The fashion house remains loyal to a way of life more common to Europe’s medieval guilds, dedicating itself to the idea of craftsmanship above all else.
IF THERE IS a signifying gesture that contains nearly 200 years of obsession, it is the ballet of the point sellier. This is how it begins: The artisan is young, with a confidence that comes from years on the bench, her eyes focused on two small back-to-back precut pieces of leather. She holds in each hand a two-inch needle, threaded with linen fiber that she has dragged through beeswax to render waterproof. Then, wielding the needles like surgical instruments, she pierces the leather, pulling taut the threads to draw the halves together in an unbreakable bond. Whether it’s bleu saphir for the panel of a Birkin or tawny caramel for a harness or juniper suede for the shoulder of a blazer, the motion has been the same since the leather craftsman Thierry Hermès left Germany for Paris, using just such a stitch to craft harnesses for the gentry at the company he founded in 1837.
The handbag will possess no overt logo. It will be the artisan’s from start to finish and will take days, or in the case of a larger item — like a saddle— maybe weeks. It will be perfect and will cost more than virtually any other such item you can buy off a shelf, though ever so slightly different from all the others because of the particular hand used to create it. “We would never think of having someone just do all the sewing, and then another person do the hardware,” says Céline Rochereau, who after 30 years in the handbag ateliers in France and workshops worldwide now keeps track of the dozens of artisans Hermès posts, like foreign attachés, in cities around the world, in case a customer in Shanghai or Seoul or San Francisco needs a closure tweaked or a stain removed. “You put your mark on it from start to finish; it is yours.”
There are other European makers of exquisite things that keep a few workshops staffed with artisans. But no multinational company stands so fixedly with its past than Hermès. Despite now having over 300 stores, from Denver to the Northern Mariana Islands, the enterprise clings resolutely to the romance of the human touch in the face of manifest and mounting impracticalities. As the world — fashion, especially — has increasingly become mechanized to control costs and capitalize instantly on trends, Hermès has resisted, certain all along that if you hand-make elegant things, labor costs and materials be damned, there will always be enough people with a great deal of money and taste to buy them.
THE AUTOMOBILE OUGHT to have ended Hermès. The company’s original raison d’être was the horse, for whom it made every accouterment, from bridle to saddle. But by 1920, the Hermès family, which was headed by Thierry’s grandson Émile-Maurice, had discovered that their customers’ appetite would endure no matter mode of transportation. Just a couple decades after the debut of the Haut à Courroies, a 16- or 20-inch-wide bag big enough to stow a saddle, the company began making a handbag to stow in the trunk of a sports car. Next, having secured the French rights to a little-known turn-of-the-century American invention, the zipper, Hermès used it to make a golf jacket, leading the company into the apparel business.
Still, the family held tight to its equestrian roots, basing the shape of a perfume bottle on the contour of a stirrup or a coat closure on a harness bit, and thus maintaining an instantly recognizable iconography, one that to this day telegraphs gentility tempered by an earthy outdoorsiness. Even as it introduced men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, silk scarves, shoes, porcelain, jewelry and fragrance in the 20th century, and grew to a $4-billion-a-year international enterprise in the 21st, the family insisted that virtually everything continue to be handcrafted; they sensed that once you try to stretch that legacy to embrace the shiny and the new, its power is forever lost.
While family control has offered a comforting permanence, Hermès, with its roots in the workshop, is uniquely decentralized. With no “Monsieur” or “Madame,” the modern company hews instead to the contours of the guilds: There are separate ateliers (and corresponding heads) for women’s ready-to-wear, perfume, shoes and jewelry, men’s wear, silk and home furnishings. Hermès, now run by the family’s sixth generation, tends to choose cerebral leaders, one’s comfortable subsuming their egos to the whole, recognizing that the brand relies as much on skilled artisans as on the sketch pad.
Much of what distinguishes the company is its anachronisms, the kind that any consultancy would surely urge them to reconsider. Today, the company has over 13,400 employees, 4,000 of whom — an unheard-of ratio for an international luxury business — are craftspeople.
In a universe of runway to closet, the company remains politely contemptuous of glitz and unapologetically dear. In retrospect, such a retrograde philosophy has proved prophetic. “You know if it is right,” says Charlotte Macaux Perelman, an architect who was recruited in 2014 to run the furniture and housewares atelier. “And if it’s wrong, you can’t live with it. No matter how long it takes you to find the right answer, you just keep looking.”
AN HERMÈS SILK takes about two years to complete, a process that may take weeks at another house where silk scarves — though big moneymakers — are mostly a riff on that season’s patterns and colors.
Perhaps the company’s most iconic symbol, scarves were introduced in 1937 and are referred to in-house as “carrés,” for their square shape. They have been produced for the past 16 years under the aegis of Bali Barret, in an esoteric manner that is more like creating an illuminated manuscript than manufacturing something to be tied around your neck.
For the 20 designs — 10 each for the spring and fall collections — there are hundreds of proposed sketches from outside artists and illustrators. Barret is an impresario, cajoling artists and scouring the world for new talent, nurturing the ones she feels may someday make the cut.
The silk atelier in Lyon, two hours southeast by bullet train, has a color workshop with 25 employees, where the inks are hand-mixed for each of the season’s silks (there are eight to 12 colorways per design). Barret scoffs at Pantone color charts, — “Absurde” — preferring to work instead from the house’s own 75,000 registered hues. Most Tuesdays, members of the Lyon team travel to Paris to present prototypes. Barret stands before a huge whiteboard with the silks affixed with magnets in rows, giving critiques. The sessions can last up to nine hours. The following Tuesday, the team returns for Barret to give them feedback on the newly executed strike-offs, and then the Tuesday after that, until she is satisfied.
This is all before the actual production, of course: A scarf can have as many as 45 different screens on which individual colors are applied to be pressed onto the thick silk, itself loomed in a Hermès workshop in Pantin from 300 raw cocoons. “Creating the silks,” says Barret, “is the most pure, as close to a painting as you get, a perfect object.”
LAST YEAR IT was “Let’s play!” This year it’s “In the pursuit of Hermès dreams.” Every year there is a theme, announced 36 months in advance to give the designers time to find their inspiration. It is revealed at a private dinner by Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the sixth-generation Hermès scion who became the artistic director after his father, Jean-Louis, who ran both the creative and business sides for 28 years, announced his retirement in 2005. He gathers the creative directors, as did his father after inaugurating the tradition in 1987.
Dumas spends a lot of time pondering where Hermès is headed as the world speeds up exponentially: There are challenges to remaining an anachronism; no other company of this sort has such vertical integration, with command of much of its raw materials and total control of many items from conception to finish. Hermès has had a robust online commerce presence since 2001, but it is an uneasy fit on social media. The digital world, says Dumas, “creates the illusion that everything is closer when in fact the important things are getting farther away.”
In the past decade, there has been a widespread cultural backlash against mechanization and a newfound celebration of handwork, which should benefit a company like Hermès, but there is still pressure to appeal to a younger generation. Dumas’s goal is to give the company’s fastidiousness a contemporary expression. As such, Hermès lately devotes a great deal of time and a massive amount of money to staging events worldwide that showcase its processes in unexpected milieus like South Korea and Tasmania. You can bring in your mother’s scarf and the company will “overdye” it for you in a futuristic-looking machine made just for the task, creating a trippy new colorway. Petit H, an atelier started in 2010 by the family member Pascale Mussard, is the company’s grand yet playful gesture toward sustainability: It gathers leftover leather scraps and silks and extra buttons and slightly imperfect crystal glassware from every corner of the operation and turns them into one-of-kind pieces, from teddy bears to Christmas ornaments to eccentric embellished handbags.
Still, maintaining a guild-like operation requires working from the bottom up. Many of the outside craftspeople with whom the company collaborates when it doesn’t have in-house expertise are growing older — and their children are uninterested in carrying on. Unlike competitors who are in constant pursuit of growth, ever-expanding into new categories to satisfy stockholders, Dumas and his cousin seem more inclined to pull back, to invest in cultivating craft expertise inside and among far-flung outside partners in corners of the world.
By Nancy Hass for The NY Times
Photos courtesy Hermes, from a recent social media campaign