What happens inside Hermès legendary silk factory in Lyon
Ahead of Hermès Silk Mix immersive pop-up installation in Dubai's DIFC (March 11 to 16, 2019) Esquire Middle East visits the Hermès' historic silk factory in Lyon.
Patterns mean different things to different people. Colours, shapes and icons stimulate our brains in unique and diverse ways, provoking feelings, memories and sentiments that can linger with us long after we have finished seeing them. Patterns have long been the creative stimulus behind the success of the French fashion house Hermès – especially with regards to its iconic silk scarves.
A silk scarf and Hermès go together like a horse and carriage.
Two combinations that are so ubiquitous with each other that they are likely to be the first answers to any rudimentary game of word association. Although, we will admit, those rather specific comparisons have been deliberated chosen to emphasise a point, that point being that before the famed French fashion house became a synonymous with creating the world’s most sought-after silk scarves, it made leather horse harnesses and bridles for European nobility. In fact it wasn’t until the company was 100 years old before it introduced its first scarf in 1937, but that, as they say, is history.
To give you an idea of how coveted a Hermès scarf is today, it is estimated that one is sold somewhere in the world approximately every 25 seconds.
But don’t let that mind-bending statistic mislead you, the quality and craftsmanship of the scarves are paramount to its success, and fast-fashion this most certainly is not — as Esquire Middle East found on its recent visit through the hallowed gates at its workshop in Lyon.
Despite its global success, Hermes impressively remains a family-owned company. Having been established by Thierry Hermès in 1837, it is now in the sixth generation of the family and comes with a deep historical tradition that remains the envy of other luxury Maisons.
With the world of fashion currently undergoing an(other) identity crisis, obsessing over the ever-changing and fickle game of fashion trends and focusing too much on the mobile-fixated nature of Millennials, one thing was abundantly clear during our time in France — the desire to commit to doing what it does better than anyone else: to be the saviour of savoir-faire.
Back in 1937, the design of the very first Hermès scarf was based on a woodblock drawing by Robert Dumas, the CEO of Hermès at the time. It was made with imported Chinese silk which made the scarf twice as strong than any of the scarves available at the time and, thus, became an immediate hit. It also marked the beginning of a new adventure for Hermès: colour – a proposition that would require its own factory, established near Lyon the same year, and a product offering that would become emblematic of Hermès.
Since then the Maison has created more than two thousand varieties of silk scarf, all produced in Lyon. Given that Hermès has always catered to the very rich, the scarf was quickly adopted by royalty and celebrities. It was (and still is) worn as a headscarf by Queen Elizabeth; Audrey Hepburn wore it in countless iconic photos; and more recently the American rapper (and Millennial style icon) A$AP Rocky less-elegantly quipped: “I love a silk scarf, that’s my F*ckin’ problem.”
But, the Hermès scarf has an allure that goes beyond celebrity. The process of creating a single Hermès silk scarf takes a full 18 months to complete, making it one of the most meticulously-crafted accessories in the world.
In Lyon, the sense of tradition and respect for the craft is abundantly clear. On our journey through the factories in search of the secrets behind the house’s famous men’s ties and silk “carre” scarves, we discover first-hand the labour-intensive process of creating the brand’s signature neckwear.
Not only do we witness the solid, steady and well-practised routine in the hands of the colourists, engravers, printers and finishing craftsmen who work in the workshops, but we are also told that the commitment to quality stretches to the sourcing of the material at the very beginning of the cycle.
Yes, that’s right, Hermès has its own silkworm plantation. Based in southern Brazil, the silk farms facilitate moths that can produce 300 cocoons of silk each, feeding on the leaves of two mulberry trees, to create 450,000m silk thread — enough to make one silk scarf. From there all the yarn is transported back to France where it is weaved, exclusively for Hermès, in 150 metre-long rolls ready to be stretched out onto the printing tables. Rather than digital printing like other houses in the market, its craftsmen use silk screen printing taking the time to layer each separate colour upon individual screens.
The House’s approach to colour is far from straightforward. Aside from the iconic orange of the Hermès boxes, there are more than 75,000 colours held in its archives. Each colour was created through a process as complex as it is kaleidoscopic; relying as much on the subjective interpretations of the human eye as they do on the science of colour theory — indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a Pantone colour card in this most Borgesian of archives.
The beauty and cultural wisdom of age-old craftsmanship appears increasingly to be a dying art. However, the House of Hermès has taken steps to safeguard the future of its process over time by acquiring and bolstering traditional ateliers in the expertise of weaving, engraving and printing that has only enriched its code of design.
In revealing the refined meticulous work of the atelier and ensuring the knowledge continues through generations to come, Hermès’ raison d’être remains largely unchanged today. The reinterpretation of the codes of Hermès heritage, perfectionism and imagination are at the heart of new stories portrayed throughout its modern designs. Kamel Hamadou, the extremely knowledgeable communications manager of HTH (Holding Textile Hermès), emphasises the key ingredient to the success of Hermès products — passion on the part of the people that work for Hermès, who are often long-serving and enduring. “We are more than just a luxury brand, we are all about the craft.”
In terms of menswear, Hermès’ iconic collection of ties takes its place alongside the scarves. The House has produced thousands of tie designs that have become extremely recognisable and worn by Wall Street bankers, London businessmen, Russian oligarchs, or emerging Chinese upperclassmen alike. With superb good taste, matchless craftsmanship, it is no wonder why men with a touch of class want to invest in a piece that speaks louder than words. Each tie is still hand-cut and stitched with heavy twill silk in the classic Hermès style. The panels are cut one by one.
Unlike makers of mass-produced ties, (which have three parts – a large panel, a smaller panel, and a collar), Hermès’ artisans cut its ties into just two panels from the same piece of silk. From the precise hand-cutting of the pattern pieces to the sewing of the lining and then the hand-stitching of the folds, the tie is always cut on the bias which makes it very flexible, ensuring that there’s a special loop of knotted thread as a mark of authenticity.
Despite the commitment to classicism and tradition, Hermès very much lives in the modern world — especially when it comes to its retail experience, where it is consistently evolving to fit with the needs of its today’s experience-craving clientele. Following the success of its globe-spanning Hermèsmatic concept pop-up store (where customers were invited to bring in their vintage scarves to be dip-dyed in one of five different colours), this month the House will introduced to the regional debut of its Silk Mix immersive pop-up installation in Dubai’s DIFC from March 11 to 16.
In a celebration of silk and music, an old-fashioned record store will be created within the sleek business hub with crates of albums on display and a bank of turntables to give them a spin. However, the albums will all have a Hermès twist: the cover art will showcase a different silk design from the men’s assortment.
The concept is the brainchild of Véronique Nichanian, artistic director of the Hermès men’s universe and Christophe Goineau, creative director of men’s silk. The idea is that with 225 styles and 53 different patterns available for the customer to choose from, they can pick their favourite pattern and listen to it.
Because if Hermès are the masters of one thing, it is understanding patterns.