48.8566° N, 2.3522° E
‘Paris is my source. It’s like a fountain, it provides me with creativity.’
Gems in this
Renowned for his knack for reviving heritage French fashion houses, India–born, Paris–based Ramesh Nair cut his couture teeth working for industry icons.
Think Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Martin Margiela (under whom he spent many years as senior designer at Hermès). Then, in 2010, he was handpicked by the Chairman and CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, to reinvigorate the trunk and luggage brand Moynat, having laid dormant for 35 years. Fast forward a decade and Ramesh is now the Artistic Director of 268-year-old Parisian luxury accessories house, Joseph Duclos. Having grown up in Melattur, a rural village in southern India, and moving to Paris 20 years ago, Ramesh chats with us about creativity, culture shocks and curating walks around his adopted home city, in his Paris Travel Playbook.
On growing up in Melattur, India
It’s an interesting place because it’s difficult to even find it on Google Maps. Growing up, there was no electricity, no running water — I think 25 or 30 years back is when we actually saw electricity reach this place. It was the back of the beyond. You’re talking about a village with prehistoric tradition, so you’ve been through the craziest stuff. You’ve bathed in rivers, climbed trees, broken hands and legs, you’ve done everything. And during war times, it’s a different experience, with shortages of everything. I don't remember tasting chocolate until I was 10 or 11 years old, it didn’t exist. If I remember well, there were three shops in the whole town. Your clothes are washed in the pond next door, we had a well and took cold water baths. You woke up in the morning and could hear elephants or somebody talking about a tiger or a leopard that’s gone through the field.
On finding creativity in Melattur
When you grow up in that kind of environment, you find ways and means to amuse yourself. For instance, in India we wanted to play cricket but you need a bat and a ball. A lot of times, we’d use rubber bands. You could find something you could wrap with rubber strips to make a ball, you’d wrap coconut fronds to carve out bats. So, when we couldn’t get a hold of things we didn’t have, we would come up with ideas to make our own. It was perhaps the beginning of my creative spark.
On your journey into fashion
I had dyslexia so I couldn't read and write like other people, I had certain limitations. In India, you either become a doctor or an engineer or you join the armed forces. My father was adamant that I take up the sciences. You need to be smart in the sciences but I discovered that, a lot of times, you could draw your way out. So if it’s Zoology — I have a BCs degree in Zoology — it was mostly done through drawings. When I was interviewed for fashion school, I had absolutely no idea what fashion design was. It was an escape for me. We had newspaper ads we went through and one of the things that came up was fashion school. I applied, got to interview level, and was being interviewed by these three American ladies from FIT who asked, ‘Have you ever cut?’ Meaning, cut and sew fabric. I said, ‘Yes, I’ve cut everything from frogs to rats to all kinds of animals, and I cut them really well’. They were horrified. I think one of them started laughing, one of them thought I was being cheeky. But I was being honest! If you can do a good dissection, you can cut fabric!
On your relationship to Paris
Paris came much later on. At first I wanted to go down to South Africa! But I joined a fashion school in India and for the first time in my life, I started caring a lot about French designers. The school was American but I became interested in the French way of looking at things. I wanted to challenge myself. If you want to be the fastest, you run against Usain Bolt, not your village runner. So Paris, for me, was the place I wanted to be successful. It had to be Paris.
‘If you want to be the fastest, you run against Usain Bolt, not your village runner. So Paris, for me, was the place I wanted to be successful. It had to be Paris.’
On the different languages of fashion
At a certain point you realize, the thing you’ve been looking at — whether it’s a finish, a fabric or a style — comes from a specific city. I managed to get a scholarship to go to Italy and do haute couture. It’s different from French, different from the Japanese, different from American and the British. Each of them have their own designers and their own way of looking at style — that comes from the people who are around. As designers, we see the people around us and that’s what gets the juices flowing, gets us thinking of what style should be. The architecture, the art also creates your design language.
On how Paris inspires your creativity
The first time I came to Paris, the thing that hit me was that French people are muses for the designers. You see a girl on the metro with a chopstick pushed into her hair and it’s all tumbled, it’s stylish, that je ne sais quoi, nonchalant way of dressing. It’s style which flows, and that's exactly French design. I live on a street where just a few houses down is Debussy, just across you have Chopin, and Sarah Bernhardt lived on the street right next door. You are surrounded by, and living moments of, history just about every day of your life.
On becoming Parisian
When, as an artist or a designer, you come to put your roots down in a different part of the world, you let that place influence you, but you also bring your influences. You make sure you’re not burdened by your experiences, you don’t let that be your baggage. You learn how to speak the language, to live like a Parisian, to become a part of it. You have to become a part of it and stop being from this country or from this ethnicity. You become a Parisian.
On finding community in Paris
I built my own community with like-minded people and I guess we find each other without really having to look. It’s like a village of people with the same way of thinking. I rarely hang around with design people but I do hang around with artists, photographers, people who are in arts and crafts.
On culture shocks
I think the biggest culture shock I had was lack of bathroom space. Tiny bathrooms! We keep complaining about that. And the rest of it, no shock. I think I’ve been traveling all my life. You don’t experience culture shocks if you have just about seen every craziness which can go on.
‘If you ever get a creative block, you just take a walk down the street. You don’t just walk down the street looking straight ahead, you look up to the buildings and surroundings.’
I guess you become Parisian when you start drinking the water. Initially, I remember people talking about French people being rude and arrogant. I think it’s got to do with the language barrier and not that they have a problem with you. Once you get to know them, they’re lovely, and once you break the language barrier, there’s no problem at all. They make a lot of effort, they’re extremely accommodating.
On how Paris and its culture inspires you
Paris is my source. It’s like a fountain, it provides me with creativity. If you ever get a creative block, you just take a walk down the street. You don’t just walk down the street looking straight ahead, you look up to the buildings and surroundings. The sky in Paris is very different from other skies you’ll see. The rooftops of Paris are classified as a monument. There’s a huge amount of inspiration there because you can sit on a rooftop and see all these shapes and think. It’s a source of deep inspiration, there’s never a lack of it.
On showing friends around Paris for the day
I make them walk, I really make them walk! Exploring Paris on foot is the most important. I take them through the streets, which is a long route. You need to be able to go through side streets where you see things no one else has. There’s this little neighborhood in the 16th and this building which was built by Hector Guimard, called Castel Béranger. It’s one of the most amazing buildings of Art Nouveau architecture. I’m quite good at curating. If I know someone’s a photographer, I’ll take a particular route because you know the light will fall at a certain time of day. So, I take them along the banks of the Seine, go towards the Panthéon, because if you're in an elevated area, you get a different area.
On where to eat
There’s Seoul Mama, which is a Korean place in the fifth. It’s really cool, fantastic stuff.
‘For fashion, Broken Arm in the Marais. A very cool place to check out high end fashion.’
On your favorite places to shop in the city
I love shopping. I keep strange places in my list to visit. One of my favorite spots for shopping, where I go every weekend, is the flea market. Every Saturday and Sunday you have the best marchés aux puces, which are the vintage markets of Paris. All around me is stuff that I pick up from vintage markets. Then Emmaüs is an association. If you have stuff that you want to give away, you can call them and they’ll come and collect it. But there are certain Emmaüs where you can find the most amazing stuff. Everything from books to vinyls to music to art to vintage clothes, Emmaüs is the place. For fashion, The Broken Arm in the Marais. A very cool place to check out high-end fashion. I love bookshops, apart from what I find at the flea markets. There’s L’Ecume des Pages and one of the reasons I like it is because it’s open late at night.
On the creators in Paris that inspire you
A lot of the work which I get inspired by is artists and a lot of it is from the past. Martin Margiela, whom I regard as something of a guide in my creative journey, helped me discover who I am as a designer. There are artists like Daniel Buren, whom I’ve met and we’ve shared a meal together, he has been extremely influential. Jean Paul Gaultier, we worked together for eight or nine years, so he was extremely influential in my first formative years. He’s the last of the great French designers.
On a window or an aisle seat
I’ve been known to have canceled my flight for not getting a window seat. Growing up as an army kid — my father was in the armed forces — I wanted to take up aviation and fly planes. That’s also when I discovered that I need glasses, and that they won’t let you fly a plane if you need glasses. So it has to be window, I have to look out.
On reading materials for a long haul flight
I’m dyslexic, so I cannot take books and I hate looking at the little screen on a flight! I would always have magazines or a portable music device. Nowadays, it’s my iPad with magazines like WIRED, Popular Mechanics, hi-fi+ and comics — everything from Marvel: Phantom, Tarzan and of course Asterix and Obelix, Tin Tin.
‘I’ve become Parisian, Paris has become me, so it’s my source.’
On Paris in a song
There’s a song from a group called Thirteen Senses called ‘Home’. There’s a relationship to that song and the day I discovered my cat on the street. There’s another one by Crowded House called ‘Private Universe’. Also, ‘Head Home’ by Midlake.
On Paris in one word
It’s my source of everything. It’s where I’ve started growing my roots after being a traveler all my life. This is the place where I’ve actually put down roots. And this is the source of my inspiration, it’s become a part of me. I’ve become Parisian, Paris has become me, so it’s my source.