According to well-established Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Ti, was the one to accidentally first discover silk as weavable fibre. One day, when the Empress was sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. She became taken with the shimmering threads and searched for their source, discovering the Bombyx mori silkworm in the white mulberry. The Empress went on to develop sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms) and invented the reel and loom. Thus, the material we know as silk was born. Whether or not this tale is accurate, the Chinese realised the value of the material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries. Travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings and anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country was summarily executed. To both honour tradition and avoid risk, ICON sits down with Hermès men’s silk creative director, Christophe Goineau, in Beijing to discuss the silk business, music, and emotional pleasures.
MARNE SCHWARTZ (ICON): I love the innovation behind the birth of the Hermès men’s tie business in the Cannes boutique, but nowadays you don’t even need to wear socks to the Spring Racing Carnival in Australia. How have you managed to maintain, and grow, this category when men’s fashion is now a more relaxed a air?
CHRISTOPHE GOINEAU (CG): “Nothing is for sure. Everything is changing. Before in the ’80s and ’90s, we were much more conventional and very formal – it was more of a case of you had to wear a tie. Then, of course, came along the notion of casual. If you are wearing a tie these days, it’s for pleasure more than obligation. So, actually, what we now produce for our customers is more open and in a smaller quantity. It’s something more personal than ever before.”
ICON: And with that, do you nd that you’ve attracted a more diverse customer base now?
CG: “Yes, that’s true. The middle-aged guy – in his 40s or 50s – is not wearing ties anymore. Nobody wants to look like their father or their boss, so this age group has stopped wearing ties. The younger generation has now started to adopt this kind of formal wear to differentiate themselves. So it’s quite interesting to see that everything has turned on its head. But this is an opportunity also to do things differently and to change. We were probably caught by repetition previously, doing the same thing over and again. Nowadays, I can experiment with a few pieces of this, a few pieces of that – it’s a nice way to create unique things for our customer.”
ICON: Your philosophy is very centred: make a beautiful product, then find a customer for it. This is in opposition to how most would run a fashion business; simply creating something that people are already looking for. Do you find this purist manner of thinking aids innovation, because you’re not always just fulfilling a need?
CG: “Absolutely – and that’s the point. You make a point about what probably is the main difference between us and our competitors, the fact that we are a maker, we are a producer. We have more people working on the production side than in retail. This makes a huge difference, because we are trying to make the most beautiful things and we are trying to reach perfection. I know perfection isn’t realistic, but it doesn’t mean I won’t try.”
ICON: Why choose to spend your career with an organic material like silk? You seem like someone who obviously has a great amount of ideas and strength in the creative process. Why not a man-made fibre where you could dream up anything you want?
CG: “It’s just something I’ve done for many years. And it always seems different the more I work with silk. If I bring something else, for example nylon, polyester, whatever, and mix it with silk or cashmere, it always feels fresh. Silk used to be very heavy, and now we are going in the direction of being light and comfortable. What’s unique about silk is that it keeps you warm when it’s cold, and when it’s warm, silk isn’t that hot.”
“Music is a very strong product. It can change your mood, or make you feel more con dent. That drop of happiness is an essential part of our vocabulary as a house of emotion…”
ICON: Is that how you get away with having one collection that works for different climates and cultural tastes?
CG: “I’ve got friends who are working in different companies that are making one collection for Asia, another for Europe, and again another for the US market. I would never imagine to do something like that, because we are trying to keep the house consistent and make one collection. To be closer to the customers in Beijing or New York, we invite the manager of the region, show them the collection and they select whatever they like. So, in the end, that will make a difference because the collection will be completely different here in Beijing than Spain or in Melbourne or in Sydney. For example, we are selling a bright red in the US. They love that.”
ICON: No relation to the MAGA trend?
CG: “Ha! No. In Asia, for example, they are more discrete; they love darker colours. A dark burgundy, darker prune or darker navy… colours like this. Europeans, however, are quite comfortable to wear a different mix of colours; a green with a pink and yellow in the centre.”
ICON: So, for those who are afraid of these bold colour choices and might associate scarves as being feminine, how do you design for this customer in a way they can identify with the Hermès silk stable?
CG: “I know, it’s true. You know, a tie is very easy for men to understand and they know how to wear it. It’s something very common. A scarf is very strange. It’s a square. When you look at the square, most men feel it looks like something a woman should wear. We’ve worked a lot on the design of men’s scarves since the 2000s. We’ve tried many sizes and finally landed on the one metre by one metre. You can wrap this easily around your neck, and it’s still big enough to fold without having to do a knot. Our first objective when considering men’s silk design was to make something easy. The second part was to consider the types of material we use, because silk is quite shiny and has a feminine look when natural. We worked on finding a more matt appearance, and finally found that a silk and cashmere combination was the right mix. We’ve also experimented with cashmere and cotton, silk and cotton, cotton and other materials. The final part is the design. The first question I ask myself when considering a design is whether it could appear in the women’s collection. If the answer is yes, I’ll remove it because I want something that speaks to men. We have a number of mechanical, sport and animal motifs in our collection that talk to men’s tastes.”
ICON: And music. Hence Silk Mix?
CG: “Yes, Silk Mix is a concept that happened by chance. When we work on the designs, we often comment that they could make a good album cover. One day, our artistic director of menswear, Véronique [Nichanian], suggested we create a vintage record store experience with all the scarves. Silk Mix is an experience we tried to recreate in a very honest way. So, for example, when looking at our SS10 collection, we went back and listened to music from 2010. Adding a soundtrack to scarves from their respective time period felt right. We are not selling our products at Silk Mix, it’s just a meeting point. An opportunity to connect with Hermès as a house of pleasure in a way.”
ICON: A little like your beginnings.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE APRIL 2019 EDITION OF ICON MAGAZINE.