Established as “harness and saddle makers” in Paris since 1837, Hermès has always been supported by artisans throughout history.
Celebrating this year’s annual theme of “Contemporary artisan since 1837”, Hermès presented “Hearts and Crafts”, a film directed in 2011 by Frédéric Laffont and Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat. This documentary pays homage to the artisans of the numerous Hermès métiers.
Setting off to discover the ateliers, the film’s directors shine a light on the men and women who bring the Parisian house’s objects to life. In the four corners of France, from Paris to the Ardennes, from the Lyonnais to Lorraine, they have opened the doors of the house’s workshops to lift the veil on those who master the gestures and the savoir-faire of the saddler, the leather craftsperson, the crystal and glassmaker, the jeweller, the silk screener etc. and shines a light on the men and women who bring the Parisian house’s objects to gorgeous life.
Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat and Frédéric Laffont have captured the sounds of leather and crystal, the song of silk and metal, the words of the men and women and also their silences. In their cinematic testimonial they have brought together these sparks of life, enthusiasm, pride and passion, as each craftsperson assembles a handbag or a piece of jewellery. Step by step. Meticulously. With passion and respect, in the quest for excellence.
“Hearts and Crafts” is a journey back to a bygone era. More than a justification of the price attached to a Hermès item, it’s a tribute to its craftsmen and women, an hommage to their work and the generations of artisans who came before them, and a salute to those who will take their place.
“The term craftsman gives me goosebumps,” said one of the artisans. “I like it a lot and want to remain one.”
The 47 minute film visits various Hermès production sites around France, from the historic Paris workshop above its flagship store to its crystal factory in a depressed corner of the country. Workers talk about the saddles, Kelly bags, silk scarves, metal jewelry and crystal goblets they make.
It was directed by two documentary filmmakers, Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat and Frederic Laffont, and financed by Hermès. Whilst the film is like a long advert about all the TLC that goes into Hermes products – it is more captivating for the questions it raises about the importance of work for one’s self-fulfillment.
At a time when customers are cautiously meting out their splurges, luxury fashion houses are trying to increase the perceived value of their expensive, high-margin products. For Hermès and other luxury fashion houses, that means enhancing the tale behind the collections and broadcasting long traditions of craftsmanship.
In this age of mass production and assembly lines, it’s getting more difficult to comprehend why so-called artisan objects could cost so much. How could a scant piece of silk cost hundreds of dollars from one house, when it’s a dime a dozen elsewhere? How could a handbag cost thousands of dollars when it’s just a bag?
“This is why,” Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat and Frederic Laffont seem to be saying in their documentary film for Hermès called “Hearts and Crafts,” which takes viewers through the French workshops of the legendary luxury house, and introduces them up close to the hands that create those coveted objects that, yes, cost so much.
The film opens at the Hermès saddlery in Pantin, a Paris suburb, where a worker is earnestly buffing a harness to a luscious sheen. Then it cuts to another pair of hands manually assembling pieces of cut leather with just thread and needle, then pans to a man running his cutter through a mantle of hide with surgical precision.
Hermès was founded in 1837 as a saddle maker for French noblemen. It would evolve into this revered luxury house that has expanded its trade to include handbags, apparel and footwear, silk, home ware, jewelry, watches and fragrances.
But while every luxury house in Paris has just about succumbed to the demands of modern-day commercialism, inundating markets with heaps upon piles of so-called designer pieces from assembly lines, Hermès has stayed true to its roots, still relying on the expertise of generations of artisans and craftsmen who continue to create covetable everyday objects by hand. (Thus those legendary waiting lists for Hermès handbags, for instance.)
It all sounds very romantic and, perhaps, unlikely sounding in this age. But “Hearts and Crafts” endeavors to put a face on those men and women who labor long hours to create these objects.
Many of the regions where Hermès has it factories, such as Lorraine and the Ardennes, suffer from persistently high unemployment. Several hundred people from these down-trodden regions have joined Hermes in recent years to make $10,000 Kelly bags.
The people behind Hermès’ bags and scarves are often blue-collar workers who have discovered fashion manufacturing after other factory jobs. One 59 year-old woman who is in training at the leather-goods factory says she searched for her path for years after working in a cookie factory. Another woman says the skills she acquired as an electrician help make her hand work precise at Hermès.
The despair of years of job-hunting in regions of France where manufacturing jobs have disappeared is tangible in their voices ….. “Grandparents’ money disappears, but hand-crafts remain.”
Though they are distant from Hermès’ wealthy customers, the workers express the pride they take in the products they make. “If you work in a car factory, you don’t see the finished product, just a component. Our soul, our stitches, our fingerprints go into the leather,” one says, stamping his signature into a bag. Another craftsman says he made model boats as a kid. “Now, instead of my work being displayed in my room, my work is displayed all over the world,” he says.
Some college-educated workers talk about their creation philosophically. One says he prefers to be called a craftsman than a factory worker. But many come from more humble beginnings. One man is the sixth generation in his family to work in the crystal factory. Another, a political refugee, speaks in halting French about seeking a job at the factory 36 years ago because he needed to make a living.
While to some consumers, that Birkin handbag could simply mean a beautiful purse that’s a signifier of social status, to the solitary artisan who spent dozens of laborious hours piecing it together by hand, from start to finish, it’s even more personal. To him, it’s not just a paycheck, and its value not measured in euros or dollars.
“If you make car accessories, you don’t see the entire car, just parts,” says Didier, a leather craftsman in Bogny-sur-Meuse in northern France. (Hermès’ workshops are all company-owned and located in France. The company is still owned by the founder’s descendants.)
“In leather, we cut and assemble the pieces; we make a bag and put our craftsman mark on it. Simply adding the craftsman mark is a proud act, knowing your bag will travel the world and will be carried by someone. It becomes theirs but remains ours. It contains our soul and stitching.”
“There’s a satisfaction to doing something personal,” says another handbag maker. She has done other manual work “but it’s the artistic side that drew me” to leather. A leather craftsman can churn out up to 15 bags a month, but the work is never the same. “Handmade is always different,” she says. Sometimes a bag will be perfect, sometimes there will be challenges.
“Hearts and Crafts” tells of the craftsmen and -women’s back stories, in a way other houses that churn out products from mechanical assembly lines can’t.
Above is Gerard, who works in the crystal workshop. His first brush with crystals was at age 8, bringing lunch to his father at the same factory. Gerard is a sixth-generation glassblower. In 1997, he was named best artisan in France. He still works alongside three of his brothers and a nephew. “We won’t be the last,” he says.
Then there are two women artists, a generation apart, both descended from families of fabric printers. Together they draw the designs for the silk fabrics. “Each drawing tells its own story,” says the older woman, who apprenticed at age 16, 33 years ago. She spends 1,500-2,000 painstaking hours on a single drawing.
While one does the work in a traditional way, the younger woman does hers on a computer. There’s an exchange of knowledge between them, they say. “We think in color, but we draw in black.” A silk scarf that has 40 colors will require some 45 silkscreen frames.
Above is Ali, a deaf-mute immigrant from Tunisia who proved wrong those who said he would only be good for housework. He makes jewelry at the Cambour workshop, interacts with coworkers using sign language, and even trains new recruits. This is proof that a craftsman’s labor doesn’t discriminate. At the time of the filming, a woman aged 59 has just started her training at the leather workshop.
Above is Michaël, who trained in classical singing as a young boy, but tragically lost his singing voice. “I didn’t lose my reason to live,” he says. “Leather and the way it can be manipulated is like singing. Certain leathers sing when rubbed. Others make no sound out all.”
Above is Maguelone who studied at university but refused to end up with doing something “ordinary.” She works at Pantin crafting handbags. “When I say I make handbags, people ask, How about later? Are my parents happy about it? People seem to think that what I do is easy.”
Above is Elise of the Asian ethnic tribe Hmong, who grew up in Lyon in traditional patriarchal Hmong culture. At Hermès’ Ateliers AS, she mixes dyes. “I grew up in the dark,” she says. The workshop “introduced me to freedom.”
About – Frédéric Laffont
A renowned reporter and documentary filmmaker, Frédéric Laffont has filmed conflicts in Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. His works have been shown around the world and he has won many prestigious prizes, including the Prix Albert-Londres in 1987 for La Guerre des Nerfs, a report on the war in Lebanon
After studying at the École de Photographie des Gobelins, Paris, Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat became a designer and journalist. Driven by a passion for images and people with exceptional skills, Isabelle travels the world and draws on her experiences. She is the author of numerous magazine pieces, and each of her projects tells a story from an original viewpoint that blends dream and poetry
Hermès is a French high fashion house established in 1837, today specializing in leather, lifestyle accessories, perfumery, luxury goods, and ready-to-wear.
The Hermès family, originally Protestant Germans, settled in France in 1828.
In 1837, Thierry Hermès (1801–1878) first established Hermès as a harness workshop on the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris, dedicated to serving European noblemen. He created some of the finest wrought harnesses and bridles for the carriage trade. Monsieur Hermès’s earned citations included the first prize in its class in 1855 and the first-class medal in 1867 at the Expositions Universelles in Paris.
Hermès’s son, Charles-Émile Hermès (1835–1919), took over management from his father and moved the shop in 1880 to 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where it remains today and where the new leader introduced saddlery and began retail sales.
With the aid of sons Adolphe and Émile-Maurice Hermès, the company catered to the élite of Europe, North Africa, Russia, Asia, and the Americas. In 1900, the firm offered the Haut à ourroies bag, specially designed for riders to carry their saddles with them.
After Charles-Emile Hermès’s retirement, sons Adolphe and Émile-Maurice took leadership and renamed the company Hermès Frères. Shortly after, Émile-Maurice began furnishing the czar of Russia with saddles.
By 1914, up to 80 saddle craftsmen were employed. Subsequently, Émile-Maurice was granted the exclusive rights to use the zipper for leather goods and clothing and, thus, became the first to introduce the device in France.
And, in 1918, the first leather golf jacket with a zipper, made by Hermès, was introduced. It was followed by Hermès’s first leather garment, a zippered golfing jacket for the Prince of Wales. Named after its exclusive use of the zipper, the mechanism was called the fermature Hermès (the Hermès fastener).
In 1922, the first leather handbags were introduced after Émile-Maurice’s wife complained of not finding a suitable one to her liking. He created a handbag collection himself.
In 1929, the first women’s couture apparel collection was previewed in Paris. And, during the 1930s, Hermès produced some of its most recognized original goods.
In 1935, the leather Sac à dépêches (later renamed the “Kelly bag”) was introduced, and, in 1937, the Hermès carrés (scarves) were introduced.
Following the introduction of scarves, the accessory became integrated into French culture.
In 1938, the Chaîne d’ancre bracelet and the riding jacket and outfit joined the classic collection. By this point, the company’s designers began to draw inspirations from paintings, books, and objets d’art.
The 1930s also witnessed Hermès’s entrance into the United States market by offering its products in a Neiman Marcus department store in New York; however, it later withdrew.
In 1949, the same year as the launch of the Hermès silk tie, the first perfume, Eau d’Hermès, was produced.
In a time during his management, Émile-Maurice summarized the Hermès philosophy as “Leather, sport, and a tradition of refined elegance.”
Robert Dumas-Hermès (1898–1978), who succeeded Émile-Maurice after his death in 1951, closely collaborated with brother-in-law Jean-René Guerrand. Dumas became the first man not directly descended from Hermès père to lead the company because his connection to the family was only through marriage. Thus, he incorporated the Hermès last name into his own, Dumas-Hermès.
The company also acquired its duc-carriage-with-horse logo and signature orange boxes in the early 1950s.
Dumas introduced original handbags, jewelry, and accessories and was particularly interested in design possibilities with the silk scarves.
Ironically, during the mid-20th century, scarf production diminished.
World Tempus, a Web portal dedicated to watchmaking, states: “Brought to life by the magic wand of Annie Beaumel, the windows of the store on Faubourg Saint-Honoré became a theatre of enchantment and [established the store as] a Parisian meeting-place for international celebrities.”
In 1956, a photo of Grace Kelly, who had become the new Princess of Monaco), was shown carrying the Sac à dépêches bag in a photography in Life. Purportedly, she held it in front of herself to cover up her pregnancy. Thus, the public began calling it the “Kelly” bag. The name was subsequently adopted by Hermès, and the bag became hugely popular.
The perfume business became a subsidiary in 1961, concurrently with the introduction of the Calèche scent, named after a hooded four-wheeled horse carriage, known since the 18th century – the Company’s logo since fifties.
In 2004, Jean-Claude Ellena became the in-house perfumer or “nose” and created the successful Hermessence line of fragrances as well as others.
Despite the company’s apparent success in the 1970s, exemplified by multiple shops being established worldwide, Hermès began to fall, compared to competitors. Some industry observers have assigned the cause to Hermès’s insistence on the exclusive use of natural materials for its products, unlike other companies that were calling on new man-made materials. During a two-week lapse in orders, the Hermès workrooms were silent.
Jean-Louis Dumas, the son of Robert Dumas-Hermès, became chairman in 1978 and had the firm concentrate on silk and leather goods and ready-to-wear, adding new product groups to those made with its traditional techniques. Unlike his father, Jean-Louis was related to the Hermès maternally.
Travelling extensively and marrying Rena Greforiadès, he entered the buyer-training program at Bloomingdale’s, the New York department store. Having joined the family firm in 1964, he was intrumental in turning around its downhill progression.
Dumas brought in designers Eric Bergére and Bernard Sanz to revamp the apparel collection and, in collaboration, added unusual entries. They included the python motorcycle jackets and ostrich-skin jeans, which were dubbed as “a snazzier version of what Hermès has been all along.”
(Annual sales in 1978, when Jean-Louis became head of the firm, were reported at US$50 million. By 1990, annual sales were reported at US$460 million, mainly due to Dumas’s strategy.)
In 1979, Jean-Louis launched an advertising campaign featuring a young, denim-clad woman wearing an Hermès scarf. The purpose was to introduce the Hermès brand to a new set of consumers. As one fashion-sector observer noted, “Much of what bears the still-discreet Hermès label changed from the object of an old person’s nostalgia to the subject of young peoples’ dreams.”
However, Dumas’s change-of-image gesture created outrage both within and outside of the firm.
Also in the 1970s, the watch subsidiary, La Montre Hermès, was established in Bienne, Switzerland. Then, throughout the 1980s, Dumas strengthened the company’s hold on its suppliers, resulting in Hermès’s gaining great stakes in prominent French glassware, silverware acquiring venerable tableware manufacturers such as Puiforcat, St. Louis, and Périgord.
From the 1980s, tableware became a strong segment of the firm. And, overall, the collection of Hermès goods expanded in 1990 to include over 30,000 pieces. New materials used in the collection included porcelain and crystal.
Hermès relocated its workshops and design studios to Pantin, just outside of Paris. By June 1993 and possibly a grave mistake, Hermès had gone public on the Paris Bourse (stock exchange). At the time, the equity sale generated great excitement. The 425,000 shares floated at FFr 300 (US$55 at the time) were oversubscribed by 34 times.
Dumas told Forbes magazine that the equity sale would help lessen family tensions by allowing some members to liquidate their holdings without “squabbling over share valuations among themselves.”
To this point in time, the Hermès family was still retaining a strong hold of about 80% in stocks, placing Jean-Louis Dumas and the entire family on the Forbes list of billionaires. Mimi Tompkins of U.S. News & World Report called the company “one of Paris’ best guarded jewels.”
In the years to follow, Dumas began to decrease Hermès franchises from 250 to 200 and increased company-owned stores from 60 to 100 to better control sales of its products.
The plan was to cost about FFr 200 million in the short term but was to increase profits in the long term. Having around FFr 500 million to invest, Hermès pressed ahead, targeting China for company-operated boutiques, finally opening a store in Beijing in 1996.
In 1997, Jean-Louis hired Belgian modernist designer Martin Margiela to supervise women’s ready-to-wear.
By the late 1990s, Hermès continued extensively to diminish the number of franchised stores, buying them up and opening more company-operated boutiques. The fashion industry was caught off guard in September 1999, when Jean-Louis decided to paid FFr 150 million for a 35% stake in the Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion house.
Greeted nonetheless as a positive development both for the relatively small Gaultier group and for Hermès, it was seen as part of a consolidation in the luxury goods market. In the latter part of the 1900s, the company encouraged its clientele to faites nous rêver (make us dream), producing throughout the period artistically atypical orders.
In 2000, Hermes moved the clothing segment to China, managed by family member Claude Brouet. And the first John Lobb footwear store was also opened that year in New York. In 2003, iconoclastic Margiela left Hermès, and the highly controversial Jean-Paul Gaultier, as the head designer, debuted his first haute-couture collection for fall/winter 2004–05.
After 28 years as head of the firm, Jean-Louis Robert Frédéric Dumas-Hermès retired from the firm in January 2006. Known for his charm and one of Europe’s greatest experts on luxury, he died in 2010 after a long illness.
Patrick Thomas, who had joined the company in 1989 and who had worked with Jean-Louis as the co-CEO from 2005, replaced him that month. Thomas became the first non-Hermès to head the company.
Jean-Louis’s son Pierre-Alexis Dumas and niece Pascal Mussard became the co-creative directors