At the Zingaro equestrian theater outside Paris this past January, the horses circled close enough for the audience to feel the ground tremor, hear the animals snorting—and even catch a whiff of their, ahem, droppings. An unlikely setting for a fragrance launch? Not for Hermès, whose equestrian heritage, which dates to 1837, is now running at full gallop again. Besides the new perfume, Voyage d’Hermès, due on counters this spring, the French luxury firm is set to bring the sound of thundering hooves to the Grand Palais on April 3 and 4 for Saut Hermès, a new international show-jumping competition and equine extravaganza.
And Hermès isn’t alone. It may be the Year of the Tiger in Chinese astrology, but in the fashion world there’s no shortage of horseplay. Brands with such pedigrees are trumpeting their background, while a diverse range of designers continues to be inspired by a look steeped in history and rich with aristocratic associations.
Most recently John Galliano gave the theme haute attitude at Christian Dior. The sound of thundering hooves reverberating through the house’s gray salons foreshadowed the equestrian streak that would race through his spring couture collection, shown in January, its strong tailoring based on riding jackets and skirts, with the former ending in Edwardian peplums, and the latter sprouting volume on one side via pleats or swags of fabric caught at the hip.
Last December Gucci kicked its bamboo heels into its flanks, reviving a legacy that stretches back to 1921. The Florentine house sponsored the swanky European Equestrian Masters competition in Paris, complete with a temporary shop offering limited-edition riding boots and scarves. It was the first such event in two decades. “We are privileged in a way because there aren’t so many fashion houses with this connection to the equestrian world,” says Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini, who started riding horses at age six and competed in show jumping in Italy through her teens. “It’s not something you can invent.”
These days Giannini has little time for riding, but she channels the passion she still feels for it into her designs, refreshing iconic Gucci styles like horse-bit loafers from 1953 and the Jackie bag, circa 1961, with the same stripe originally conceived as a girth strap to anchor saddles. While recent Gucci collections have been inspired by rock music and extreme sports, Giannini says there’s often an equestrian element, such as a giant horse-bit closure on a thick high-tech belt that hugs the waist of one of her suits for spring. “There is a sort of elegance to equestrian clothing. To be a good rider, you need to be skinny, of course, or the horse suffers a lot,” she says with a good-natured laugh.
Even Jean Paul Gaultier, though not a rider himself, gets his kicks playing with the genre’s style codes—including the kinky associations attached to harnesses and riding crops—both in his own collection and as women’s ready-to-wear designer at Hermès. “I find the riding equipment and details such as leather harnesses, saddle stitching [and] saddle nails really inspiring. That’s a very vivifying experience, I’d say, like a crack of a whip!” says the ebullient designer. “For me, the Hermès woman is an elegant amazon. She’s a free woman who holds the reins.”