Why are we running a profile on Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski (above) only two years after her appointment as artistic director of women’s ready-to-wear at Hermes? For one, she’s never granted any interviews to the Singapore media – this is her first. Three collections into her role, she also seems a lot more ready to be heard now, than when she was first tasked to take over the position formerly held by industry darling Christophe Lemaire.
Compared to peers who also stepped out from fashion’s back room to helm a major label at around the same time – among them, Alessandro Michele at Gucci – the 38-year-old has been a much more restrained star. Her first two collections were exquisite, but safe. Interviews on them were but a handful. When her latest, Fall Winter 2016, was revealed during Paris Fashion Week in March, Style.com’s Sarah Mower wrote of it: “When (a designer is) speaking this softly, people have to be close up to hear.”
In early September, Vanhee-Cybulski delivered her most vivid rendition of the 43-look line-up. Dubbed “The View From Her”, the one-night-only affair at Beijing’s Minsheng Art Museum showcased Hermes’ entire women’s universe with – for the first time – her ready-to-wear as a starting point. Conceived by Bali Barrett, the creative juggernaut who oversees all things made for women at the French label, the multi-disciplinary spectacle spanned 11 rooms, mixing fashion with dance, performance and exhibition.
To highlight Fall’s delicately studded dresses and accessories, for example, one section was painted all black and swathed in metal beads. It looked like something out of a Daft Punk music video – except that it was folk songstress Sophie Auster who took to the stage. Vanhee-Cybulski’s favourite segment (and undoubtedly the most powerful that evening): a hypnotising ballet choreographed by influential postmodern dancer Lucinda Childs to show off the movement of the collection’s sinuous bias-cut dresses.
In an interview earlier that day, Vanhee-Cybulski said: “(Childs) is known for liberating dance with new gestures, and I have the same intentions (as a designer)… I saw the rehearsal and there’s really everything I relate to in it: femininity, grace, purism, rhythm.”
That’s how the French-born designer speaks: poetically yet assuredly. Flame-haired, fair-skinned and completely devoid of makeup, she’s the first female in her position in two decades, and is determined to introduce to the brand a sensuality that only a woman can bring. Asked if she finds Hermes associated too much with being masculine, and she shoots back a resounding “yes”.
Pre-Hermes, she honed her craft at labels venerated for appealing to the sensitivities of the modern woman: first Celine, where she worked alongside Phoebe Philo to revive it; and then The Row, where she helmed the design team. Refusing to typecast her customer now, she would only describe her as “someone who exudes strength and serenity”. “It’s about being cool with who you are and the world around you. That, in itself, makes a statement,” she says.
It explains a lot about her nuanced creative approach. While she drew the idea for those aforementioned studded pieces from the punk movement, the metal embellishments are refined to the point of pretty, then arranged in graphic patterns across austere wool tunics and suede coats.
Yes, they’re romantic, but they’re also intellectual. To update classic cashmere turtleneck pullovers, she fuses them with the brand’s silk twill bandana scarves, pointing out that this also makes them “better able to read one’s body”. “They’re pleasant to look at and wear,” she quips.
Comfort is a key part of her design DNA. Describing it as “infinite quality”, she makes sure that everything she makes is attuned to daily needs; as impeccable in real life as they are on the runway. “I don’t want to turn a woman into a gimmick,” she says. “If she wants to call a cab, she should be able to lift her arm without having to remove her jacket or drop her bag. She should be gracious and free.”
To do that, Vanhee-Cybulski has been fervently experimenting with fabrics. Take the sensuous silk maxis worn by the dancers in the Lucinda Childs act – they’re plied with Lycra for extra fluidity. And if the thought of a brand like Hermes using nylon is shocking, she has no qualms announcing that she already has. “It can be of as high quality as cashmere,” she says. “(Like postmodernist dancers who liberate their discipline) I want to do the same… bring a new way of working, a new perception, new techniques.”
In fashion, Hermes is often perceived as the last word in quiet luxury, but Vanhee-Cybulski disagrees. “It’s a house where our customers understand who they are. I’ve always seen it more as confident than quiet.” She might not be much of a talker, but she certainly walks the walk.
This story first appeared in Female’s Nov 2016 issue.
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