Hermès: Imperial leather

Arguably the most coveted and consistently stylish of labels, Hermès is 175 this year. To celebrate, it is showcasing some of its grandest designs in London, says Susannah Frankel

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/hermes

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

    £47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker