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Exclusive: a glimpse inside the Hermès universe

There can’t be many global brands that have the means, or even the inclination, to shut down an entire city block in Los Angeles – but that is precisely what Hermès did earlier this year. As part of its touring spring/summer 2017 men’s collection, for one night, Hermès transformed a forgotten warehouse in Los Angeles into DwnTwnMen LA, an interactive exhibition, fashion show venue and art space.

As I watch an expensively dressed crowd pick its way through traffic cones and roadblocks, past shouting policemen and into the warehouse, I am struck by the influence that this storied French brand so quietly wields. Surely only Hermès has the power to summon a privileged crowd to a dimly lit part of a city that’s infamous for guns and gangs. This is a district that’s so on the wrong side of the tracks that it prompts Hermès head Axel Dumas to quip that he wants to thank us – and our GPS navigators – for coming.

Once we reach the North Spring Street venue, we are surrounded by walls emblazoned with graffiti created especially for the evening, and it is only when the bright overhead lights are dimmed that we realise that we are sitting in an open-air space. DwnTwnMen was conceived as a series of one-off events – each existing for only 24 hours. The first was held in Tokyo in October 2016 and saw models walk an actual runway at Haneda Airport. So Hermès’s takeover of a disused warehouse in LA somehow fits the mould. This is, after all, a company that has genteel subversion running through its veins.

Originally founded as a saddlery in 1837 by Thierry Hermès and lauded for its expertise with leather, Hermès steadily expanded into leather goods and then into men’s and women’s ready-to-wear. Despite being a multimillion-dollar business, it is still privately owned – current chief executive Dumas is the sixth generation of his family to head up the company. Free from the pressures of a parent company or shareholders, Hermès inhabits a rare space in high-end luxury, in that it is able to operate and function exactly the way it wants. Last year’s Wanderland travelling exhibition, which made a stop in Dubai, was a prime example of this approach. Also a touring show, Wanderland was an immersive celebration of the spirit of the maison and all its endearing eccentricities.

From its inception, Hermès has always been a house of leather, and the task of translating those codes into fashion can be a difficult one. However, artistic director of menswear Véronique Nichanian has mastered this delicate balancing act. Her men’s collection for spring/summer 2017 is a discreet discourse on quality over quantity, featuring restrained, loose-cut leather trousers and patched jackets layered over gossamer T-shirts and fine knits. In Nichanian’s skilful hands, these simple pieces become so understated – cashmere is as light as air and buttery leather slides through the fingers – that it is easy to overlook their innate beauty. Hermès is also known for its use of colour, and Nichanian draws on this heritage, too, unifying the collection with shades of vivid yellow that spill through the clothing and onto the accessories.

Ahead of the show, I meet Christophe Goineau, who is head of silks at Hermès’s Men’s Universe and the person tasked with creating men’s scarves and ties. I ask him how Hermès is always able to combine colour and understatement so effectively. “What you have to understand is that we are working quite differently from competitors,” he explains. “At Hermès, we have the men’s department, which is run by Véronique, and then we have the silk department. We are connected and working together, of course, but silk is its own division. And we make things. We start with raw materials on one side, on the other side we have the designer, and then we are the producers. We have our own factory in Lyon, in central France, and it is as essential as the philosophy of the house.”

Having worked side by side for a number of years, Goineau and Nichanian have developed an almost symbiotic creative relationship. To illustrate this point, Goineau holds up a two-toned scarf with a delicately coloured edge from the spring/summer 2017 collection. “We have worked together for many years, so when Véronique wants something very specific, like this scarf, and she was talking about solid colour, I knew she didn’t really want that. Each colour is a frame, so if a scarf has 20 colours, we have 20 frames. I wanted something that looked like dip-dye, but this small detail [the edge] that nobody may notice, it goes the whole way around, which means it cannot be dip-dyed, but that it has to be printed. We put two colours in the same frame, which results in a unique piece each time. We had to fight with the printers, because everyday we ask them for perfection, and suddenly we asked for this. They thought we were crazy.”

After the DwnTwnMen fashion show ends, we are invited to explore the rest of the experience. One room focuses on touch and sound, with walls lined with vinyl album covers. Each cover is crafted from a patterned Hermès scarf; and each patterned scarf has a corresponding record featuring a custom-created piece of music. We are invited to listen to the records at will. Another space offers a conversation about time, with the 144 pieces of a bespoke suit laid out like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Just seeing all the different elements – each cut by hand – makes me aware of how much time is involved in the creative process. From small to large, each fragment is a testament to the intricate work that goes into each suit.

All in all, it seems like a lot of effort to put into a space that will only exist for one day, but that is the Hermès way. This is a world where the hem of every scarf is rolled and stitched by hand, and where ties are created from two pieces of silk rather than three, for a better finish. “At Hermès, first we create products and then we try to find customers,” says Goineau. “A tie, for instance, is not an obligation anymore. So now, when men buy a tie, it’s done for pleasure. He is selecting more carefully, trying to find the one about music, because he is a musician, or perhaps the one connected to racing cars. For me, it is more exciting to create ties now than 10 or 20 years ago. Then it was an obligation, and men were buying ties because they had to. When you have to do something, it becomes disconnected to pleasure. Also, it’s the only touch of colour men have, so it’s almost a cosmetic thing. If you have a good suit with a nice shirt and the beautiful tie, it makes you feel good.

“For every product of Hermès, whether it’s wood, marble or the leather, you have to feel an emotion. To feel that it has been really well done and is a pleasure to have, to touch, to offer to someone you love … it’s part of Hermès. I believe strongly that this slow process of creation, this level of quality, and the fact that we are not working on disposable things, gives a real strength. Instead of buying three bags, you buy one and keep it for years. To consume less, but with better quality, is a move in the right direction,” says Goineau. “Many people are looking to technology, to go faster and cheaper, but that is not the case with Hermès. It will not be an Hermès product if the colours, the feeling, the touch, the sensuality of the material are not there.”

Much of this is linked to the fact that at Hermès, the craftsmen are still the stars of the show. Even when a process has been mechanised, there is always a level of craftsmanship involved. “The printing is mechanised, but still there is one man who follows the frames, to make sure it is always perfectly aligned, because if you have a mistake of one millimetre, after 100 metres it is a mistake of one centimetre. So there is always one man who has to follow and check. We call him the monkey because he is always leaning on his knuckles,” says Goineau.

So important is this specific gentleman that he even has a scarf dedicated to him. “I did a little monkey and we called it the Lyon – spelt Lyon rather than Lion. Sometimes you don’t notice it, but if you look closely, there is always a little twist. Hermès is selling products, but I am pretty sure we are selling a bit more than that. We are selling something that, emotionally, is pretty strong.”

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 11.

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