Although diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, her handbag is faithful partner. Always by her side it’ll hold all her things without complaint, spruce up any outfit and hide the most intimate of items. So it came as no surprise when Hermès announced a celebration of their company with a grand exhibition, with the Academy of Art, displaying their most timeless and treasured item. Although it’s been known to be painfully exclusive and impossible to access, it would now seem that such displays are part of the effort to open the products to a larger market; a breath of fresh air in the stuffy tradition of leatherworking and what promised to be a leather-scented exploration of the handbag and the company’s 175 year history, did not disappoint.

A commitment to excellence was evident from the very beginning. The wall of the first room was adorned with giant samples of the company’s most preferred and exclusive leather in almost every colour imaginable. Either suspended from the ceiling or thrown over a pommel horse, visitors were encouraged to touch and examine the samples; this provided a real perspective of both the immense quality of the material used and just how difficult it is to work with, both a sensuous and tough experience on the hands. The cutting process was also displayed creatively with some of the leather samples being spread out on a cutting table. A touch-screen which enabled you to choose a bag design, such as Birkin or Kelly, and suspended cameras, in a modern approach to leather-works, would then project the pattern-cutting process of the pieces for each individual design onto the leather. Each bag is made up of surprisingly few pattern pieces, with no more that 7 or 8 pieces to the most complex bags, depending on the density of the leather. To contrast, snakeskin and suede which can only be compared to liquid were added to the mix, either used as lining or layering to the finish product.

The authentic construction process was the focus of the second room. Whilst craftswomen sat at their work tables, sewing a bag together, a video played on repeat in the background; it was something that was truly entertaining. What the world doesn’t know is that whilst Hermès employees work on each bag, as well as in an empty factory, there is in fact, a French orchestra who sit at the top of the factory and perform song after song using the equipment in the factory! Although sewing leather that has the density of bark must be grating, the classical music clearly was an idea that has boosted the company’s produce significantly as well as employee’s well being; bringing that French charm to the produce itself. Greatly contrasting were videos of how the bags are made as well, demonstrating to visitors how much the process has been preserved over the years.

A display of the company’s classic designs spread across the third, fourth and fifth room. Consisting of a range of luxury leather goods from handbags, portfolios, pencil-cases to watches and shoes; all the pieces had a date of origin between 1897 to 2004. The cracks in the leather varied from perfect preservation to a bag that had been restlessly used, faithful to its owner and purpose. The passing of time in the company’s products were preparation for the visitor to fully witness a classic Hermès bag next; a giant metal frame, shaped like an over-sized Birkin. Encasing multiple spotlights, they displayed 10 variations of the classic Kelly and Birkin Hermes bags. This was definitely taken to be a show, with little binoculars attached to the velvet ledge so you could examine each bag in detail, much like a singer at the opera house. The minimalist layout of the exhibition was really to maintain the focus of the simplicity of the products and rightly so; such designs have withered a storm of change in fashion and the fact that they are still the most sought-after bag in the industry today sustains their idolised place in fashion history.

Apart from handbags and luxury accessories, the diversity of the company was explored in two themes. First, a Sahara desert set up featuring a 20th Century British explorers’ camp displayed products straight off the set of Indiana Jones; leather trunks, full-length trench coats and shoes were thrown over desert rocks and suspended from the ‘tent’ in the middle of the ‘sand desert’. Smaller pairs of gloves and the first designs of the exclusive Hermès scarf, with all the leather-work details on display, from the lining to the stitching were draped over the items as well, used as a delicate contrast to the harsh environment. In contrast was another sandy room, but set in the American countryside, with a huge variety of equestrian equipment all imprinted with the Hermes logo and the same durable leather, scent and all. Crops, jackets, hats, boots, saddles and horse tack all made for the exclusive customer opened up a new perspective of the company. The progress and development for quality was now obvious as a huge variation of colours, cut and decorations were embellishing over each item in a setting that would make both Lawrence of Arabia and the Ascot proud which merged the timelessness of the products with the social changes they fought through.

Drunk with the scent of leather and with barely any feeling in my hands, I left feeling educated and enlightened. What had always been perceived as an obsessively exclusive brand had definitely released the strings on their secrets and methods. Although the company had recently pledged to branch out their products and make their bags, in particular, more accessible, this was definitely a first step in the right direction. For that, I left a note of approval in the guest book; ‘a beautiful display of the commitment to excellence and quality craftsmanship – Happy Birthday Hermès !’

Rosie Feenstra

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