How are Hermes bags made and why are they so expensive? If you, like me have pondered this while fawning over a £4000 Constance or a £6000 Birkin then I can finally answer with conviction. Having been given a private tour of the Hermes workshops (I never thought I’d get to type those words) in the Paris suburb of Pantin a fortnight ago, I have seen the skill, dedication and perfectionism that goes into a leathergood first hand. As a taster of the Leather Forever exhibition which opens on May 8th to mark its 175th anniverary, Hermes invited a group of bloggers to witness the crafting of its bags, accompanied by an explanation of the labour-intensive processes involved.
On arrival we were encouraged to “use all your senses; your eyes, your nose, your ears” and sure enough, the tap-tap-tapping sound of industrious hammering followed us around the atelier. Here’s the thing; at these workshops, the bags are built by hand with each artisan making his or her bag from start to finish. After one year’s initial training where they learn to make a Kelly bag (it’s used as the practice bag as it has most of the elements that need to be mastered explained head of marketing and operational training for the leather department, Stephane Le Man), they then work alongside another artisan to continue developing their skills in the atelier.
We were shown several stages on different bags. Each worker showed intense concentration, some listening to music on iPods to absorb them in their task. I noticed that the workstations were personalised with photos and knick knacks and was told that each employee has their own tools which they take with them when they retire. And a worker will never work on another colleague’s bag. (So attached are the artisans to ‘their’ bags that they claim they can identify their own bag in a line-up or on a celebrity.)
One craftswoman was finishing the edging on a bag, meticulously sanding several times, then coating with beeswax to protect the bag. “Each process is for a reason,” said Stephane. “It’s all functional, not decorative.” Choosing, cutting and ‘reading’ the leather is a job in itself. Although we didn’t get to see the ‘Leather Reserve’, the first room of the exhibition will be the Library of Skins. Different leathers are right for different bags and in fact, as Stephane put it, “making the same bag in a different leather is like making a different bag.” The leather itself is one of the reasons for the high cost of Hermes leathergoods. The skins are all byproducts, mostly from Europe – France, Spain, Italy, Germany – but the high standards of excellence mean it’s hard to find the right leathers in great quantities. Hence the limited availability and subsequent scarcity of those elusive Birkins.
A little known fact: many Hermes bags don’t make it to the shop floor. If a bag isn’t absolutely perfect, it gets rejected. (Imperfect bags are used for display, or get sold in staff sales.) I was also interested to discover that there are a lot of young trainees wanting to learn the craft of making leather bags, a good thing as certain skills are dying out. Stephane explained that when reissuing a vintage shape from the archive, some of the skills have to be relearnt but “that’s what makes the richness of the company”.
While the Hermes products on display at Leather Forever are sure to delight from a design point of view (including as they will such examples as a winged saddle although sadly not my beloved apple bag) , what excites me is the prospect of also having the craftspeople there in situ demonstrating their skills. In retail, we have seen elements of what forecasting agency The Future Laboratory calls ‘Show Your Working’, a trend for ‘bringing the factory to you’ in stores to create retail theatre while underscoring the authenticity and quality of a brand. Now it seems that ‘factory theatre’ can also translate to exhibitions, adding an interactive element to bring the exhibits to life and enhance the experiential factor. Visiting the workshops in person was a real pinch-yourself moment for me, but I can’t wait to see it all again in the context of the exhibition next week. And being Hermes, you can bet every element of the exhibition will be executed to perfection too.