By Nina Hald
Craftsmanship, tradition and timeless design has made Hermès once of the world’s leading empires of luxury goods. And Hermès is hot! Their signature silk scarves are more popular than ever.
The legend of Hermès – the company – harks back to 1837 when 36-year-old, German-born Thierry Hermès established a saddlery in Paris, a common business at the time. Hermès soon became known for his quality leatherwork, and his range of saddles was soon complemented with riding accessories such as riding boots, gloves, and whips. His son Charles-Émile Hermès continued the family business, which in turn was handed down to his son, Emile-Maurice Hermès. In the early 20th century, Emile-Maurice Hermès travelled the world to attract clients and became, among other things, purveyor to the Tsar of Imperial Russia. In Canada he was introduced to a new Swedish invention – the zip – which in 1918 he incorporated in the famous Hermès golf jacket made of soft buck hide.
Luxury by the gram
In 1937, Hermès celebrated its centennial with the establishment of a silk weaving mill in Lyon where their illustrious square silk scarves have been produced ever since. Hermès scarves are synonymous everywhere with elegance and class. Seasonal collections of twelve new designs are still launched twice a year and equestrian motifs are still the most popular. On average, a Hermès scarf is sold every 25 seconds somewhere in the world. The silk cocoons are imported from Brazil yet the production of the scarves is entirely based in France. Each individual cocoon contains 1,500 silk threads, and it takes only three threads to create a Hermès silk scarf. Items that fall short of perfection are all incinerated – ‘the best or nothing’ is their philosophy! In the 20th century, Hermès also started to make clothes, porcelain, cashmere plaids and, naturally, handbags. The first handbag design was commissioned in 1922 by the wife of Emile-Maurice Hermès and is still in production. That is typical of Hermès products; they not only look timeless, they are!
The family empire
In 1951, there were no sons in the family to take over from globetrotting Emile-Maurice Hermès – only four daughters! Management was left to two sons-in-law, who took the name Hermès in order to keep the company family-owned. They developed a range of perfumes and home accessories. Later, Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, grandson of Emile-Maurice Hermès, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and took over the reins in 1978. Hermès has been a family-run business for 170 years, which is unique in the world of international business. Today, the sixth generation – Pierre-Alexis Dumas and Pascale Mussard – are artistic directors of Hermès. As of 2006, for the first time the company history, the CEO is no longer a member of the family but a dedicated long-time member of staff, Patrick Thomas.
For Hermès, respect for the product is paramount. Their handbags are like small jewels that are often handed down through generations from mother to daughter. And should a handbag need repair the craftsman who originally made it will often still be available to carry out the service. As Pascale Mussard says: “With the wide palette of colour there is a Hermès handbag for every woman suitable for every occasion, any temptation and all seasons,” and he continues: “Paying respect to tradition without being restricted by it, and to adopt balanced growth and a long-term vision, that’s what characterises real luxury.” In Copenhagen, the refurbished Hermès store on Strøget in Copenhagen reopened in 2006.
Facts: Kelly & Birkin – cornerstones of a dynasty
The *Kelly* handbag got its name in 1956 when Grace Kelly, Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, was featured on the front cover of *Life Magazine* carrying the bag. Ever since it has been among the most popular of Hermès designs and there is currently a two-year waiting list. In 1981, the then CEO of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, met singer-actress Jane Birkin by chance on an airplane flight. She was struggling with an overstuffed bag where everything was in disarray. So Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès offered to produce a more practical bag for her. Jane Birkin designed it herself, and when it was launched three years later it became an instant bestseller. Purchasing a brand new Birkin handbag can also take up to two years.
Each Hermès handbag is handcrafted. A large *Kelly*, for instance, requires up to 2,600 tiny stitches and takes 18-24 hours to create. The borders of each individual piece of leather are smoothed down to facilitate a multi-layer hem. The handbag is hand-stitched inside out and painstakingly reversed before being lined with leather. All edges and seams are then folded over to achieve amazing durability. Each bag is the creation of a single craftsman and is issued with a tag number to ensure that it will be serviced by the same person in the unlikely case of a repair. Hermès handbags are manufactured in the town of Pantin, near Paris, and a tour of the storeroom is like a whirlwind tour of the world – alligator skin from Florida, buffalo from Pakistan, shark from Thailand, lizards from Malaysia, crocodiles from Australia and deer, calf, goat and oxen from locations around the globe.