Photograph by Lukas Wassmann.
Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski had nearly finished her spring collection by the time she went on maternity leave at the end of April, more than four months before her designs would ever appear on a runway. As the creative director for women’s ready-to-wear for Hermès, she prefers coherency to chaos, a characteristic that suits her well at a house that is renowned for a demanding level of quality that is dependent on time-consuming craftsmanship. Only one silhouette still needed to be reworked, so she promised her team a sketch would be forthcoming when she set off to enjoy some time with her husband as they anticipated the arrival of their first child.
“My due date was mid-June, and I was really flirting with danger,” Vanhée-Cybulski recalls. “It was funny because I was meant to give that sketch for a long time. When the contractions started, I thought, Oh, I have to finish it! I was having contractions, stopping, breathing, and then drawing again.”
The design, which would become look 27 in the show, was for a leather poncho in a rich shade of brown that evokes the warm color of a cigar. It combines elements of a cape and a tunic, and has an apronlike waistline that was loosely based on the uniforms worn by artisans at the company’s leather goods campus in Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris. Small buckles decorate the neck and waist, elements that relate to the house’s 182-year heritage as a maker of equestrian accessories, but their delicate placement suggests something slightly sensual as well. Vanhée-Cybulski somehow managed to convey all of this on paper, while in labor. When she saw the finished sample weeks later, she thought, Wow, this is perfect.
Months earlier, while Vanhée-Cybulski and her husband, Peter Cybulski, were discussing ideas for baby names, she mentioned a book she had been reading about Enid Marx, the pioneering textile designer who created the bold geometric patterns seen on the heavy moquette seat covers in the London Underground from the 1930s to the ’60s. The name Enid was slightly old-fashioned, but she liked the sound of it. “There was something pure,” Vanhée-Cybulski says, “two syllables, two consonants, two vowels.” And so, now, baby Enid adds a new dimension to the story of a designer who, from the outside, might appear to be defined by restraint and control, but in person is surprisingly direct and practical.
Her life these days, she is the first to admit, requires those attributes. “I like that it’s unexpected and messy,” she says of motherhood when we meet at La Closerie des Lilas, the historic Left Bank café favored by artists and writers from Cézanne to Hemingway. “It’s all very new. Enid is only 3 months old and we are still at this stage of, ‘Is she sleeping?’ ‘Did she eat?’ I have to check for all those little signs now of how she holds her head, or if she is smiling. I think before I was a little bit immune to everything around me, like I was almost on autopilot. When I left the maternity ward, I saw Paris with new eyes.”
Throughout her career, for a few years each at Maison Martin Margiela and at Celine under Phoebe Philo, then as the design director for Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen’s the Row, in New York, Vanhée-Cybulski has been associated with a cult of designers who generally believe that attention is tacky and that their work should speak for itself. When she was appointed creative director for women’s ready-to-wear at Hermès, in 2014, replacing Christophe Lemaire, Vanhée-Cybulski was so unknown to the outside world that the fashion press was left to create a narrative based on what few scraps they could discover online. Some speculated that her hire reflected the trend of luxury companies seeking behind-the-scenes talents who were presumably less expensive and less dramatic. Others noted that she was the first woman to hold the job in more than 20 years, her predecessors having included Margiela himself and Jean Paul Gaultier. Like the quiet designs associated with some of the companies on her résumé, Vanhée-Cybulski was portrayed as reserved, a misperception she finds amusing.
“It’s just because I don’t use social media,” she says. “It’s a reduction we have in this society, that if you choose not to be online, it’s wrong. I’m not a Luddite, it’s not that I say no to machines and don’t use cars but only a carriage.”
In fact, Vanhée-Cybulski has a decidedly commanding presence. One of her closest friends, the painter Whitney Bedford, who lives in Los Angeles, has witnessed how Vanhée-Cybulski can be intimidating at first, but then slowly reveals herself. “She’s such an elegant lady, and at the same time there is this side of her that is totally punk,” Bedford says. “You should see her at a Guns N’ Roses concert.” Bedford recalls a particular New Year’s Eve party when Vanhée-Cybulski was living in New York, where the designer was “full-on doing the worm and somehow sprained her leg. She had to go back to work at the Row and explain to the staff how she had injured herself.” On another occasion, Bedford took her to Venice Beach for sunset cocktails and recalls how Vanhée-Cybulski, then at Maison Martin Margiela, lit up when she saw the chintzy merchandise all along the boardwalk. “She spent her last $200 on all of this crap, buying up seashell bikinis and sunglasses, and sure enough, two seasons later, it all came out in this beautiful cashmere collection,” she says. “The thing about Nadège is that when she gets into something, she really gets into it. She can turn trash into treasure.”
Vanhée-Cybulski was born and raised in Lille, in Northern France, and often traveled to Paris, Antwerp, and London to explore flea markets and vintage stores. At 17, she and a friend decided to write for a fanzine so they could get into concerts for free and drink beer. Her mother is Algerian Muslim and her father is French Christian, “so there was this big collision of two worlds in my life,” she says. “It was a great asset because I had a bigger world to look at. I understood there was a cross-cultural phenomenon, and somehow that has really forged me as a designer.” She studied fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, and, while working for Delvaux in Brussels in her mid-20s, she found a job at Maison Martin Margiela in Paris, a dream for any young designer. From Margiela, who was notoriously press-phobic, she learned patience. “Martin always respected people’s work and time,” she says. “It was very intuitive. I would bring things and draw. I was really into that world.”
Now 41, she lives with Enid and Peter—an art gallerist whom she met during her time in London working for Celine—in a typically cozy Parisian apartment, with tall ceilings and the sort of softly worn herringbone wood floors you imagine exist everywhere in France. They chose to settle in the notoriously seedy neighborhood of Pigalle, near the Moulin Rouge—which also seems out of character for a designer of luxury clothes—because it reminded Vanhée-Cybulski of the Paris she knew when she was a teenager. These days, one of her favorite places to stroll nearby is the charming Musée de la Vie Romantique, with its greenhouse and hidden courtyard garden.
Peter’s Galerie PCP, located in the Marais, has hosted exhibitions for artists like Lewis Teague Wright, Seana Gavin, and Gerda Scheepers, whose wall-mounted sculptures are made of fabric collages. Many of their works provide bold splashes of color throughout the otherwise classic apartment. In the living room, there are two enormous couches—one pink, one orange—handmade in the U.K. by George Sherlock. They didn’t look nearly as big when they were in Vanhée-Cybulski’s former New York City loft, but she likes that they represent something made by a specialist in a manner that evokes authenticity.
Everywhere there are reflections of how their individual styles came together. For entertaining at home, he wanted a beautiful coffee table; she preferred a more formal dining table. So they have both. Vanhée-Cybulski points out a baroque candle from Seville, elaborately carved to look like a bouquet of flowers, that is displayed on a shelf inside a minimalist Japanese ceramic so simple you almost wouldn’t notice it. The couple shares an office with an enormous library of art and fashion books, with paintings and photographs balanced on the edges of shelves, a dressmaker dummy standing to the side.
“He’s English and I’m French,” she says. “We create our own bubble together. I was very purist. I loved the work of the Bauhaus gang, so it had to be pure—a tube with a piece of wood and I was just in massive ecstasy, and Peter is more cozy and round.”
Duality is also an important aspect of her work. At Hermès, she makes a point of designing eye-catching runway fashion, as well as perennial pieces that will always have a place in a woman’s wardrobe. She loves the hardness of leather and the softness of silk. “I always say that leather is consciousness and silk is the subconscious, because when you open the box of silk, you pull out so many stories, so many anecdotes, so many references,” she says. “You really allow your imagination to transport you wherever you wish.”
She describes her five years at Hermès as a “quinquennat,” the French word for a presidential term. “At the beginning, there was so much information to process. I thought, How can I make a clear vision with such history and heritage? What do I do? What do I leave? What do I take?” Vanhée-Cybulski is now known for her intensive research, which often includes references to artists and furniture design. “I love Nadège’s work ethic as much as the person she is,” says the stylist Melanie Ward, who consults on the house’s shows. “She is always curious and open-minded. She is very detail oriented and methodical, and makes considered decisions with a deep understanding of form, function, and design.”
It says something that the creative director of a company famous for its five-figure Kelly and Birkin handbags—and their respective waiting lists—is on occasion seen around Paris carrying a cotton canvas tote from L.L.Bean. Who would not be charmed? “At Hermès they like to have people with strong personalities and a bit of quirkiness,” she says, “and people who also have a strong principle of respect.” Vanhée-Cybulski says she has always admired the simplicity of the tote’s design, so a friend from New York sent the bag as a gift, along with one with longer straps for Peter, and an even larger one for Enid to carry someday. Vanhée-Cybulski did not want them monogrammed, as that would have spoiled the clean lines.
There is a moment at the beginning of each collection when Vanhée-Cybulski creates “soft narration,” as she calls it. “I’m not going to compare myself to a film director, but I write a story,” she says. One season, she combined checks, prints, lace, and other elements that caught her eye in the archives to demonstrate that Hermès is about more than square scarves sold in orange boxes. For another, she imagined what great explorers—Corto Maltese, Lord Jim, Odysseus—might have looked like had they been women. “I want to surprise people,” she says. “I work on opposites. I like this polarity of classic and a bit of twist or underground.”
Backstage before the spring runway show, Vanhée-Cybulski points out the poncho she had designed while in labor. It is, indeed, perfect—the result of a complicated idea, sophisticated in its clarity. Vanhée-Cybulski says she was thinking about the pureness of craftsmanship and the soft, tactile aspect of the finished product. “I still believe the Hermès woman is seen as a vestal, or someone who is not necessarily associated with sensuality,” she says. That is an impression she wants to change, so she introduced dresses with panels of transparent silk organdy, and casual knits that resemble underpinnings. She emphasized her point by blending two very different songs for the runway soundtrack: Janet Jackson’s sharp, precise “Control,” and Nina Simone’s weirdly wistful cover of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” a song about the wonderful and hopeless messiness of life. Above all, one line from Simone stood out: “We always, we always, we always have a story.”