Hermès' Christophe Lemaire brings 'slow fashion' to mainland

Hermès womenswear designer Christophe Lemaire takes his idea of timeless fashion to the mainland, writesJing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 10:27am

Entering the room at the Puli Hotel in Shanghai, Christophe Lemaire looks serene. In a few hours, Hermès will present its first womenswear show in China, inside the imposing halls of the Shanghai Exhibition Centre on Nanjing Lu.

One would expect Lemaire to be a little more nervous: as the label's womenswear creative director, he is out to propose a whole new approach to fashion to this trend-obsessed audience.

"Sometimes it's important for women to keep a distance from fashion," he says when we meet in the hotel. "I don't understand this idea that to be cool or elegant, you have to buy a specific outfit, or the bag and shoes of the season. It doesn't make sense."

Clad in a loose black shirt and a pair of full-cut black trousers that wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1930s, the amiable Lemaire is a proponent of slow fashion. He's more interested in talking about philosophy and culture than the latest catwalk trends, and maintains that it's important to create pieces with a sense of timelessness while developing designs.

"At Hermès, we very much share those values. We work every piece as an object," he explains.

Along with the show, the luxury label is taking an exhibition of women's products titled "All About Women" to the mainland. VIP customers from the Asia-Pacific have been invited to attend.

"There's a strange situation in China where men lead women in terms of luxury spending," says Axel Dumas, a sixth generation Hermès family member and incumbent chief executive. "But this time Hermès wanted to put the woman in the centre of things."

Lemaire says he is lucky to have found a house that puts more focus on design than profits. The dialogue with management differs from his previous role helming Lacoste, another iconic French brand with sporting ties.

His appointment to the label in 2010 was a surprise to many. Artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas' choice of a relatively quiet and unassuming designer to replace enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier was unexpected.

Lemaire, who also runs his own eponymous label, says he references some of Gaultier's designs for Hermès. But he mainly relates to the artistic vision of Martin Margiela, the mysterious Belgian who preceded Gaultier. Lemaire says he is sensitive to Margiela's "austerity, minimalism and radical side".

"I remember in the mid-1990s, he'd show [on the runway] women in their 40s and 50s. Beautiful but not so young women wearing very minimal clothing, for three or four collections. It was a very strong statement," says Lemaire.

The family-run label hasn't followed the well-trodden path of other fashion houses. Hermès takes pride in its history of rarefied luxury, its equestrian heritage (the label started as a saddle maker), and its quality craftsmanship. Most of the label's goods are crafted in France.

So perhaps the quiet integrity of Lemaire has worked well for Hermès. Both have rejected the fast fashion values that have monopolised an industry led by conglomerates such as rival LVMH.

"I'm interested in how to improve everyday life in a very pragmatic way. I'm interested in the dignity of a woman, or a sense of shyness," says Lemaire. "I find it something very desirable, and somehow sexy."

This came through in the autumn-winter 2012/13 show in Shanghai. The models, many of them flown in from Paris, walked on fine black sand that covered a runway through a cavernous room.

"It's something more wild - luxury in a more rough way. I don't believe in excess. I believe in harmony, balance and rightness," says Lemaire. "Elegant women are those who have a very personal way of dressing, I'm interested in creating pieces that can become part of an ideal wardrobe. Dressing up is about building your own look, knowing yourself. The only way to be happy and beautiful is to be true to who you are."

When Lemaire debuted for Hermès last year, his autumn-winter 2011/12 collection featured Chinese and North African references, as well as Kazakh styles, and nomadic furs and pelts; an eagle perched on the gloved arm of a model, to the shimmering sounds of a guzheng. The nomadic lifestyle has been on his mind of late, and last year Lemaire took six weeks off to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Mongolia, where he spent two weeks before heading to Beijing.

For this show - Lemaire's third collection for Hermès - heavy leathers, and utilitarian cuts emphasised by big jackets, evoked the masculine quality beloved of the French designer. "I love the 1920s. It was inspiring and liberating how women changed. And I like the notion of women proposed in [photographer] Man Ray's portraits," he says, referencing the tension between the masculine and feminine elements in his own work.

Rich autumnal hues and intricate oriental prints on flowing fabrics added a playful femininity to the collection. Capes were fastened at the neck or shoulder in one go. Jaunty hats channelling the film True Grit topped off the collection. As always with Lemaire, sexiness was subdued. The few skirts were heavy and fell below the knee. A big black coat was fastened with one shoulder and arm sensually draped off the body to reveal a buttoned up, crisp white shirt. You could call it intelligent, work-for-it sensuality.

"Sometimes I find that fashion - especially from the past 20 years - is a bit reactionary, with a vision of femininity and sexiness which is reductive. I prefer to suggest the body," says Lemaire, quoting as inspiration '20s fashion, medieval times and Asian cultures. "It's more about showing a neck, rather than a corset shape that shows off everything."

The Shanghai event hammered home this notion to its Asian audience. Many of those attending were dressed in sparkly, short, skintight outfits, with diamantes dripping from every pore.

Perhaps beyond the carved stone arches, the glasses of Perrier Jouët, and rooms displaying scarves, shoes, jewellery and some of the world's most coveted handbags, is an idea.

Lemaire wants the Hermès fan to do more than gaze at the spectacle. He wants her to feel that, if she comes into the store, she will find the perfect white shirt, cashmere sweater or leather pants - staples of the house and part of its slow fashion ethos. The message he's conveying is that the 175-year-old luxury house is more than those famous scarves, or the much-coveted Birkin and Kelly handbags.

The Hermès brand is very well-positioned. As one of the world's most coveted and respected houses, it enjoys a rare status.

"The beauty of Hermès is that people have an understanding of the brand," says Lemaire. "It is perceived as a unique house. I think it's important to keep explaining the deep values of the brand."

Many of the nouveau-riche customers emerging from the BRIC luxury boom favour legacy labels, but they are still fond of ostentation. So Lemaire's message might be a good one to pass along.

"Luxury at Hermès is not something you show off," says Lemaire. "It's something you feel."