feel they have to rather than it feeling right. Nichanian: Really, I don't know. I'm not here to judge or say what's good or not. I'm doing what feels right for me and for Hermès, which I've been part of for more than twenty years. I'm not changing my mind with the wind, not doing "fashion." I like talking to people through my clothes and I don't want to change their personality. I used to say that there is not one kind of Hermès man, but many kinds. So I don't know what others are doing but I know what we want to do.
Erlich: It's because they believe that it has to be this way. You think that Hermès is such a big company that everything has to be a strategy. I feel like the confidence to give me carte blanche to do something is the confidence of someone, and by someone I mean Hermès, who is not a follower. If you're doing something with commitment, and this is a very artistic point of view with taking risk, and you believe in it, then that's it. As soon as you understand that, it gives you a lot of freedom to do not what everybody else is doing. And then people follow.
GQ: Menswear has been experiencing a bit of a boom recently, especially among designer brands, and this installation certainly shows that menswear is worthy of the attention. Are you glad the fashion world is paying more attention to men? Nichanian: Yes! I thought, I was right! Because for years I say look at the menswear, it is so interesting. I think there are so many things to express for men's clothes with choice of fabric, with colors. I'm only focused on men and I love that. It's a good surprise to see all the brands now rushing to men's to make money.
The men of 'A Man's World' in Hermès Spring/Summer 2013
GQ: Do you both feel that customers or audiences are more demanding of authenticity these days? People are more aware and informed of what else is out there now more than ever. Erlich: Absolutely. That's always something in my work; never underestimate the public. People are not stupid. Even when they go into a store, people will understand quality.
Nichanian: Even with price I used to say something is not expensive, it's costly. Because of the material, the craftsmanship, you can keep it for a long time. I think these values are coming back because it's a tough economic time. It's a good sense of having beautiful things you can keep for a long time.
Erlich: Véronique's approach to the brand is so interesting because when you hear about Hermès in the news, it's how many millions of dollars the company made. But there are so many other things...
Nichanian: ...it's not only economic. It's more emotional. And we are an emotional house because everything you need to touch, to feel, to look at, and I love that. And it's phenomenal because Leandro's work gives you an emotion, of feeling upside down, of not knowing where you are--it's so emotional. It's not about money all the time.
GQ: Why did you decide to call this collection A Man's World? Nichanian: Just to show people that we have an entire Hermès world for men. And I think we're one of the only brands to propose that and to propose the services of special order to make your dreams really. So talking about dreams, Leandro brings us to a dream too. This is the purpose of tonight.
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