Barely a few minutes into a conversation last week with Guillaume de Seynes, executive vice-president of Hermès International, you feel that the talk on this clear phone line between New Delhi and Paris has echoes of what may well have been said a century back by his grandfather Émile Hermès. A Hermès interview can be predictable for both sides. Every person involved with the family business founded by Thierry Hermès in Paris in 1837, as a house of harness and saddle-making, has similar undertones.
Hermès representatives are all equally cautious, soft-spoken, reassuring and warm, with a rehearsed emphasis on quality, craftsmanship and long-lasting value. The other side, if conversant with these convictions, will usually second-guess the answers but must ask nevertheless, searching perhaps for aspects that time could have changed. If you have read about Hermès equestrian products, zips, home and lifestyle objects, ready-to-wear clothes for men and women, enamelled jewellery, watches, watchstraps, sheepskin chairs, orange packaging boxes, visual artist Leïla Menchari’s window displays (since 1977), silk scarves with the design imagination of global artists, you begin to presume too soon. There is also the buzzing context of the many stories around the Kelly and Birkin bags that dominate the interview requests frequently sent to the company’s communication managers. “Oh, so is it another Kelly interview,” you can almost hear them whisper in the background—albeit with Parisian sophistication.
That was the nature of familiar unfamiliarity that crackled on the phone. De Seynes has never visited India but is deeply conscious of his family’s relationship with the country both as muse and market, and their long friendship with the Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad. As a journalist, having formerly reported from Hermès ateliers in Lyon in France and Pantin, a Paris suburb, my questions were about both consistency and change, if any.
Very little has changed, as de Seynes agreed, stamping the company’s vintage modern charm even before we began. In charge of Hermès’ manufacturing division and equity investments since 2011, he talks passionately about their unchanging “dialogue between tradition and modernity”. 1930s (when Robert Dumas designed the Kelly bag) or 2013, “Hermès’ is a symbol of the importance of the past”, says de Seynes, explaining why this sentiment has become increasingly significant in the 21st century. The annual Hermès sales report released last month reveals an 18.5% growth in leather and saddlery items in 2012. “For us, the present derives from the past, which opens to the future. As one of our advertising campaigns from Spring/Summer 2004 said: Everything Changes, Nothing Changes. Even when the company began, the core values were craftsmanship and best materials; they remain the same today,” he says.
Deathlessness (or timelessness, as the company would prefer to call it) has danced around both the iconic Kelly and Birkin bags—the former named after Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco (who adopted it in 1958) and the latter after English actor and singer Jane Birkin. Considering that these two popular products, once considered the antidotes to “it-bags” of fickle fashion, are named after celebrities, it is not easy to agree when reminded that Hermès is more about a product than a face and that the brand celebrates craftspeople, not celebrities. De Seynes explains why.
“My great-grandfather Émile Hermès was a great collector. Of the many things he collected, (all displayed at the Émile Hermès museum in Paris), he would show to his craftsmen his favourites, pointing out how precise and great these were and we should do the same,” he says, adding that this enduring belief in quality guides them while hiring craftspeople. “We don’t look at how artisans dress but what they can do with their hands.”
This is perhaps what luxury commentators mean when they say that those who can afford luxury derive comfort from the fact that skilled and dedicated human beings have spent hours, if not days or weeks, to create a product for someone’s personal use. For Hermès, a skilled artisan toiling away with care and concentration is where the story begins and ends.
By early 2006, Hermès had 1,500 leather artisans, now they have 2,000, a majority of them women. Hermès Sellier at Pantin—the first subsidiary of the company—is housed in a glass and green metal building constructed in 1991. The floors are in pale-coloured stone, the walls and elevators are made of glass, a flat-screen TV pours in images from the flagship store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris’ most fashionable district. This is Hermès’ largest leather production site, also where the Kelly and Birkin are made (you are expected to tour manufacturing areas noiselessly, lest the craftsmen get disturbed).
The company mandates that all newly hired leather artisans spend two years as apprentices to learn from senior leather craftsmen how to cut skins and sew the saddle stitch. “Even as the house of Hermès has grown, we try to retain the methodology that one craftsperson works on one product from start to finish, which gives it a rare personal touch that is highly valued by our customers,” says de Seynes. Famously, each artisan puts a date and his signature on the bag.
For the saddle stitch, a must-know skill if you work with Hermès, a single thread coated in beeswax, bearing a needle at each end, is crossed over itself between two pieces of leather, assuring sturdiness. If one stitch breaks, the rest remain intact. Saddle stitching is done entirely by hand and requires months of training, an expert hand and specific tools. Each stitch must meet rigorous quality standards.
Initially used for saddler and harnessing items, today the saddle stitch is a Hermès signature. De Seynes insists that equestrian products, once the mainstay of the company, may have become a small part of the business but they remain the backbone. “We may make and sell a few hundred saddles a year but because the values of Hermès come from equestrian activity we cherish it deeply.”
Soon you realize that Everything Changes is as true as Nothing Changes. Consider the Kelly’s modern story itself. Today it has an extensive family tree: eight sizes, 20 materials, multiple Hermès colours, including three-coloured versions. The Kellyado was created in 1995 for a younger clientele whereas the elongated Shoulder Kelly was reinterpreted by Jean Paul Gaultier for his first ready-to-wear runway show, Autumn/Winter 2004. Then there are the Kelly mini clutch and the Kelly Flat (Spring/Summer 2007), the hefty Kellylakis (named after the Greek businessman who inspired them) and the Kelly dépêches, a men’s attaché case. Hermès has supplied thousands of unusual special orders, among them leather accessories for Barbie dolls!
Yet India is not seen as inspiration for a Hermès leather product. Never mind that this is the only luxury brand in the world that was ambitious enough to make limited-edition saris for this market, or that some of its most memorable silk scarves are India-inspired and that “Ahmedabad”—a flat shopping bag made of canvas woven with strips of calfskin and polyester—is a Hermès product. De Seynes is careful as he addresses the contradiction. “India is known for its craftsmanship but as far as making a leather product inspired from India goes, I don’t think our customers are ready yet to accept a bag that does not have Parisian elegance, derived from our Equestrian legacy.”
"Galleries like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, Artcurial and others hold sales of vintage fashion; some are regularly entrusted with signed or dated pieces. A sale of Hermès bags at Christie’s is considered an unmissable event. The Kelly, sold for approximately $7,500 (Rs.4.07 lakh) in stores today, can rise to more than three times that price if it is a sapphire blue croc made in 1998."
The more things change…right?