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How to Succeed: Ramesh Nair, creative director of Moynat

The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. In our monthly interview column, How to Succeed, we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.

You might not have heard of Ramesh Nair, but the Indian-born, Paris-based designer has a shining portfolio full of coveted stints under some of the most renowned designers of our time, from Yohji Yamamoto to Christian Lacroix. He has also spent an impressive 11 years as senior designer at Hermès, learning all the tricks of the trade from none other than the legendary Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier. Which is why — even though he hadn’t yet stepped into the spotlight — it was Nair that Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy, decided to call upon in 2011 when he needed someone to take over the freshly-acquired Moynat.

Though Moynat was considered to be one of the oldest heritage French trunk-making houses in the world with a history dating back to 1849, it closed its doors in 1976; and when Nair was called upon to revive the house from its three-decade-long hiatus, there was only one store and atelier on rue Saint Honoré. Today, however, thanks to Nair’s innovative creative vision and unyielding passion for quality, the brand has undergone an impressive transformation, resulting in multiple standalone boutiques all across the globe from New York to Hong Kong.

Nair was recently in Hong Kong to launch his three-month pop-up store at Pacific Place, and we got the chance to sit down with him for a chat: discussing everything from his design journey spanning India to Paris, who he considers his biggest mentor, his opinion on today’s luxury industry and his personal definition of success.

Ramesh Nair
Ramesh Nair is the creative director of Moynat.

Can you share with us a little more about yourself, and when you knew you wanted to get into fashion?

Fashion came much later actually, and it was by chance. I never grew up thinking fashion design, and in fact I didn’t know what it meant. My starting point was not knowing what to do with myself, and this was during a time when fashion was not the most acknowledged thing, especially in Asia. Not many people talked about fashion in Asia like they did in Europe.

I was going to go join the army, but I knew that was not what I wanted to do. So I started going through a list of career choices, but they all turned out to be a no for me; yet on the other side, I couldn’t find any yeses. What did I want to do? I hadn’t got a clue. One day I saw this ad in a newspaper, which talked about a new school, FIT New York, opening a new branch in India. It was 1986. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but it sounded good, and the ad looked very nice. I applied, and strangely they selected me.

There were times when I would always wonder why the hell they would take someone who had absolutely no background in this field, but I had a good time, and at some point I realised that ‘Yes I like it, and I can express myself very well with this’. Fashion is a media of expression, and I realised that’s what I’m good at, and I speak a language that is understandable by people.

From India to Paris, it couldn’t have been a smooth path to get to where you are today.

No, not at all. When I first started at the fashion school, it was actually a bit of a nightmare. Asia in those days, and even now, were a bunch of manufacturers. Every big brand used Asia as a manufacturing hub, we were not meant to be designers. There was a bit of, I would say, segregation in that way; so you would have European designers and American designers, but we were manufacturers. Trying to make people understand that ‘Yes, Asians can design very well’ was not the easiest thing.

Do you think that has changed after all these years?

I think borders have been broken, but if you look at it in general, there are still biases against Asian design. This is something quite funny, that I talk about often: When I was a kid growing up, if you wanted to buy electronics, it had to be made in Germany to be really good. So you would buy a television made in Germany, the UK or America, and anything from Asia was supposed to be either bad or fake. But now, everything is made in Asia, so somewhere along the line some things have changed. Yes, there is a part which is still not accepted, but I guess we are getting there. And I think there is also another huge element at play: We are the biggest consumers, and that makes a huge difference.

The Moynat store at Landmark in Hong Kong.
You've worked under a number of great designers before, but it's Martin Margiela whom you've continuously praised.

I always think that there are steps in your life that make you who you are. It can be from your mother, father, brother, uncle or friends, and it can be bad or good influences. Whatever it is, it stays with you. You don’t realise it unless you actually start dissecting your life. When you are young, you don’t stop to think and say ‘Hey this person influenced me; that one taught me smoking; this one took me to my first bar…’, but I can shamelessly say that I have worked with the master. I have worked with a few of the masters, but this one’s the best.

There are designers who don’t just teach you what design is about, they also make you understand who you are. Then there is a human part about it, which I think matters a lot. I have worked with some designers that I have regretted big time. It’s like going to a restaurant where you have the best food, but the guy treats you badly, and you wouldn’t want to go back. So I think the human part plays a huge role in it, and Martin gave me both.

How has working with Martin Margiela helped shape you into the designer you are now?

Before I started working with him, I had a lot of crazy ideas but I never knew who I was in terms of design mentality. When you watch the design careers of a lot of people, for example if you look at John Galliano and what he did for his own brand and Dior, and what he’s doing for Margiela, it’s the same thing. It’s about the identity, you have your style. A very good designer, however, is like a chameleon, who can change according to the circumstances.

For Martin, what he did for himself, and what he did for Hermès, were two extreme opposites. You have to understand how difficult it is for a designer, who is rather grungy and uses fabrics that never cost more than 50 euros per metre, to turn 180 degrees and buy the most amazing cashmere and work with the most amazing suits — that requires serious talent. It’s something that really struck me. To consume luxury and to design luxury are two different things. To be able to design luxury, you need to understand its core principles. You will have to know what to reject and what to accept, and the rejection part is the most difficult part.

What do you think were the qualities that attracted Bernard Arnault to you when he was looking for a designer to take over Moynat? And why did you say yes?

I saw a clean slate, a page for me to draw. I saw nothing around it, there were no borders, and there was nothing to tell me what not to do.

But Moynat was already an over-a-century-old brand when you took over, with an identity of its own before shutting down in the 1970s. You wanted a clean slate but have you ever felt constrained by its heritage?

That’s a part which I normally never agree with. In human terms, your great-grandparents could have been killers, but that does not mean that you continue the same path. You can improve yourself and by the time you’ve reached your level of creating something, you can change the path completely.

The most important thing to understand is that it’s not about taking the heritage from that point of time. It could have disappeared. There were over 600 to 700 trunk-maker brands, 99% have disappeared, all that you see is three or four of them, and the ones who have managed to survive are the ones who have the family to continue the line. I know companies that used to make paper in the past, but now they are making bags. I think the whole idea of taking the past and moving it on is either doing something completely different, or evolving the product. For example you take a trunk, which is a travel object, and evolve it into a bag. It’s what you do with it that makes a difference. Have you improved on it and made it better, or have you completely destroyed it and made an amazing brand completely ugly?

What was first on your agenda when you were given the task to reboot the identity of Moynat for the modern era?

That’s something quite interesting, because when I joined previous companies, they gave me guidelines and limits. Here, there was nothing; like I said, a clean slate. I had to look at what everybody else was doing, so I sat and drew out a graph to see how many other brands were on a certain level, who else there was and who’s doing what. Then I had to find a target to see where I would fit. The things that I wanted and couldn’t really compromise on were craftsmanship, good materials and finishing, so this was in the list and I went from there. I didn’t start and say ‘Okay I’m going to do three bags, two wallets and one tote.’ No, nothing of that sort.

You've just debuted a new Mini Pyramid bag, and it's got quite an unusual shape. How did you come up with this idea?

A square, a circle and a triangle are the things which you would normally base your design philosophy on. If you look at good bags, they are always based on these shapes — apart from the triangle, as it’s not a shape that people normally want to do because it’s complicated. For a couple of years now, architecture has come very seriously into my collecting phase. I collect books on architects, I keep trying to study and understand their way of thinking, rather than the buildings. I was very keen on doing the pyramid, which is just like The Louvre in Paris.

The Mini Pyramid bag
The Mini Pyramid bag, now exclusive available in limited quantity at Moynat’s pop-up store at Pacific Place, Hong Kong.
It must have taken a lot of time to create a bag with such a complicated structure. How do you communicate your ideas with your artisans?

Unlike every other designer, I never simply send over the style, decorations and patterns on a mood board. I work a lot with my artisans in terms of construction, and details on how to really make the bags in the perfect way. We have no mood boards, design meetings, nothing.

For the Mini Pyramid bag, it took almost a month and a half to create, and finally they were delivered from the atelier to my place right before I was going to take a flight out on Friday. It’s rather funny because when I called my artisan on Monday to ask about the process, he said he’s managed a little bit and sent me a picture. I told him no it needs to come to me by Friday because I’m leaving, but he said it was impossible. Just like what I’ve just said about not compromising on craftsmanship and quality, the craftsmen who work with us totally agree with me, and that’s really something you don’t see everywhere.

How do you choose your artisans?

When you have an artisan who is not happy with what he’s done, and thinks he can push it further, it’s when you know your products are going further. It’s not the case that whenever a bag is done and comes to me in a package, then I’m happy with it. Never. We always go back to the drawing board. In some ways it’s frustrating, because when I come up to the store, I start thinking ‘I can improve it, I can make it better.’

I work with two crazy guys, and they would come to me to present something and say ‘This bag is done’ or ‘That product is done’, but they would never say ‘Hey look what an amazing job I’ve done.’ Instead, you’d see them looking very upset, and then they’d tell you there is a problem. So I’d ask what the problem is, and I’d go through the bag and say ‘There are a few problems, but it’s okay, it doesn’t matter, we’ll improve on it the next time.’

Many brands stress upon the use of 'traditional methods'. As a century-old brand, that might be enough for you too, yet you've been busy inventing new leather-making techniques, such as leather marquetry. How come?

When I had my own brand, I was never happy with what I got from people. Yes, certain leathers I would look at and say ‘It’s fantastic’, but other times I would think ‘What if I did this with that, and tried something else with it’? It started off as an experiment, but it worked out very well.

Moynat
Pouches created using Moynat’s leather marquetry technique.

I think we evolve in life because we have tried things, if you would have talked to somebody who’s from the 1920s and said that your phone can recognise you, they would never believe you. It’s because somebody experimented, somebody tried, and this is what we managed. It’s the same modalities. We keep trying, we keep experimenting, there are a lot of failures, and a few successes.

Unlike other heritage handbag brands, Moynat tends to keep rather discreet, and does not seem to launch its creations according to seasons. Why is that?

It’s a lot to do with taking the time to execute a product. Unless it’s really well-made, I wouldn’t want to serve it to anybody. We’ve had press meetings when we didn’t have the bags to present; or we’ve had showroom openings and said ‘This is the bag of the season and we have only one bag’, so a lot of the time it’s basically just because we’re not ready yet. I don’t understand the seasonal colours or the idea of collections, it doesn’t make sense to me.

How do you think the luxury industry has changed compared to when you first started?

Luxury products have become un-luxury; it has become crap, because there’s no luxury in it. I’ve seen toilet fittings which are called ‘luxury fittings’, and even a drink that someone calls a ‘luxury drink’. I think this whole concept of what we call luxury has changed. What luxury used to be, I wouldn’t call it rarity, but it was more to do with what was necessary at that point in time: Did you take the best available, and did it have all the honest components in it? Luxury is now marketing nonsense.

How do you measure success in this industry? Do you think you have achieved that, and what is the one thing that you’re most proud of over the years?

Sometimes success is quantified by how much money companies make, or are you on the stock exchange, or are your ratings as good as somebody else’s. I don’t think that way. Success for me is a long-term thing, it’s going to be measured maybe a hundred years from now. For instance, you read Shakespeare, though you don’t even know what the guy’s face looks like. In a hundred years, when even books disappear and there are quotes or certain sayings that people use in day-to-day life that stays, then you know that success is there.

So at the moment you don't think anyone is 'successful', really?

No. I don’t think there are any brands which I can call successful, its just that time will tell. Look at the basic products like sneakers or whatever, they were a huge product at that point of time, and now they are all fighting basically to stay alive. So success should not be quantified, it should not be measured.

Any advice for the younger designers of today who wish to break into the industry?

Experiment.

What about advice to your younger self?

Be stupid and be stupid again and always. Growing up you’re scared of making mistakes. I would make mistakes but I would try to avoid them, so I think perhaps I was stupid but not stupid enough.

Cindie Chan
Style Editor
Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.