The Hermès family were protestant Germans who settled in France in 1828. Thierry Hermès first established the family business as a harness shop in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris almost a decade later. The shop served European noblemen, creating the finest wrought bridles and harnesses for carriages. Hermès won first prize in its class at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Thierry also personally won the first-class medal at the 1867 Exposition. Thierry’s clients were the stylish Parisian beau monde and European royalty including Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie.
Shortly after the 1867 Exposition, Thierry’s son Charles-Émile took over management of the company and moved the Hermès shop to 24 Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a location which still boasts the flagship Hermès boutique. With the aid of his sons Adolphe and Émile-Maurice, the company introduced a saddlery range and expanded retail sales to cater to the worldwide elite from North America, Russia and Asia.
At the turn of the 20th century the first Hermès bag was introduced as a practical saddlery related piece of equipment. After Charles-Émile retired his sons took up the helm of the company and renamed it Hermès Frères. Shortly after this Émile-Maurice provided the last Tzar of Russia, Nicholas II with saddles. By 1914 up to 80 saddlers worked as master craftsmen for the company.
Émile-Maurice soon obtained the exclusive rights to use the newly invented ‘zipper’ for leather goods and clothing, becoming the first to introduce the device to France. In 1918 Hermès introduced their first zipped golf jacket and in France the zipper became known as the fermature Hermès thanks to the company’s sole use of the product.
Throughout the twenties Émile-Maurice took sole control of the business and introduced a new Hermès accessories collection. He also began to teach his three sons-in-law to be business partners in the company.
By the end of the decade the first women’s couture Hermès collection was shown in Paris. During the following ten years many of Hermès most recognisable leather goods were introduced. By the end of the thirties, the trademark Hermès scarf or carré had been introduced. Hermès carefully oversaw every aspect of the production of its scarves, from the purchasing of the raw Chinese silk to the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of it into a fabric twice as strong and heavy as most of the scarves available at the time. There were special Hermès designers whose sole role was to create new print patterns for the scarves and many spent years perfecting the vegetable dyed screen prints. Each colour added to a scarf required a month’s drying time before the next colour could be added. The most complicated of designs could contain 40 colours taking over three years to complete. The Hermès scarf soon became an accessory integral to French style and the company’s designers began to draw inspiration from a wide variety of books, paintings and objects d’art.
Also during the thirties Hermès introduced its Sac à dépêches, the style which was later renamed the Kelly Bag.
Following his death in 1951 Émile-Maurice was succeeded by Robert Dumas-Hermès. Working in close partnership with his brother-in-law Jean Renè Guerrand, Dumas became the first leader of the company to not be of family blood, acquiring the Hermès name through marriage. Dumas created additional lines of Hermès jewellery, handbags and other accessories, and he was particularly interested in the growth of the scarf line. Under the direction of Annie Beaumel the windows of the boutique on Faubourg Saint- Honoré became a renowned spectacle and the store became a meeting place of international celebrities.
By the late fifties the Hermès logo had become internationally recognisable. Following an earlier unsuccessful foray into the US market Hermès clothing and accessories re-entered the US in the 1960s, selling its silk ties through Neiman Marcus.
During the 1970s Hermès opened multiple boutiques all over Europe, the United States and Japan. However despite the company’s apparent success, Hermès’ expansion slackened in comparison to its contemporaries and competitors. This was due in part to Hermès use of traditional natural products rather than fashionable new man-made materials.
Jean-Louis, the son of Dumas became chairman of the company in 1978. Unlike his father, Jean-Louis was connected to the Hermès family maternally. Jean-Louis brought in designers Eric Bergére and Bernard Sanz to breath new life into the ready-to-wear collection. In collaboration with the new designers Jean-Louis introduced new and unusual products to the Hermès designer range. These included ostrich skin jeans and python motorcycle jackets, which were said to be ‘a snazzier version of what Hermès has been all along’. Jean-Louis also introduced a watch subsidiary called La Montre Hermès.
During the 1980s the loyal Hermès patron could be seen sporting the Kelly bag or the Constance clutch along with silk ballet pumps. Hermès shoes were also both colourful and extremely popular.
By 1990 annual sales had greatly increased, thanks mainly to Jean-Louis’s influence. During the ensuing decade the company began to release two new Hermès scarf collections a year, some of which were limited editions such as The Road from 1994 and The Sun from the following year. In the mid nineties the company floated on the stock exchange making the Hermès family billionaires and in the years to follow Jean-Louis decreased franchises and increased the amount of company owned stores to give them greater control of the Hermès brand.
Famous Hermès scarf lovers include Queen Elizabeth II who sported one for her portrait for postage stamps in the fifties, Grace Kelly who used a Hermès scarf as a very stylish sling when she broke her arm, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O and infamously Sharon Stone, who utilised a Hermès scarf in the film Basic Instinct.
For a number of years Hermès has acted in partnership with Tuareg tribesmen to produce a line of silver Hermès jewellery. The Saharan nomad’s traditional drawings and motifs also appear on Hermès products especially their silk scarves.
Another of Hermès trademarks is their opulent handbag collections. In accordance with their luxury standards Hermès does not use an assembly production line; each master craftsman works on one piece at a time. Due to this labour intensive production method and use of rare expensive materials and exotic leathers one bag can take up to 24 hours to create. For example the construction of each Kelly bag requires 18 hours of work from a single highly trained artisan. Exotic leathers used by Hermès include lizard from Malaysia, alligator from Florida, buffalo from Pakistan, crocodile from Australia and ostrich, goat and oxen from all over the world.
The most recognisable Hermès bags are the Hermès Kelly bag; made popular by its namesake Grace Kelly, the Hermès Birkin bag; named in honour of Jane Birkin and the Constance shoulder bag with its double strap and large H clasp. All remain constantly in demand with long waiting lists.
Arguably the most iconic in the Hermès handbag line though, is the Kelly bag. The goatskin lining is sewn first followed by the base of the bag which is hand-sewn to the front and back using waxed linen thread. A double saddle stitch is used to sew the bag and before each stitch is made a hole is punched first with an awl to stop any damage to the leather. Each handbag is an organic form, with the particular grain of the leather determining the placement of the pattern and the hand shaping of the handles. The layers of stitched leather are then smoothed with sandpaper and dyed to match the handbag. Hot wax is then applied to the handle to protect the leather from moisture and the external hardware, pockets and distinctive Hermès stamp is applied.