Saturday, October 6, 2012

French Lessons avec Hermès

Is perfection possible? The pursuit of perfection is an awe-inspiring thing. Something to be admired and respected. When one practices their skill over and over, each time seeking perfection, it is very nearly possible. Yes, most of us love designer labels that carry a certain caché. But I have seen with my eyes and spoken with the artisans that make Hermès more than a label. It's a rich history of respecting the artist and the craftsperson at every step.

Weekend before last in Union Square, San Francisco, Hermès pitched a large, airy, light-filled tent to celebrate the Festival des Métiers, "a rendez-vous with Hermés craftsmen." With barely contained anticipation and excitement I hiked the half-mile from my South of Market office to Union Square and spent a glorious lunch hour(s) in the busy beehive of craftspeople doing what they do best. There were eight stations with a master of a particular craft demonstrating their work and an english interpreter at each.

Couper, coudre, griffer, fileter, astiquer, perler, bichonner, roulotter; these words describe the various tasks that the artisans of Hermès perform when creating their exquisite scarves, watches, ties, clothing, saddles, legendary handbags and gilded crystal. (The english translation: to cut, sew, scratch, thread, polish, bead, clean and dress and hand roll.)

I bought this little treasure of a book at the Hermès shop on Maiden Lane. It's poetic dictionary of  french verbs describing the various tasks.  I asked each of the artisans to sign by the verb that described what they do best.

At the first station was the charming Dominique Michaux, maroquinier or leather worker. Dominique patiently answered all my questions. The Birkin bag is his favorite as it was the first bag he ever made when he studied in Paris. But now he's at Hermès in San Francisco in charge of all leather repairs. And because everything made by Hermès must be made in France (except for the Swiss watch parts), he can't make any bags here. For his demonstration during the festival, Dominique made the Jypsière bag designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Unfortunately, the bag had to be destroyed after the show because it wasn't made in France! I had the fleeting urge to snatch it and run. I wasn't alone, the Hermès scarf-clad matron next to me leaned over and whispered, "you grab the blue one, I'll grab the orange one and we'll run!" It was then I noticed the very large security guards stationed at all the doors.

When I asked about the 6-year wait list for the Birkin bag or the Kelly bag, Dominique just smiled and said no, that actually now there is a wait list for the wait list. The Birkin was designed in 1984 when Jane Birkin happened to be on the same flight as Monsieur Hermès and she was traveling with her usual straw basket which tipped, spilling all the contents. Right there, Birkin and Hermès designed the perfect bag for her. The Kelly bag was originally called Sac à dépeches, but in 1956 Grace Kelly was photographed carrying a crocodile version (she used it to hide her pregnancy) and voila, it transformed to the Kelly bag. For now, it is a bit of fashion folklore for me. Because of the wait-to-wait and the multi-thousand price tag, I won't have either dangling from my arm any time soon.

Sandrine Gaeng, Décorateur à L'Or or gilder, demonstrated the multiple steps of applying gilt to crystal, using crystal made by Saint-Louis, the oldest glass manufacturer in France.

Nadia Chabane, Chemisier,  proudly showed me her perfect hand sewn buttonholes and monograms. Every inch of a custom shirt is made by hand.

The top button is carefully sewn on so no threads show through the inside of the collar.

On the blue shirt is the regular four-hole button. On the right is the six-hole button, the thread forming the letter "H."

Remmailler: using a machine with over a thousand needles, Donatella Romeo links together the cashmere and silk parts to create elegant sweaters.

The wearable perfection created by Donatella. 

You know what it's like when you meet someone and you feel an instant connection?  I felt that with Nadine Rabilloud, Dessinteur or Graveur. She engraves the many screens it takes to print a scarf. One screen per color, with 46 being the most for one scarf, taking her 2000 hours.

Nadine has mastered her métier with thirty-three years of experience. She respects and honors the hand of the artist, translating their vision perfectly on to the acetate screens.

I feel in love with Nadine's silk jersey scarf. It's soft, drapey and stretchy and has a more casual feel than the silk twill. This one is the classic "Bride de Gala" design. She knows at least a hundred ways to tie a scarf and here she demonstrates an elegant halter top to wear under a jacket.

The soft-spoken and lovely Evelyne, Confectionneur de Cravates. The base of the tie is a clownish size, but Evelyne carefully folds the silk and sews each tie with one long single strand of thread, so there are no knots.

Charlene Sonderegger, Horlogère or watchmaker. Seems like all the Hermès craftspeople have gorgeous skin!

The beautiful Faustine Poncin: Sertisseur or gem setter. She uses the microscope to set the very small diamonds. She let me peer through the lenses and I felt I was gazing at the brightest, sparkliest galaxy ever.

Applying the diamonds to one of four pyramids.

On the left is a photo of the completed diamond-encrusted Collier de Chien cuff. On the right,  Faustine's progress so far. 

I felt so at home with the artisans and all the beautiful things. It was hard to leave! So I returned two more times. Next, I'll share what I learned about the magical, amazing and highly skilled process of printing Hermès scarves. You'll never look at one the same again!

"Such is the art of small things that change everything, with no other 'use' than to please the eye and hand."
 - Olivier Saillard


  1. I'm stunned, no flabergasted, by the destruction of that bag. Oh my, oh my, oh my. What an experience, though, to see the exhibit. No wonder these items are so expensive. Lovely post, Lesa, as usual.

  2. WOW, I had no idea how much went into these beautiful products. Thank you, Lesa!

  3. What an experience that must have been! Ah..the joys of living in San Francisco. Great idea to have the artisans sign the book at their "task." Thanks, again, for sharing this wonderful experience.