In an industry that’s now rife with hype culture and the-bigger-the-better collaborations, Ramesh Nair opts to be discreet. Invisible, if possible. The artistic director of Moynat is not in pursuit of being the newest or coolest — the brand, after all, has never been about that.

From 1869 to the mid-1970s, the French company catered to the carriage trade, positing a bricolage of trunks, hatboxes, fitted cases and hand luggage for horse-drawn conveyances and trains, and then later automobiles. When the shop closed in 1976, the brand became dormant until LVMH bought it over just eight years ago.

Ramesh Nair moynat
Ramesh Nair.

Tasked with resuscitating the brand, Nair brought back the signature curved trunk form originally designed to sculpt the top of early autos, which the company was once synonymous with. This design style also echoed in Nair’s first handbag creation, Pauline, named after the company’s female founder Pauline Moynat.

A few seasons later, more silhouettes were introduced, including the now-popular Réjane and Mini Vanity. As demand began to surpass supply, Moynat outposts started to pop up around the world — a flourishing proof of its pool of cult fans. All this was achieved with little, if not nonexistent, advertising.

In town for the opening of Moynat’s second Singapore boutique at Marina Bay Sands (its first is at Takashimaya), Nair gets candid on demystifying hype to exploring the nexus between design, authenticity and consumerism.

During your first year at Moynat, you once described your approach as “discreet luxury”. Now, seven years later, has it evolved?

It’s always the same. It’s always discreet. My design process is what I call “invisible design”. It doesn’t mean you don’t see the product. You do see the product but it doesn’t overpower you — it stays with you. The whole concept of invisible design is when you walk around with something, it should blend in perfectly with you. It should not stand out in a very strange way. It’s about creating just the right amount of noticeable difference.

People forget that the concept of design is not meant to create chaos. It’s meant to harmonise. Our complication comes in the construction, the choice of leather, the way we make it. I don’t want to compromise on quality for the sake of adding in 5,000 things to make it look loud. I prefer it to last a lifetime than a season.

What was your game plan, reviving a relatively unknown brand out of obscurity?

Everything [the brand] stopped just before the war, so the late ’20s were the least visible part of Moynat. It did continue [its work] into the ’70s but it was a total mess. It barely survived and then it closed down. We happened to pick it up in 2010. What was interesting was the feel of continuity. It looked as if it never stopped, although there was a huge break [in between the ’70s cease of operation and 2010 revival]. Invisible design is what really worked for the brand. Moynat being discreet and pure made it a fact that people couldn’t see this radical change from what is in the past to what it has now. So it looks like it could be from the past, but it gives you that little bit of ambiguity. Was it always there or did it just recently appear?

A lot of people come up and ask me if this [Mini Vanity] bag is from the 1920s — but no, in the 1920s you had tiny little wallets which didn’t make any sense. It’s got that very true feeling, but it’s not that true.

moynat advertisement 1929
A Moynat advertisement, 1929.
How do you balance that with a sense of relevance?

We always have this feeling that the past is beautiful. Isn’t that true? We’ll just see the beautiful things of the past, disregarding all the miserable things — even when it comes to looking at the bags of the past. You know, the construction isn’t amazing. There were a few things that were interesting but they weren’t the best. I can tell you that what we do now is 500 times better than how it must have been in the past.

It’s like when you see a black and white clip in a movie, it exudes nostalgia but it’s not actually the past. You romanticise once in a while. That’s what we’re doing.

In the present, the word “authentic” has been so overused that it’s almost stripped of its true meaning. What does it mean to you?

Authenticity for me is like what Trump always refers to as “fake news”. The moment someone says “I’m telling the truth”, you’d think it’s not at all the truth. See, that’s what’s behind authenticity. “Authentic” doesn’t make any sense until it follows some sort of action. A very viable action.

Like there’s a difference between authentic leather and leather. Authentic leather can be leather — but leather can come in so many forms. I remember some time back I picked up something strange which said “authentic leather”, and then I saw this stamp in very small words: “Recycled leather”. So it is leather, but at the same time, it’s not. It plays just the right amount of nonsense to fool you. For me, it doesn’t fall in the category of authentic leather. It’s just leather.

It seems that "authenticity" is like a gimmick now, and designs are no longer original. As a design purist, what’s your take on that?

Now it’s all based on Internet memory. If I ask somebody about Charles Worth or Erté (design pioneers of fashion in late 19th century), they will find it very difficult to find references of Mr Worth’s or Erté’s, even designs of Jacques Fath or Rosette Torrente-Mett (prominent couturiers in the 20th century). When they were made, there was no Internet. A lot of them don’t have archives or anybody to continue their story.

Many of the designers who design are inspired. It’s interesting, Diet Prada recently brought up the straight lift-off from Martin Margiela [of Balenciaga’s] — but how many people have you seen wear Vetements or Balenciaga? A lot, and nobody said anything for the longest time. It’s the same thing with a lot of other designers. There’s always this aspect of picking up from the past and you do it subconsciously, but it should be about being true to your design sensibility too.

Why do you think we’ve reached this low point in originality?

To be fair, it’s the fault of the consumer who picks it up without realising that there’s something in the past that’s as good or even better. We’ve made pedestrian designers into design gods. It’s the dumbing down of design, and we’re all playing into this, buying into this nonsense.

Walking into any of the big stores, you’ll see that they are all doing sneakers which look exactly like Nike or Adidas. Leave the sportswear for the sportswear brands. Why the hell are we getting into it? What’s the difference between sneakers of designer brands to those of Nike’s? The price, more than anything else. It’s made in the same way, no difference, same materials. Basically, we’re all becoming fools.

rejane ramesh nair
Named after Belle Epoque actress Gabrielle Réjane, the Réjane handbag was first launched in 1903 before Nair renewed its lease of life less than a decade ago.
For yourself, what’s first and foremost when designing?

It’s truthfulness of design. When you put honesty in design as priority, you question how far can you really innovate? When we talk about handmade bags, there are many ways at looking at handmade. Operating a small sewing machine is handmade in some ways. If you use a needle by hand, even a needle itself is a mechanical product. Otherwise, you’ll be using fish bones to be sewing bags. So you have different levels of authenticity and honesty.

When you say honest design — design without holding back — it’s more to do with how far backwards can you go? When you say “leather bags”, is everything leather? Are there parts made of plastic? Have you just picked it up from some strange part of the world and try to sell it off as “made in France”? That’s where the difference comes in. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about what to do with what I want to sell, it’s more about what I believe in — which makes a difference.

You’ve worked for Martin Margiela, Jean Paul-Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto — some of the most seminal masters of fashion. How did your previous experiences influence you in your role now?

Martin is who I still call my master. He was the person who moulded and formed me. When you go through life, you have certain teachers who come and go. There are those who leave marks on you. Sometimes the marks can be quite bad but, really, they make you a better human, character or creature, whatever you want to call it. If somebody were to ask me who the best designer in the world was, without holding back in any way I would say Martin Margiela. He’s somebody people really don’t know, because he’s invisible. I think he’s misunderstood, underestimated.

We have this exhibition in Paris that’s going to be there until the end of July. If you guys have the chance, don’t ever miss it. The exhibition was curated by Martin himself. He was in there; I got a message at one o’clock in the morning [from Margiela], saying “Ramesh, I’m tired.” Knowing him, when he puts his finger onto something, it’ll go down to the littlest of threads.

What’s the greatest lesson you learned from Margiela?

Honesty. And I think respect. When you say respect, it’s not just respecting people, it’s respecting what you do. If you respect your craftsmanship, you respect your craftsmen. It’s like the physical and metaphysical part in itself.

moynat marina bay sands
Inside the new Moynat boutique at Marina Bay Sands.
This is Moynat’s second store in Singapore. What are your plans in terms of expansion and growth? Will a ready-to-wear arm be in the works?

It’s all about the evolution in the market. Looking at Moynat, we are a global lifestyle brand. Trunks are not just trunks. Trunks are like a mode of life. It’s a part of evolution. When trunks came in, it moved on to cars and other areas. Trunks were made to carry clothes; we have hat trunks; we have trunks for carrying dresses. They’re tailored for very particular needs. 

The reason for keeping this door open is so you can have pret-a-porter, accessories — everything fits, as opposed to a designer who is purely limited to his or her particular category of product. So for me, I do see a possibility. I have no idea at the moment as to when it’s necessary to have a pret-a-porter or couture collection. So maybe, you never know.

(All photos: Moynat)