IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHE GOINEAU

Once upon a time, in Cannes – and no, this is no fairy tale – there was this beautiful store of maison Hermès, right next to the Casino.

Men without ties were refused access, so sometimes, Bobby Breward, director of Hermès Cannes, would come and lend the customer his own tie. It was also him who suggested the former Hermès president back in the 40s introduce a tie production that would bring together the precious “Savoir Faire” of the house and its passion for colors and sophisticated design. Having mastered the art of printing on silk twill scarves, in 1954, the first Hermès tie was introduced to the market, which went through a beautiful process of fabric experimentation with the use of silk and woven silk. Over the years, the printed silks were joined by woven silks, knitwear, and even leather. In 1968, illustrator and horse rider Henri d’Origny was the first to add drawings such as horse riding and equestrians.

Beyond any doubt, the tie is a complex phenomenon in fashion and fashion history that challenges societal ideas and structures like barely any other fashion product. It has gone through so many drastic changes that today, it has become almost a new tool to express freedom and personality, something that the house of Hermès has pushed since the beginning of designing it. Now, it was about time for the French company to celebrate the exciting ride of the Hermès tie. Shortly before a celebratory dinner in Berlin, I am sitting down with Christophe Goineau, Creative Director of Men’s Silk and Men’s Universe Designs, to talk about… ties, yes. A joyful conversation about a teacher in space and horses wearing Hermès ties.

Sina Braetz: Welcome to Berlin. How are you doing?

Christophe Goineau: Thank you, I am great, I just came back from Greece, I really love it there.

I was expecting the South of France, this is interesting. What do you love so much about Greece?

I always say, the gods could choose any place to settle, and it wasn’t Paris. Maybe there is a reason for it.

Ha! Paris has been your home for so long now. You started at Hermès when you were only 21 years. That is incredible.

Yes, I would not have imagined staying that long, but well, here I am, and it isn’t too bad (laughs). Even if I wanted, I would not have found any other company that could have given me all these opportunities, powerful freedom of creation, and such a high-level product. So, I’m the lucky one, I really found something that I like, Hermès is one of the most beautiful companies. Still, today, I’m very happy.

You were trained in-house. Do you have a background in design?

No, absolutely not. I was attending a business school before I started at Hermès, which was already a big international company back then in 1987, but obviously not as big as today; it counted about 1200 employees. Very quickly, I realized that the huge difference between Hermès and other brands was the product and the quality. I met so many passionate people who could talk about products for ages, and that is for a reason. I joined the silk department very soon; it was so small back then because we were selling mostly ties and very few items. At that time, Jean-Louis Dumas, our former CEO, was also in charge of the art direction, today, it is actually his son who took over. Dumas and I had a lot of meetings, and he liked the suggestions and ideas I was proposing, so our work relationship was very organic.

You have been working with silk for Hermès for the past 35 years, what makes it so special to work with this silk?

The possibilities to work with silk are endless in a way, you can experiment with its design, color, and shape in so many ways. If I had the chance, to work with it for the next 100 years, I would do that.

Silk, first, is quite a unique fabric, and it took me some time to learn about it. As you might know, it is naturally cold, but it immediately becomes warm when you put it on your skin. Also, it is hypoallergenic. So nobody, I mean, almost nobody, is reacting to silk. Then, one more very special thing is that it captures color like nothing else since its thread is transparent and very long. It is magic. We will probably find something in the future that is going to be equally beautiful, but for now, there really is a pure, appreciative connection to silk.

How color-sensitive is silk?

Silk is light sensitive, so if you leave it in the sun for too long, it will start to fade. But at Hermès, we work with a color that is quite robust and stays, it really goes inside the threads. I think it is actually one of the best jobs at Hermès, the coloration. We have trained people whose job is to create colors. If I were to change positions, I would do that. They create about 20 variations of one color to select the right one with the designer. It’s really incredible. Hermès is a house of colors. To create the different color variants, the artisans at Hermès refer to the house’s repertoire of nearly 75,000 silk samples and shades.

“We will probably find something in the future that is going to be equally beautiful, but for now, there really is a pure, appreciative connection to silk”
Is orange your best-selling color?

Yes. We sell it a lot, but since orange is a very intense Hermès color, people also love to go rather for a beautiful Hermès red. I think we are selling colors like no other brand, we really hold a big love for colors. For me talking about design, it is always about sharing joy and giving people a reason to be happy, colors play a big role for that.

Would you say that a certain color sensibility is a talent?

Yes, it is the same as the gift of having a high sensitivity to listen to music. Some can really recognize the smallest changes. Véronique Nichanian, Artistic Director of Men’s Universe, is so good at choosing colors, she’s the master of coloration as well because for the ready to wear, she works so precisely with colors and color combinations. Sometimes it feels crazy when we think about how much time we spent on small details that probably no one will see.

But they will always feel it…

Yes, I think sometimes they don’t know why there is a difference but once they start wearing it, they will feel the details even if they could not express it and this is the reward for us investing so much time into this.

A really good but simple example of the color geniuses you are, for me, are your lipsticks – every woman can understand the gigantic difference that makes the perfect red.

Yes, it makes so much sense, it all goes back to a long time of working with colors and developing profound knowledge.

How sustainable is the process of coloring silk nowadays?

The model and values of craftsmanship that have always guided the house of Hermès encourage the careful and respectful use of raw materials.

Water is a fundamental and precious element in textile finishing, whether for the washing, dyeing or colour preparation process. We constantly innovate to optimize our use of water.

In its history, Hermès created some really special, extravagant tie designs, like the one for the Queen’s visit to France for example. Was there any particular special design that was the most iconic for you?

Yes, we once created a tie for a US teacher who was preparing to give his first class from a spaceship in outer space. He was always wearing ties when teaching on earth, and said he could not teach without a tie. So we designed a special piece made from one of our scarves and named it “Dream of Space.” We worked on this design together with NASA in order to follow their safety rules, such as the non-flammability of the fabric, etc., so we obviously could not use any silk or cashmere.

Also, I remember we created a tie for a steeplechase horse race in France. The Hermès team that was responsible for the decoration requested a tie for a horse, and that is what we did. We have really designed a few crazy things.

How does Hermès manage to protect its universe so well?

The first thing, I would say, is that there are two rules at Hermès: there is freedom of creativity, allowing me the ability to make creative decisions without boundaries. Of course, we discuss options with Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Artistic Director of Hermès, and Véronique Nichanian, Artistic Director of Men’s Universe, but we appreciate the fact that there is never only one way to go. The second rule is that all buyers are completely free to buy whatever they like. I think this supports a very healthy balance to keep a quite high standard of creativity, and every single shop can select what they are thinking is the best fit for them.

Another important element is that we are makers and not only retailers, and I think that’s a big difference if you compare it to some of our competitors: For example, if we work on a scarf, we start from one side, on which you have a thread of silk that we are weaving, we continue with the flat screen to then do the print, colors, and confection – we really process all the steps ourselves to make sure the product is done correctly. We are trying to put so many details in every single step – there are always shortcuts to get things done, but we trust our process. So, when I started at Hermès, I didn’t quite understand why everyone constantly spoke about quality since, for me, the company already had the best quality possible. But then, with time, I understood, quality is a daily task, you have to work every day to protect and ensure the best quality.

“There are two rules at Hermès: there is freedom of creativity, allowing me the ability to make creative decisions without boundaries”
How do you keep your know-how up-to-date?

We manage every single step in-house, in Lyon, which is exceptional. Other brands outsource certain parts of production. At Hermès, we weave the silk, make the frame for the engraver that will define the coloration, print the silk, and make the final piece, whether it’s a scarf or tie. And every single step along the way has to be special, adding detail, upon detail, upon detail.

As we are always searching for the best quality and know-how, some of our cashmere products are made in Scotland or Nepal and knitwear in Germany or Italy. A few months ago, someone was asking me what exactly my job was, and I think it is so much about working with emotions. A gift, for example, is supposed to be an extension to express how deep your love is for someone. When someone opens the orange box, it really is a special moment that we share with our customer. This makes the relationship between Hermès and its customers very strong, but they will also have a very strong relationship with the product because they will remember the special occasion of the gift forever.

What was the most special Hermès item that you have gifted to someone?

A 140 centimeter scarf that I gifted to a friend a few years ago. He is a biker, so we designed a scarf with a bike, a very futuristic thing. When I gifted it to him, he was skeptical, saying he would not wear any scarves, but then he saw it and was so happy, also knowing that this has been specifically made for him.

 

“A gift, for example, is supposed to be an extension to express how deep your love is for someone. When someone opens the orange box, it really is a special moment that we share with our customer”
Do you see differences between countries?

I think it is a quite general trend, how ties are being worn nowadays. The differences lie more in the choice of colors and design. For example, I would say that the US would rather go for bright colors, like bright red, that you will not find in Asia. In Europe, men go for more dark colors. One other trend though, we observed is that the US market strongly goes back to formal. During Covid, the sales of ties went down but recovered super quickly right after the pandemic.

What is the new role of the tie, and how would you say do men buy and wear it?

In general, men are selecting more carefully because they want the tie to speak about them and their personality. It has to be connected to their soul and their character.

When I started joining the company, in the late 80s, the motivation behind buying a Hermès tie was to be part of something, more like an obligation. This has completely changed. Nowadays, you don’t have to wear ties anymore, you only do it if you feel liking doing it. The obligation has turned into a pleasure.

Where does the design process start for you? Do you work with certain patterns?

It depends on the product. For ties, we have mainly internal designers; in this case, it is Philippe Mouquet. He is working for the company for more than 30 years as well, mostly on the designs that I then select. We have a place called the fridge (laughs) in which we try to find the ingredients to make the best collection possible. For scarves, it is completely different. The first option is that I find an interesting designer, illustrator, or artist to suggest a collaboration. The second option would be the other way around: I am being sent a lot of portfolios, and I am trying to answer each and every one, because you really never know. Creation is sometimes like little flowers, you have to be careful because we can easily step on them. So, I am taking my time to consider all of them. And then there is the third way, which I love especially, it is a very Hermès way: doing things by chance, meaning you discover a new talent thanks to recommendations, or you coincidentally run into someone. This is so interesting, as it opens the door to your own creative processes through spontaneous influences.

How do you inform your understanding of what is contemporary / not?

I generally like to stick to a process in which I first talk with the men working in big cities to do something which is very contemporary as there is always a trend, but it is not easy to look at it when you are inside. When I go through Hermès archives from the 50s, 60s or 70s, I can feel that they were always en vogue, always on the trend of silhouettes, design and colors etc. It is important to understand what is going on these days.

How do you select the collaborators? What are your criteria?

Sometimes, when I reach out to collaborators whose work is really different from Hermès, they are very surprised. In fact, I think this is the interesting part about making a selection – which ultimately takes Hermès somewhere people are not expecting. Of course, the Hermès universe has a certain style, but within this universe, there is a lot of space to experiment. I try to find a good balance, I feel Hermès is a house of balance, between all our ingredients. I think this idea of balance is connected to the fact that we are not making a product for one season, nor do we dictate to our customers what to buy by going with certain trends only. Our work is like writing a book or a TV series: if you like the first season, you want to see the second season, but if the first season is too close to the second season, you get bored. But if you don’t recognize in the second season what you liked about the first one, you are lost. This is what makes our job so interesting, you always try to be in this sort of evolution rather than revolution.

Did you ever think about designing specifically a women’s tie?

Not really. Tie is a versatile object, close to the customer and brings out a lot of emotions and not depending on if you are a women or a men. A lot of women are buying men’s clothes and accessories.

So you don’t see a genderless design approach works for Hermès?

Well, we have two different visions but in between, anything is possible. A lot of women actually are buying menswear and a lot of men are buying womenswear, such as scarves etc. Our customer has an autonomous choice and options to choose from, without us creating or suggesting something that we think is genderless. I don’t know if this will still be working in like 20 years but, so far it does.

From a design perspective, what are interesting new innovations and approaches of working with silk in particular?

A few years ago, we launched the double face silk, which is quite innovative. Currently, I’m working on adding natural, organic fabrics and fibers that are helpful for the way people are living now, meaning, for example, a scarf that does not crease, products that you can easily put into your washing machine, and so on. It won’t be specifically natural fabrics only; rather, it  might be about new ways of mixing fabrics in order to achieve our goals. Another topic that will become interesting is 3D printing, the new possibilities of screen printing, and how to improve it.

Thank you so much for your time. It was great talking to you.

 

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