French author, Anaïs Nin once said that the measure of one’s life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which one is aware. Revealing and inspired, the exhibition not only showcased the fashion house’s equestrian roots and sensible designs but most importantly, introduced and brought centre stage a collection of stories of artists, artisans and dreamers.
The first story presented was that of Leila Manchari. Three ‘objets d’art’ by Leila were spotted at the exhibition – Zouzou, a white rhinoceros leather sculpture that greeted visitors as they entered the exhibition, an Hermès motorbike with leather wings in ‘The Spirit of The Nomad’ room and a beautifully made saddle with similar leather wings in ‘The Patina of Time’ room. All were originally made for the windows of 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
The visual artist was taken under the wing of Annie Beaumel, the window dresser at this flagship store from 1926 to 1978. Manchari’s drawings impressed Beaumel in 1961 and from that day on, Beaumel taught the young artist the trade of window dressing, took her out in the Paris milieu and brought her into Hermès.
When Beaumel left, Manchari was offered her position as lead visual merchandiser and up until recently, Manchari dressed the Faubourg store. As a tribute to Manchari’s talent, the Imprimerie Nationale Editions published a coffee table book titled “The Hermès Shop Windows. Tales of a Wanderer by Leila Menchari” in 1999.
Walking into Fasterners or Beauty Spots room, one cannot miss The Kelly dollhouse titled A Question of Size. Created in 2002 by graphic design duo M/M after being given a carte blanche to explore the world of Hermès shoes, the giant Kelly bag opened like a doll’s house to reveal 18 pairs of miniature shoes.
The graphic designers are best known for collaborations with musicians like Björk and their group exhibitions in Palais de Tokyo and The Guggenheim.
Perhaps paying homage to the level of dedication and skill by the craftsman, the tiny footwear theatre offered an original take on Hermès’ savoir-faire.
Apart from the artists, Hermès also shared several pieces from their Creations Conservatory Collection, pieces that played significant roles in poignant moments in time. One such exhibit was Mr Simpson’s Travel Companion. Made in 1968 from Chamonix calfskin with chrome trimmings, it was a special order made for Mr Simpson, a businessman who travelled the globe in the 1960s and 1970s.
The trunk was expertly made by hand, serving as a desk, bathroom and dressing room. There were flaps and drawers for ties and a central space for clothes, a mini-chest for currency and plane tickets, and a moveable toiletries case that could stand on four legs. The case contained eau de toilette, a razor, a manicure kit and accessories such as a clothes brush and a small transistor. The trunk is a symbol of the disciplined yet nomadic spirit of the modern man.
In ‘The Patina of Time’ room, a simple briefcase sits quietly and carries the weight of history. ‘Sac à Dépêches’ looks like any other conservative briefcase – brown leather brandished in gold plated brass – except that it has a distinctively aged patina.
In the 1970s, an English marine archaeology society accidentally discovered the bell of a ship carrying the inscription, “Metta Catharina von Flensburg.” Frau Metta Catharina was a cargo ship that disappeared on its way to Genoa from Saint-Petersburg on December 10, 1786. Archaeological work brought to the surface rolls of Russian leather, perfectly preserved amongst the decomposed shipwreck, complete with the tanners’ inscriptions in Cyrillic. It is testament to the quality of Russian leather, which is famous for water resistant qualities, softness and grain. The exquisite cargo was perhaps bound for Genoan leather craftsmen, who had a fine reputation in the 18th century.
In 1993, Hermès was able to buy a few skins from this cargo and created this ‘Sac à Dépêches’ (one of the house’s emblematic designs) using leather that lay at the bottom of the ocean for over two hundred years.
Mr Simpson’s Wheel Barrow of Leather was also on display at the exhibition in ‘When Dreams Become Reality’ room. Custom designed for the Prince of Wales for his lover, Wallis Simpson, the leather wheelbarrow bears witness to one of history’s most sensationalised and enduring love affairs. The wheelbarrow created in 1947, came into form after Prince Edward VIII remarked that Simpson had “a wheelbarrow full of gloves and perfumes.”
Behind many of Hermès’ bespoke collections, there is the dedicated craftsman. Each Hermès bag is assembled from start to finish by a single craftsman. We spoke to one such craftsman, Alexandre Lay.
How did you become a craftsman for the house of Hermès?
AL: “I went through two years of technical leatherwork training and received my Brevet d’études professionnelles (BEP) in Paris. After graduating, I applied to be an apprentice at Hermès but failed my first attempt terribly. I immediately asked for a second chance, promising that I would master the sewing technique for saddle making on my own. Thankfully, I passed the second test and was taken on as an apprentice with Hermès for a year. I have now been with the house of Hermès as a leather craftsman for 26 years.”
Hermès quoted its founding values as creative freedom, fine craftsmanship, innovation and excellence. As a craftsman, which of these values resonate deeply with you and why.
AL: “Definitely excellence, it’s about being the best of the best. Hermès is the only fashion house capable of sewing leather on wood by hand today. Hermès respects quality artisanal craftsmanship and the craftsman’s pursuit of the highest quality in his work.”
What do you hope will inspire the person who will finally own the bag you made?
AL: “I hope to inspire an appreciation for artisanal workmanship. It is very hard work and time consuming to perfect each bag. For example, a Kelly or Birkin would take between 15 to 25 hours of hand sewing by a master artisan.”
• The Hermès Leather Forever exhibition is being held at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands until December 13. Admission is free. For more information, visit: marinabaysands.com.
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