Next month, Hermès invites admirers, aesthetes and curious members of the public to an exquisite education on their luxury brand. Entitled, 'Leather Forever’, the exhibition is free and will trace the historical house's prestigious past and display some of its most renowned products.
Hermès needs little introduction; having secured prominence in the pantheon of fashion and similarly very much an ingrained aspect of French culture, however with this exhibition, even those already au fait with the company, can learn more comprehensive lessons from its infancy as a 19th century saddle and harness specialist to its contemporary status as an expression of sophistication and a symbol of affluence.
Of course though, as the title suggests, the emphasis concerns Hermes’ long-standing relationship with leather rather than their other famed export, the silk squares. As stated by Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Artistic Director, "Leather is the first material tamed by Hermès and remains its noblest conquest.” They take measured pride in their meticulous study of the material with an ambition to truly master it; as a brand that aims to never rest on its laurels.
This they endeavour to do by choosing the finest leathers and coupling that high-calibre of goods with the expertise employed in cutting, sewing and polishing of the six generations engaged in the art. Taking pleasure in the production from the scent, to the texture and reflective properties of this premier material; while honouring the dreams of their clientele with their efforts in innovation and luxury. As Pierre-Alexis elaborates, "The heirs of tried and trusted techniques, they strive constantly to invent new uses for leather, new feats and new forms of elegance to match the movements of modern men and women."
To have an exhibition dedicated to this material invites considerations on the allure of leather, do the connotations of its comfort hark back to an ancestral memory from prehistoric times? An era when it was a primary source of clothing and protection from our unforgiving environments – quite possibly and much like the evolution of humankind, from crude to refined – leather has progressed and improved from raw hides to a thing of both practicality and beauty. Indeed, regarded as more than mere material by Hermès, it’s a world of grain and patina with perfume and presence, appearances of luminosity and shades of colour as well as the possibilities of marrying it with other materials from diamonds to feathers. Furthermore its variety of function – as evidenced by special commissions from gift giver extraordinaire, The Duke of Windsor to Wallis Simpson – he furnished her with many presents such as a motoring cap, pairs of dolls’ gloves, a sporran, a travel blotter and in such a quantity that he even gave her a leather wheelbarrow to contain them all.
Beyond the chronicling of the brand’s credentials and its equestrian-inspired elegance, Leather Forever also offers insights into the skills and efforts involved in production. The exhibition itself, the scenogrophy of which was designed by Alexandra Plat, consists of 12 rooms, beginning with Savoir Faire 1, which hosts the library of skins. They are the most flawless pieces of leather awaiting to be deployed which delightfully occurs in Savoir Faire 2: the artisan's studios, where you can witness the professionals in the public creation of their iconic bags. A place to gain an appreciation into the secrets of the workshop and the craft of cutting, assembling, stitching and polishing.
Unsurprisingly, there is a room dedicated to the variations of the illustrious Kelly and Birkin bags and all the personal touches to the original muses that their clients have lent to them. Other spaces include Spirit of the Nomad; a room devoted to the luggage. Our Companions and Friends is an endearing term to describe the room that presents the accessories. Fasteners or Beauty Spots refers to buckles and their ilk, as well as others that exhibit particular special orders.
Speaking of special, Hermès have created four unique bags for the UK, each one representing the different countries of the isles; that they will be offering for auction and donating the proceeds to the Royal Academy of the Arts. As well an array of leathers from crocodile to goatskin, ostrich, calfskin and lizard, many of the popular styles of the preceding eras will be unveiled from bags inspired by famous car makers, 1920s blanket holders, horse and carriage hay bags fashioned around the horses' nose for snacking on duty, gifts bought at flea markets by Andy Warhol for his Factory muses and satchels so en vogue they were adopted by eminent poets and politicians all those years ago.
So I would advise all lovers of fashion and craftsmanship accept their invitation to see first-hand the values at the heart of Hermès, as Pierre-Alexis Dumas discloses, "Attachment to quality, perfectionism (even in hidden details), and respect for time, all conjoined with creative verve." This is a noteworthy exhibition from the legendary house.