In early October, as a fabric-wrapped Arc de Triomphe grew soggy in the rain, guests at the spring 2022 Hermès show found themselves in a cocoon of relative sunshine. The artist Flora Moscovici had painted a series of panels, nearly 20 by 30 feet, with gradient tones of warm ochre and rust; they drifted slowly on a track, creating the feeling of a circular room within an airplane hangar on the outskirts of Paris. Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, the women’s artistic director for Hermès, had brought in Moscovici after seeing Cité Polychrome, a recent plein-air project commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, which mounted the painter’s enormous abstract scrims onto building facades, refashioning quotidien surroundings into something of an opera set. What struck Vanhee-Cybulski—accustomed to working with the scale of the human body—was “her way of using color to transform public spaces in Paris,” she told i-D. The ripple effect played out on the runway as a sunflower-yellow leather trench, blousy pants in muted persimmon, and a loamy mushroom dress—emissaries of color soon to perk up gray streets.
A couple weeks later, I stopped by the Hermès store in downtown New York for a preview of the house’s Les Mains collection, now officially available. A certain corner of the world (brand loyalists, design nerds, beauty minimalists subject to occasional seduction) has been waiting for this moment ever since teaser images circulated in late summer. The polish bottles—squat glass cylinders with gold-and-white caps—have an elemental heft. The accompanying nail file reads like a Pop Art take on the drugstore staple: a thin strip of poplar (sustainably sourced, the brand points out) bathed in Hermès orange, with its very own Instagrammable box. Inside the boutique, the backstage nail legend Jin Soon had temporarily installed a team of manicurists. I scanned the full array of 24 polishes, which someone had arranged along the rim of a side table, like numbers on a clock. What would it be? I hadn’t had my nails painted since before the pandemic—a shade of oxblood, if memory serves, for the Vanity Fair Oscar party. I recalled a quote in the Hermès press materials from Menehould de Bazelaire, the brand’s director of cultural heritage: “‘When my head is confused,’ say the artisans, ‘my hand knows what to do.’”
I waffled on Rouge Amazone, a fiery red introduced in 1902 “to show off the white coats of the horses belonging to the Chinese Empress Cixi,” the press notes explain. Instead, as if in a Ouija-board séance, I glided toward Jaune Impérial—a hard-to-place yellow that seemed an unlikely ami to my vintage YSL blue jacket. Hand in (gloved) hand with a nail artist named Dee, the transformation got underway.
It’s strange to think the 184-year-old house waded into the beauty category just a year and a half ago; its deeply chic lipsticks, in tubes designed by Pierre Hardy, arrived on the eve of the global lockdown. Powder blush followed earlier this spring. The time has come for fingertips to get dressed up. “The Hermès hand is intuitive, expert, and eloquent,” de Bazelaire explains in the press notes, evoking both the people who slip a Kelly bag over their elbow and the artisans who meticulously construct them. Dee filed my nails into short moons and smoothed on a dot of the Hermès hand cream—a formula certified by Cosmos Natural, with a skin-replenishing blend of white mulberry extract, hyaluronic acid, and shea butter. (It’s scented by perfumer Christine Nagel with notes of sandalwood and rosewater, but my surgical mask did its job too well.)
Watching an artist paint a hyper-precise two coats on a square-centimeter canvas is like a focused meditation—as much as watching Moscovici’s panels float by is a diffuse one. I found myself thinking about hands as intermediary to the world. There’s the fraught sense: the yes-or-no-handshake dance of in-person events; the squirt of sanitizer at every threshold. But I was more taken with the communion that arrived when I stepped out of the shop, hands newly polished with what I thought was a resolutely Parisian color but in fact is pure municipal New York. I held my fingers against a metal construction grate over by Chelsea Market—perfect match. I rode the subway home, twinning with the seat, and then got off at my stop (Nostrand Avenue) to find exactly the same shade of tilework. I daydreamed about the Anni Albers textiles I’d seen at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne a few weeks back, the fallen-ginkgo-leaf color looping throughout her work; I also daydreamed about that sunflower-yellow trench, if only Vanhee-Cybulski & Co. would be so kind as to grant me, in a human-scale way, a means of using color to transform public spaces. In the meantime, I stopped off at a sushi bar that night for dinner, delighted to discover I had uni-colored fingertips.
I still have them—a testament to the fact that a handsomely packaged thing is also a high-quality thing. Only my right-hand thumb suffered a sizable chip early on—an understandable toll when a day’s work involves clawing through packages. But as I learned in Alexis Cheung’s recent story on the newest Hermès leather-goods workshop, “Luxury is that which can be repaired”—a company maxim coined by former CEO Robert Dumas-Hermès. So it goes for Birkin handles, and so it goes with nail polish. “The hand makes, creates, gives life,” Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès, explains in the press notes. And with a couple fresh coats of Jaune Impérial, it gives life again.
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