“I wanted this three-act performance to be our way of keeping a record
of these extraordinary times where the situation demands more of us than a simple runway show. I wanted a film directed by an artist with a feel for the crossover of genres and disciplines. Not a film about fashion, nor about dance, but a film about us all and all the ways we can and must continue to reinvent ourselves.” — Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski, artistic director of Hermès Women’s ready-to-wear
Vanhée-Cybulski summed up the rationale that gave media, from Paris to Asia, the incomparable experience of viewing and immersing themselves in the livestream of Hermès Women’s Ready-to-Wear Fall-Winter 2021 collection. The collection, streamed simultaneously across three continents last March 6, 9:30p.m. (Manila time), was an unprecedented presentation in three acts done at Park Avenue Armory in New York, La Garde Republicaine in Paris, and at Maison Hermès in Shanghai.
The more than 40-piece collection was presented in a triptych that fused dance, fashion, film, art—“dance the collection, dance the situation,” as was said in an Hermès statement. As demanded by the life change the world has found itself in the past year, the event went beyond fashion and style into the multi-discipline expression of today’s philosophy and life attitude. It was a collaborative masterpiece among Vanhée-Cybulski, leading American choreographer Madeline Hollander, Chinese choreographer Gu Jiani who is said to be shaking up modern dance in China, and foremost French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz.
To watch the livestream from across the world, the Philippines’ Hermès team led by Mario Katigbak set up what must be the first high-end event in Manila’s fashion and retail scene in this pandemic—intimate with only very few attendees and hewing to strict safety and health protocols at Peninsula Manila. The airy vast Upper Lobby of the hotel became the setting of the elegant dinner that preceded the private viewing of the livestream. (The seating at dinner and at the viewing astutely followed social distancing.) The event was elaborately prepared yet appropriate with the times. It became a perfect setting for the livestreamed presentation that was steeped in the philosophy of fashion, art and culture, dance and even women’s empowerment.
The presentation opened with Hollander’s choreography in New York, followed by the collection in Paris, and ended with Gu Jiani’s choreography in Paris—all in a seamless film by Lifshitz.
‘If we cannot go anywhere, if we cannot travel, the show will have to come to us’
In Hermès’ official literature, Vanhée-Cybulski explained how the idea came about:
“Very straightforwardly, out of a question: how in these socially distanced times can we continue to be creative and, more importantly, be together despite it all? If we cannot go anywhere, if we cannot travel, the show will have to come to us… And that is how we came to the idea of something beyond an actual, physical performance. Then we decided to connect three distinct places, so that the collection itself would travel to the three cities and find its own way of inhabiting the space.
“I was more interested in ubiquity. I wanted to know how the collection could feed off and contribute to the energy of three very different cities. We wanted artists to take over the project and interpret my work using their own language, their own discipline. That is why we chose local choreographers. When I was introduced to the work of these two young women—Madeline Hollander, and Gu Jiani—it seemed like a no-brainer.
I fell in love, actually, for each has her own way of expressing female power. There was something exalted in their approach to dance….”
The exercise was “dancing a collection to infuse other bodies, other cities, with movement—even after the show is over.”
‘After a year in crisis, we all want to dream big’
Genre-crossing filmmaker Lifshitz explained the triptych’s conception, the breathing of life into the clothes through movement: “I was tasked with making a film about the backstage workings and preparation for the event on March 6, something the fashion world has never seen….Current restrictions have forced Hermès to completely rethink the fashion show, usually synonymous with crowds and interaction. This triptych is a fresh new take on the fashion show. After a year in crisis, we all want to dream big. Hermès has created a space where we can all be together….”
It’s very interesting how Hollander worked on the choreography: “…. I needed to find within the triptych the balance between gesture, movement, stepping, and choreography necessary for a natural, organic dialogue.
Nadège and I came to discuss fabrics, and the incredible quantity of fabrics in her collection, and also the sensuality of certain textures, certain colors.”
Vanhée-Cybulski elaborated on this innovative use of choreography to express the collection: “For Shanghai, there was an attraction to tradition, but for New York I didn’t have a precise idea. I knew I didn’t want the performance to resemble the show too closely; that was all. I was interested in Madeline’s obsession with gesture. I thought it would be a perfect way to open the triptych…. It is interesting to see what Madeline does with an article of clothing: for her it is not a piece of clothing on a body, but movement renewed. I am interested in the relationship between clothes, bodies, and attitudes; these are the things I think of when I begin designing a new collection…. My collaboration with Gu Jiani was predicated on the physical, whereas Madeline’s approach is more theoretical: the conceptual basis of the project and its structure are in fact revealed in her work. She was the ideal partner for the opening. In retrospect, I realize that the difference of those two approaches inspired the collection as it was being made.”
She added: “I was interested in what these two choreographers could bring me, not the other way around… We responded to Madeline’s work on walking styles with wrap pleated, and frill dresses and skirts in georgette that allow movement, the pleats echoing the curtains. Each of the moments of this triptych has its own life, its own identity; they are true moments of creativity.”
‘My work begins by studying people’s walks in New York in the morning’
Hollander described the movements derived from the New Yorker’s walk: “My work begins by studying people’s walks in New York in the morning. At that early hour there are two distinct rhythms: some forcible, power-oriented, decision-making. Others adopt a leisurely pace, traversing the city more circuitously. So, we have two distinct territories that both possess unique forms of sensuality. … How to associate them? To guide each toward the other?”
Vanhée-Cybulski added: “…. Whatever we produce carries within it a portrait of the moment. We are living in singular times, and are faced with singular creative challenges.
“The moment we are experiencing is important because it is changing everything we think we know. We are rethinking our connection to other people. We have an increasingly local focus, which is both constraining as well as a wonderful opportunity—that we have attempted to weave into this triptych: we in Paris, Madeline in New York, Gu Jiani in Shanghai. And it is vital that each participant has a strictly personal and intimate approach to where they live and to what is happening now.
Would we have created this new vocabulary, these socially distanced collaborations if things had been calmer, more normal? Probably not.
We would have undoubtedly produced a more traditional show. We want
to comprehend the moment and invent new ways of working together.”
Gu Jiani made Vanhée-Cybulski think of geometry—”a geometry I perceived in her choreographies, and which I then found in my collection,” said Vanhée-Cybulski. “I wanted Gu Jiani to feel inspired by our graphics, and free to explore the essential—that is, what lies behind the clothing, for we are both focused on showing that women are as strong as they are sensuous. A woman in movement. Gu Jiani chose the Tattersall equestrian check because it defines a framework in both the literal and figurative sense.”
Gu Jiani explained how the Chinese tradition figured in the triptych, how she incorporated Chinese boxes in it: “The first video which I believe struck Nadège and her teams was a choreography in which I played very athletically, very energetically, with boxes. In China, boxes are ubiquitous. It is such a commonplace object that everyone can relate to. I noticed that composing a choreography out of boxes had intrigued the creative team in Paris, where boxes symbolize gifts, presents, surprises. Here again it was interesting to see how each of us managed to surprise the other by just being ourselves. Using boxes like building blocks on the stage invites the audience to look at them differently, like sliding walls, partitions that can be played with. Obstacles turn into bridges. Spaces are transformed instantly. So we are dealing with the concept of rules, which for me is symbolized by the Tattersall pattern.”
‘Our orange boxes have a long history…. It seemed appropriate to include them in the staging since they symbolize our identity
Vanhée-Cybulski picked up from that: “When Gu Jiani decided to use the box as a theme— a universal object—it was both startling and intuitive, since the box is fundamental to Hermès. Our orange boxes have a long history; they are part and parcel of Hermès. It seemed appropriate to include them in the staging since they symbolize our identity. The history of these boxes is synonymous with the boldness but also the quality one associates with Hermès. Boldness means finding solutions and reinventing oneself using what is available, and building something beautiful despite the constraints of the moment—while reaffirming one’s creativity. Originally the boxes were white, but because of the scarcity of white paper during the war they changed, orange being the only readily available color. Thus orange became symbolic, and is now a kind of common denominator in this triptych. “
She then described her new collection—an attempt to balance affirmation, strength and sensuality through femininity: “The idea was female sensuality completely reappropriated. Women’s sensuality was forever described, filmed, photographed, and painted by men. The choreographers we approached were women. This was not fortuitous. We are living in a time when women need to take control of the narrative, express their sensuality as they see fit, far from all stereotypes.
It is an ongoing process—and a wonderful challenge—for today’s women,
and for fashion.”
All this points out to how Hermès groundbreaking Women’s Fall-Winter 2021 presentation transcended not only today’s pandemic and the global challenge, but also the borders of physical time and space, fashion, art and dance, and film. Viewing it was a refreshing, liberating experience.