“I’m cooking leather. I’m grilling leather,” says Ramesh Nair with a straight face. His expression doesn’t waver. The inquisitive mind is the artistic director at Moynat, a French malletier founded in 1849, predating Louis Vuitton and Goyard.
The fashion veteran relishes the thrill of trial and error. He delves into leather making techniques with the tenacity of a researcher, and an unbridled joy of a curious child. Once obsessed over the story of shipwrecked leather, he spent 15 years trying to recreate the exotic material originating from Russia. The eureka moment happened in 2004, then he shared the secret juice’s formula with his “laboratory” in Singapore.
“I go completely crazy with the dyeing techniques, the printing. They have the door open for me. It’s like my science lab.”
Ramesh Nair on the joy of experimenting at the Heng Long Tannery in Singapore
Now the brilliant trooper is onto his next project. Every time he is in Singapore, he drops by his “laboratory” — Heng Long Tannery, located in the Hougang industrial estate. The low-key business supplies reptile skin to brands under LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), including Moynat.
“What I can do in Singapore, I can experiment. I go completely crazy with the dyeing techniques, the printing. They have the door open for me. It’s like my science lab,” says Nair, of the family-run tannery which LVMH bought a 51 percent stake in for S$160.8 million in 2011.
Nair met Keyyes at Marina Bay Sands earlier this year before the launch of Moynat’s second store in Singapore. He has the ability to regale super vivid stories. He is generous with details, illustrating his point by showing me notebooks fished out from his slouchy blue Danse backpack.
Flipping through the scribble-filled pages, he says: “I was walking on the streets of Portugal and I realised I had no notebook in my hand. So I quickly bought a little notebook, jotted down things.”
Becoming a luxury house designer seemed an unlikely path for the son of a military officer in Kerala, a serene South Indian state.
Signing up for design school was by “sheer chance” for the student with bad grades. After graduating with a zoology degree from a Kerala university, he was wondering what to do with his life. He was drawn to a colourful newspaper advertisement for a dual degree programme run by Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology and New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. He went on to complete his training at Institut Français de la Mode in Paris.
“It’s interesting. I hear youngsters say, ‘I want to be a designer.’ I had absolutely no clue. I grew up in a very small town Kerala. We didn’t know that there was something called design. Maybe there was some craziness inside me that I never knew of,” says Nair, who would fashion cricket bats out of coconut palm leaves as a kid growing up during the austere period of the 1970s.
Nair has always been something of a maverick — wearing his own creations to school even if it meant breaking the rules.
He says: “It was a very strict Catholic school. We had to wear ordinary white sneakers, no fancy sneakers were allowed. But I wanted sneakers like Björn Borg, one of the biggest tennis players in the ’70s and ’80s. We would get into trouble in school, but that wasn’t the worst part. It rained like crazy, so our painted shoes would last for only a day.”
He conducts himself with no airs or drama —despite an envy-inducing resume spanning Yohji Yamamoto to Christian Lacroix. The Hermès alumnus was hired by LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) in 2010 to revive Moynat which shuttered for unknown reasons in 1976. A year later (2011), he opened the first store on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. Today, there are 19 boutiques across 13 cities, from New York to Dubai.
The media was captivated by the designer, who was featured in newspapers around the world. But one person remains unimpressed.
He says: “I remember there were interviews with New York Times, Wall Street Journal. My mother looked at it, and said, “Okay, when are you going to be in the local newspaper of our hometown.” She doesn’t get it. I give my mother crazy fantastic stuff, and they’d be given to the servant or driver.
“This is what we call the grounding factor, it makes sure that things like these don’t go into your head. You don’t get too arrogant. They make you feel like a very normal person.”