Last fall I went on a behind the scenes tour at Hermes Paris and I thought I would share a bit about the experience, which exceeded my expectations in every way. But first I wanted to mention a bit about my history with the brand and the collection that brought me to the tour.
As many of our customers know, I collect Hermes scarves. I study them as any other type of collector might, learning the patterns, the artists, titles and designers, when they were released and the details that make them valuable. The Hermes scarf is fascinating, iconic and recognized world-wide. They are, of course, symbols of luxury and elegance for the men & women who wear them. But in my mind, they are so much more. They are works of art that could alternately be worn or hung in a museum. We showed the collection at Rumson Gifts & Home Furnishings in the Fall of 2013 and visitors really seemed to enjoy them.
My current collection includes more than 20 scarves. The oldest one I have had at any point in time was from the 1950s (I sold it) and the most recent is from the Hermes Fall 2014 collection. The scarf I covet the most, yet have never seen, is one called Les Bolides which depicts old-fashioned race cars. My interest stems from the fact that it so unique among their designs. Many of the scarves in my collection are framed, although some are not. I have purchased them from all over the world and learned to a spot a rare scarf on an auction site or even a thrift shop. The boxes containing my treasures have arrived from all over the US, France and even Japan.
I have a variety of comparisons that help me in my novice attempt to determine the authenticity of an Hermes scarf. In addition to the signature rolled edges and relative thickness of the older scarves, you might be surprised to hear that one consideration is the smell. To me faint hints of perfume, and even smoke, seem to say the piece was a treasure that was worn and enjoyed. I suppose this comes from years of watching my mother wear her beautiful navy, gold & white scarf to family gatherings and events over the years. I was honored when she let me wear it to an event in high school.
So hopefully with this history in mind, you can imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to attend a behind the scenes tour at Hermes in Paris last fall. I went looking forward to learning more about the scarves, and was disappointed to learn they are not made there. However, I ended up gleaning more valuable insight into the history of the company and the incredible building that houses their empire. Our group met outside one beautiful afternoon and we were broken into two groups in order to rotate through their two surprisingly small roof-top workshops. The first was the custom leather goods work room where we saw artisans examining leather hides and looking over orders for custom bags and accessories from every corner of the world.
Our next stop was the saddle workshop, where for me the magic of the day really began. I have studied the saddles & bits and the Brandebourgs military jacket in my favorite scarves, and knew through reading different histories that Hermes was started by a family with German lineage who would become the saddle maker to French Kings. I had also learned from a friend who is a fashion professor at SCAD in Atlanta that they went on to become the first company to use a zipper in a saddle and then in other sporting goods, which was a huge innovation at the time. But I didn’t know enough about Hermes to even consider that they still produce saddles for royal families, owners of race and polo horses and every other equestrian aficionado imaginable the world over. I had also never considered the labor of the craftsmanship that goes into producing something like a saddle. It was both back breaking and spectacular to watch.
The book in this workshop that contains photographs of the many over-the-top custom saddles that have been commissioned from Hermes was certainly impressive. But the tomes containing the serial numbers of each and every saddle they have made with the date and signature of the craftsman were an incredible tribute to the history and tradition of Hermes in the Equestrian world. These scenes depicted in my scarves started here and that context made me love them even more. While they make the scarves instantly recognizable, they are not logos as you might find with another company. They are scenes from a vibrant, storied, and still living history.
Speaking of Logos, the next two floors of our tour saw us through a very special museum. It’s walls house one of the world’s most valuable collections of military and equestrian artifacts. There we witnessed items as varied as antique bits, the tiny horse-drawn carriages of Emporer’s children, suits of armor, campaign tables, and fascinating royal travel kits with hundreds of tiny compartments that collapse down into one another. There were, of course, saddles, sculptures of horses from thousands of years ago, hundreds of antique books about horses and so, so much more. One of the most unassuming items in this “secret” trove was a small drawing of a horse and carriage, which hangs over a tiny fireplace. This was the first rendering of what we all recognize today as the Hermes logo.
My mind was already Hermes blown for life when we ventured down another floor to the couture jewelry display (or fortress?), which that year had been designed around an ancient Egyptian theme. Maybe it was the bright lights illuminating these jewels of every shape and size, but I must admit I have never been around jewelry that made me sweat before. I wondered what Cleopatra herself would have done in the presence of these treasures? I got giddy and started speaking too quickly. I was hugging other members of our international group with delight and the fact that we didn’t speak the same language made that a little confusing to them. I hugged my husband too and he gave me a simple, yet distinct, look that said “Don’t even think about it.” And he was right. The handiwork in that room was nearly enough to make you consider trading a hand for a bauble. But, ultimately, I don’t think even that would be enough for the down payment.
Before heading to the retail floors of the store, we ascending to the rooftop garden where I snapped this photo of their famous mascot, who holds a flagpole in either hand, with flags that are (of course) Hermes scarves. My understanding is they change the scarves every few days. Whilst in that sweet garden, looking down at the Lanvin flagship and those of many other storied French brands, we sipped tea from brown and white Hermes china cups and saucers with sugar cubes in the shape of their signature “H.” Aside from the three floors of merchandise below us, those little sugar cubes were a nice reminder that Hermes is a wildly successfully brand in addition to the house of artisans that we were lucky enough to visit. But I guess that would be another article entirely.