TORONTO - The days of strictly making saddles and harnesses are long gone for Hermes, but the French luxury label renowned for its silk scarves and leather bags maintains a centuries-old approach in craftsmanship of modern goods.
Canadians will have a chance to peek behind the seams with a free, limited-time exhibition featuring live demonstrations by artisans who create Hermes items.
Following stops in London and Dusseldorf, Germany, Hermes is presenting its Festival des Metiers (Festival of Crafts) at the Design Exchange in Toronto. Running until Sunday, the exhibit offers a window into the often painstaking processes involved in creating watches, gloves, ties and other fine objects for the brand.
"This exhibition is here to explain to our visitors, to our customers, to our friends in Canada, who is Hermes? Where does our image, our reputation come from?" said Hermes CEO Patrick Thomas in an interview.
"It comes from the quality of the products we are selling in our stores, but this quality is based on real know-how: on the selection of raw materials, on a huge cultural tradition which was gradually developed by the company, by our predecessors, by the craftsmen in the company, which is now focused on the quality of the object."
The late Emile-Maurice Hermes, a third generation member of the family, understood that the emergence of the car — and ultimate replacement of the horse as a primary mode of transport — would translate into fewer sales of harnesses and saddles, Thomas said.
Hermes began to expand the brand in the early 20th century, introducing items such as silk scarves and a structured leather handbag later to be known as the Kelly, named for late screen and style icon Grace Kelly.
A slightly larger bag named the Birkin — after actress and singer Jane Birkin — has been called the most sought-after bag in the world. The Birkin has become the stuff of pop culture lore, serving as the subject of a book, a "Sex and the City" storyline and even had potential customers on waiting lists for a chance to own one — despite a price tag that can range from a few thousand dollars to well over 100 grand.
Thomas said it can take 15 to 20 hours to produce a single bag created by one person from start to finish, and involves the same production process as crafting a saddle. At the Festival of Crafts preview, a leather craftswoman spends well over an hour working on fine-tuning a handle for a single Kelly bag from scratch, gluing, cutting and hammering with intense precision.
Thomas said the true reason behind the value of an Hermes bag entails both the cost of labour and the raw materials, which have been known to also feature horsehair, crocodile and gold and diamond hardware.
"We do not try to save too much money in the quality — we want to bring as much quality as we can into the product itself," said Thomas. "We say that we have a strategy of value as opposed to a strategy of volume."
The silk scarves — which retail for several hundred dollars apiece — are even more labour-intensive, a process than can span between one and two years to design and prepare the printing of a scarf that is launched in a given collection, said Thomas.
After the artist creates a rendering, an engraver prepares the frames used to print the scarf — a process that can take anywhere between 500 and 2,000 hours of work for a single one, said Thomas.
For the creation of a print featuring a woman wearing a native feathered headband, silk engraver Nadine Rabilloud uses 46 sheets of polyester paper to etch on each slide by hand — one for each colour in the Hermes scarf.
Printer Kamel Hamadou said the silk used to create the scarves is imported from Brazil in the form of silkworm cocoons that are converted into thread and used for weaving, prior to the labourious silk-screening process.
"That's why for us, Hermes is not a luxury house — Hermes is a quality house."