Best known for reviving French fashion houses, fashion designer Ramesh Nair’s approach towards design as well as his unique touch to uprooting and resetting legacies is a talent to reckon with

Fashion designer Ramesh Nair is one of those artists whose work speaks for him more than he ever could — an artist that should be on every fashion enthusiast’s radar. I’m all fairness, reviving heritage fashion houses is not everyone’s cup of tea. But Nair has a distinct approach towards design, he understands the House’s code, and creates an identity out of it — which is essentially what goes behind the resurrection of brands. His work is proof that the key to revival is to recognise the foundation of a Maison. 

Nair, is a Paris-based designer, graduated from the first batch of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1989. After completing his education in India, he moved to study design in Italy, and completed his masters at IFM Paris. Having spent over 20 years in Paris, Nair spent his time sharpening his skills at Y (Yohji Yamamoto’s label), Christian Lacroix, and Hermès under Martin Margiela, the then creative director who eventually became his mentor. In 2010, Nair was appointed as the creative director of Moynat. 

Fast forward to 2021, and Nair added another milestone to his journey — he is now the creative director of 267-year-old Parisian Joseph Duclos. 

Tell us about your journey from India to Paris.

Ever since I can remember, I have been something of an iconoclast, never wanting to be like others or fit in with the crowd. I was also insatiably curious and had an innate sense of adventure. Growing up in India in the ’70s and ’80s and especially in a military family, we had limited choice of and limited access to material possessions. This meant that I had to experiment and customise my own clothes and accessories. School bags, shoes, tennis racquets, even school uniforms, were all fodder for my experiments. This was possibly what sowed the seeds of my interest in design, and specifically in fashion. 

What’s that one thing that wasn’t a part of your fashion aesthetic when you started, but now it is?

For the first 10 years of my career, I didn’t really consider leather as a material that I could work with. Now, it is an intrinsic part of my design vocabulary and a constant source of inspiration. As a designer, your aesthetics are in a constant state of evolution, and you should never close a door or block out any avenue of exploration. With time and experience, you discover new mediums of expression, and at the same time, your own creative profile evolves, your perspective matures.

After Moynat, you have now revived Joseph Duclos, which is a huge deal. What are the basic foundations that are necessary for a brand’s revival?

The ultimate challenge for a designer is to create from zero, with no existing foundation or structure already in place. One of the key steps in reviving a brand is creating the identity and deciding the house codes. These are the building blocks, and every decision about design, branding, about commercial strategy, then flows from these building blocks. It is a magical experience to be part of the foundational steps. It is the difference between an architect laying the foundation and building from the ground up versus redecorating an existing house by painting the walls or bringing in new furniture. In the case of Joseph Duclos, we did not start from the production stage because this was originally a leather manufacturer that supplied the finest leathers to the French royal court. So I went back to the source materials, the building blocks of handbags and other products, the universe of leathers, and tanning. It is my selection of leathers that directs the designs, the hardware and the essence of the brand. It is similar to the way a sculptor’s choice of stone or clay points the way to the statue that he or she would ultimately create.

Having spent 20 years in Paris and working with labels and designers such as Hermès, Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto, how would you look at your evolution?

When I started, design and fashion were in their infancy in India. As pioneers, we didn’t have access to a body of references, our thought processes tended to be more insular and limited. When you benchmark yourself against global players, you can test your abilities and gauge your true potential. It is the difference between competing in village games or at the Olympic level. As your level of exposure and understanding increases, your design process also matures, you understand how your mental processes work. One of the things that have not changed over time, however, is my refusal to compromise on my personal principles and values.

Who have been your biggest inspirations, and what do you want to achieve with the collections that you design?

My inspirations are diverse — from art and architecture, to nature and human behaviour. That is why as an artist or designer grows, you can see the evolution and depth in their work. Craft plays a big part in my inspiration — the gestures perfected over generations by artisans at work, the knowledge passed down over centuries and finely tuned to different cultures, geographies, and local conditions fascinate me. Designing a collection is different from creating a work of art because there must be a component of utility and commercial viability. In that sense, it is closer to making music or a movie, because there is an interface with different stakeholders: my designs are born of my vision, but I also collaborate with the artisans who interpret my vision and with the audience who will finally use my creations.

For the last two years, fashion has become seasonless. What is your take on fashion weeks?

I never did subscribe to the idea of seasonal drops, and I don’t plan to start now. It is not compatible with our philosophy, nor is it possible with our way of working, with time-consuming techniques and materials. Some of our leathers require up to eight months to complete the tanning process alone.

Fashion labels and houses are taking sustainability initiatives by including them in collections or by releasing capsule collections. What is your take on these initiatives, and do you think they will help in the long run?

Capsule collections and “talking points” about sustainability are really just green-washing in most cases. The only way to really be more sustainable is to reduce consumption, but our system of fast fashion and pushing for constant economic growth is not geared towards lowering our impact on the environment. Ultimately, the only way to be sustainable is to slow down all our processes, take the time needed to select the right materials, and reflect on the processes and techniques used. For example, at Joseph Duclos, I design for longevity and repairability. This philosophy focuses on the people involved, from leather tanners to the artisans making the products right down to the people who will ultimately use our creations. I insist on using 100 per cent leather in all our bags, we do not use plastics to coat the materials, or in our linings and interlinings, unlike the majority of brands in the market today. Our leathers will evolve with time, they will develop a patina, carry the marks of time, and gain in beauty. This enables our bags to be passed from one generation to the next and once their natural life is over, the materials return to nature.

What’s next for you?

When I design, I operate in all three time zones: I refer to the past, I have a keen sense of the present, and a vision for the future. But I don’t project myself into the future; my focus is to perfect this moment in time. If I can learn from the past and craft the present to the best of my ability, the future will inevitably hold some elements of beauty and hope.