The unbearable lightness of craft allied with modernism

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As the round of Fashion Weeks approach (starting in New York on 12 February) some of the most eagerly anticipated shows will be those of new or newly appointed designers. One that I’m very curious to see is that of Hermes’s new womenswear designer, Nadege Vanhee-Cybalski, appointed in July 2014 after previous postings at Maison Martin Margiela, Celine and The Row.

That track record suggests a continuous thread of minimal, conceptual design but Hermes has quite a distinct corporate DNA, combining conceptual design with traditional artisanship and practicality. The company is part of a very Gallic culture that celebrates style and engineering excellence as matters of national pride but it has avoided becoming weighed down by it and it makes an interesting case study in combining artisanship with conceptual art and design.

  1.  Jealously guard tradition but wear it lightly. It was the creative freedom offered that Jean-Paul Gaulthier said had drawn him to join as designer in 2003. The website displays films and cartoons, making Hermes’ own icons the subject of jokes: I challenge you to watch the Observation of Orange Boxes films without a smile on your face. Shop window displays are designed by local artists displaying a confident relaxation of centralised corporate image control. Even the products themselves exude playfulness: Petit H is a highly inventive recycling of reject or leftover objects into unexpected new incarnations, showcasing the sheer inventiveness of its designers and artisans. The concept is celebrated in the book Metamorphoses by Sarah Moon, soon to be published in English.
  2.  Balance conceptual design with a high standard of engineering practicality. In a world of increasingly fast (and disposable) consumption, Hermes stands behind a commitment to care for its products throughout their lifecycle. You can only do this if you are confident that quality is paramount.
  3.  Support artisanal skills and sponsor artists to inspire design renewal in core products. The private museum at the 24 Faubourg Saint Honore HQ holds Hermes’s own historic products and other artefacts that continue to inspire designs. There is also the Fondation d’Entreprise that supports arts and artisanship all over the world. Residencies for young artists have enabled them to work with Hermes in-house artisans and production equipment to produce unique works for public display. In 2012, the Foundation funded a documentary about the work of Kunihiko Moriguchi, one of Japan’s Living National Treasures, and a practitioner of kimono painting (yuzen). In 2014 a new Skills Academy was established for artisans, engineers and designers, fusing transfer of artisanal skills with materials research and encouraging participants to push the boundaries of their disciplines and their creativity.

Conceptual design fused with light-hearted artisanship: they go together like a horse and carriage.  I shall be riveted to see the show after Paris Fashion Week begins on 3 March.

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