Hermès has always had a great fondness for the English," states Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director and sixth generation Hermès family member. "We share a love of horses for a start." His grandfather, Robert, was handed the reins by his father-in-law, Emile-Maurice Hermès, in the 1950s and was responsible for naming the famous Kelly bag after Grace. More than a half a century on, and with Hermès celebrating its 175th anniversary, he is explaining the motivation behind an exhibition that opens tomorrow at Burlington Gardens, London. Entitled "Hermès Leather Forever", it showcases some of this, the grandest of all status names' grandest designs.
Hermès was originally a saddle and harness workshop, numbering Tsar Nicholas II among its most impressive clients, and introducing its first bag – the Haut à Courroies – to enable such well-heeled equestrians to carry their Hermès saddles with them wherever they went. "Our adventures with the English began at our beginning in the 19th-century with customers coming to Paris to buy our harnesses," Dumas says, "which were recognised as some of the finest in the world."
Ever mindful of shifts in the zeitgeist, at the beginning of this century Hermès was also among the first to embrace the impact of the car. "Our original saddle and harness-making activity had to evolve with the advent of the motor car and that led us to making fine travel goods," Dumas confirms. "The further accompaniment of our clients' new mobility was to offer small leather goods, clothes, jewellery, watches, accessories and silk products..."
The new show is nothing if not testimony to the brand's diversity – and the broad-minded thinking behind its treatment of leather in particular. "The history of Hermès leather goods is actually the history of the house as a whole," Dumas argues. Nothing is too much to ask for where this is concerned, provided of course the client has the money to pay for the services of the Hermès special orders workshop. And so visitors to the new show may witness first hand the unparalleled, though still comparatively under-stated, extravagance of a black leather wheelbarrow with brass handles and leather upholstered wheels bought in 1947 by the Duke for the Duchess of Windsor. Typical man, he wandered, clueless, into Hermès' Paris store in search of a gift. "What about fragrances," a member of the sales team suggested, to which he reportedly replied: "She has wheelbarrows full of them." "How about gloves?" She had wheelbarrows full of those too, apparently. "How about a wheelbarrow, then?" Annie Beaumel, Hermès' window dresser at the time wondered, ingenuously enough.
Also on display is the Hermès leather interior to a Citroen 2CV. Its boot opens to reveal probably the smartest luggage – also leather – the world has ever seen. Then, out of respect for the roots of its business, there's an especially impressive saddle in flame, lime and scarlet leather and with Pegasus wings. More fashion-conscious souls might like to marvel, meanwhile, at the loveliness of an uncharacteristically winsome take on the Kelly: it has a multicoloured smiling face, arms and sweet stubby arms and legs. "We wanted to stage an exhibition which was at once an homage to leather but with an element of playfulness, something we felt the English would respond to," Dumas says.
There is doubtless an injection of wit here but that does not detract from the respect for tradition that underpins the label's designs. With this in mind, technicians from Hermès' Paris workshops will be present throughout, demonstrating the art of working leather for interested parties to see up close. Those who have ever wondered how some of Hermès' most iconic bags are made will discover just how it's done here. Of note is the fact that despite a starting price of around £4,500 for a Kelly and £5,700 for a Birkin, demand still far exceeds supply. The waiting list for both bags is long and in March Hermès announced it would be slowing the pace of any store openings in 2012 to focus instead on boosting production after a record-breaking year that saw it struggling to keep up with orders. Despite economic downturn, the company's net profits rose by 41 per cent in 2011 to €594.3m (£76.5m).
While Hermès always has its eye on the future – Dumas says that the company recently introduced a new way of dressing walls in leather at the Milan furniture fair in collaboration with architect Shigeru Ban – the fact that skills have been developed and passed down from generation to generation is central to the appeal of the brand. "There's a human tradition behind our leather craft," Dumas says. "For example, each bag is made from start to finish by one craftsman and our craftsmen are in love with the skin as material. They have the highest respect for the leather they are working with since they know the attention to quality and the care that has been put into it from the very first selection of the skins and tanning operations to colouring, finishing and cut."
To coincide with the exhibition, Hermès will be auctioning four specially designed Passe-Guide handbags conceived to represent England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are aimed neither at shrinking violets nor those aversely reactive to stereotype. The English design is embellished with a fox tail; the Irish one is crafted in emerald green crocodile and finished with a shamrock; the Scottish one features tartan, front and back, and the Welsh bag has a leather dragon dangling from its shoulder strap and a second stamped in gold where otherwise a logo might be. Somewhat more politically correct..? All proceeds will be donated to the Royal Academy of Arts.
Hermès Leather Forever, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1, May 8 to 27. Christie's Hermès online auction, 14 May, 9am to 31 May 5pm, christies.com/hermesReuse content