There are few haute luxury brands in the world that are as coveted or induce such dangerous levels of jealously as Hermes. For one thing its iconic bags don't come cheap. It costs £4000-plus to get your mits on a small leather handbag - not that you'd be vulgar enough to ask. There's also the sheer lack of availability (you can't just walk into a shop and buy a Birkin, y'know), and while many of its contemporaries are known for their glossy marketing campaigns and spectacular PR stunts, Hermes has managed to retain an image of integrity.
All this adds up to the brand possessing an allure that is infinitely more precious than even its closest competitors.
Ahead of the Leather Forever exhibition that is currently being held at the Royal Academy to mark the Hermes 175th anniversary, MyDaily had the rare privilege of being invited to Hermes' Paris atelier to take our own private tour. So we headed to Hermes with the aim of answering two questions: what makes Hermes so special? And perhaps more pressingly: why the hell do these bags cost so much?
Viewed from the outside, the Hermes atelier is an unassuming industrial building located in the grey Paris suburb of Pantin. But when you get inside things get interesting. For Hermes, how and where things are made still important. They are not just Hermes, they are Hermes Paris and the vast majority of items are still made in the French capital. Watches are made in Switzerland because that’s where the best expertise can be found.
What's immediately clear is the atelier's refusal to deviate from its painfully high standards. Things take time. A lot of time. We were guided around the atelier by studio manager Stephane Le Man who explained how a wannabe artisan becomes Birkin-ready. Trainees spend their first year learning how to make a Kelly bag, then they work alongside another artisan to perfect their skills, taking approximately a decade to reach the 'appropriate' standard.
"We are all perfectionists," shrugs Couli Joubert, creative director of leather, "a little obsessive perhaps but it's worth it - otherwise what's the point in doing the job?" Choosing, cutting and reading the leather is a job in itself and the majority of leathers that come to Hermes 'leather reserve' are shown the back door because the slightest flaw is rejected.
Next come the tools and the skills. Hermes' mantra of quiet discretion translates to a surprisingly pragmatic approach. Every form, every function and every process has a reason. From edging to polishing to beading, nothing is decorative and everything is done with an eye to create something that will outlive its owner. Joubert’s favourite Hermes bag is the Plume, perhaps the most understated of all the bags in the Hermes universe: “It’s beautiful, it’s elegant but most importantly it doesn't ever ask for your attention – I don’t like fashion trends, I’m always thinking about creating something that will be around in 20, 50 even 100 years.”
The concentration shown by the artisans is intense. It takes 30 to 40 hours to make a single bag, and more than 50 hours to create a more complex Birkin or larger piece luggage, and the same artisan will work on that bag from start to finish - a rarity in this modern world of production.
The moment of truth comes at the final stage when a bag gets turned inside out: "it's like watching a child being born" says Joubert. The majority of Hermes bags don’t even make it to the shop floor. If a bag isn’t absolutely perfect it gets rejected. Bags that don't pass muster are used for display, or gets sold to staff – which goes some way to explain the elusiveness of those Birkins, Constances and Kellys.
One of our favourite things about the atelier was the personality attached to each worker’s station, surrounded by their family photo, with their own tools and decorations. This personal stamp extends to the bag itself, says Joubert.
"Every artisan has such a connection to their bag that they can spot it from a line up of what would look like identical bags – here we like to think that it’s not the bag of the customer, it’s the bag of the craftsman."
The Hermes Leather Forever exhibition is currently taking place at 6 Burlington Gardens, London until 27 May 2012.