Hervé Pierre: Dressing the First Lady
Only 12 little black dresses, or perhaps a lush ink-blue, comprise the first collection to carry Hervé Pierre’s name after a quarter of a century in fashion. And it is all thanks to Melania Trump.
Ever since America’s First Lady wore his dress to her husband’s inaugural ball – in pure white, draped off-the-shoulder with a cascading ruffle and narrow red knotted belt – the French-born designer has come out of the shadows and into the limelight.
“Without her, I believe I would still be hidden; I would be a ‘ghost writer’,” says Hervé, who spent 15 years behind the seams at Carolina Herrera, after a stint at Oscar de la Renta. Both designers dressed New York’s upper crust and Hervé can count three former First Ladies as his clients: Hillary Clinton at Oscar; and Laura Bush and Michelle Obama at Herrera.
About Melania – whom the designer refers to always as “the First Lady” – he is understandably cagey, saying only that he has made four dresses for her; that he also acts as stylist by suggesting other outfits; that, yes, he meets with her; and that she communicates a lot by text.
“My role is to dress the First Lady and advise her – I’m not a stylist; I am an advisor, and she is adamant about that,” Hervé says. “Who, as a free woman, is going to be told what to wear? It’s a conversation, a collaboration. Without intellectualising, my advice is respectful and it makes sense.”
With the discretion of a designer who has dealt with high-profile clients since he worked at Balmain in Paris at age 23 – moving from intern to creative director and sending giant boxes of intensely decorated dresses to Queen Sirikit of Thailand along the way – Hervé reveals only glimpses of this past fairytale year.
Those vignettes include sleeping over at the White House, where he found himself “feeling the ghosts”; glimpsing the “ballet” of white-gloved hands “changing chandeliers, painting everything”; and scurrying around discreetly to find somewhere to wash his hands without entering the First Lady’s immaculate bathroom.
Although Hervé, 52, seems predictably stunned about his current moment in the sun, he is now eager to take his experience of being the sewing hands behind the thrones and launch his own work in conjunction with New York’s mighty stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and online luxury retailer Moda Operandi.
The first “show” for these buyers on Monday, the 4th of December is appropriately discreet: mannequins wearing slim dresses constructed with couture skill and designed to slither across the body’s curves, covering the tops of arms and maybe with sleeves down to the wrist. Yet at the same time there are touches of modernity in the designs – say thin rolls of fabric like narrow ribs criss-crossing the bodice; or an evening “Spanish Infanta” gown made without a petticoat, light enough to flutter in a breeze.
The label, concealed on a satin lining, reads “Atelier Nicolas Caito for Hervé Pierre”, referring to the owner of the tiny New York studio where a handful of white-coated pattern-cutters and seamstresses are at work at the end of the room. Nicolas and Hervé’s friendship started when they were both working in France and they are now partners in the company. They hope that this small collection of elegant dresses – six short and six long, sack shaped or slinky, with sleeves or none – will be a building block for business.
Since the First Lady has become “more exposed”, the stores have been asking Hervé for “what you did at Herrera in your own vocabulary”.
Fortuitously, he became an American citizen last year. “I’m a Yankee Doodle,” he announces. “I have lived in America for 22 years and I now have my American passport. And I don’t think I could have served the First Lady if I had not done that.”
The designer has long discussed with stores a way to simplify the showmanship of a Carolina Herrera collection and explained that it was Oscar de la Renta who taught him the importance of practical planning.
“Oscar was very good at fashion reality,” Hervé says. “He told me to calm down and learn the business – I was not even 30 when I got to New York – and that is what I did.”
Fifteen years at Carolina Herrera followed, but with a brutal ending. Although the designer is discreet about his departure, his friends say that the Spanish fragrance company Puig, which owns the Herrera brand, made no effort to encourage him to take over as designer and simply fired him. One source says that Hervé was then asked to create another under-the-radar couture collection for Givenchy in Paris, but he declined.
So here is a designer in search of a business that he can call his own. The charm of Hervé Pierre is that he sees the fashion world sunny-side-up. Or maybe his cheerful appearance dates back to an upbringing in his parents’ hotel in Sancerre, a wine-producing area in the Loire Valley in central France. Raised by his mother never to be “undressed” in public, Hervé is known on New York’s Madison Avenue as the man with a smart jacket, waistcoat and maybe a flower in the lapel. And his parents were proud of his achievements long before he started to dress the First Lady.
“I remember when I did the dress for Renée Zellweger when she won the Oscar for ‘Cold Mountain’, she was wearing this dress with a huge white bow at the back,” Hervé says. “I thought immediately of my grandmother and my parents seeing that I had an actress walking the red carpet in my design.”
And what about Melania Trump, the First Lady, wearing their son’s creation, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.?
“I got chills,” Hervé says. “Even if I am not an artist, I will have one piece in a museum in this country. In 100 years people will still look at it. It’s different for just a dress. But what I made for the inauguration really will be forever.”