When Hermès, the 175-year-old French luxury house synonymous with timeless elegance launched the silk square or “Carré” in 1937; few could have predicted that a simple 90 by 90 centimetre square of silk twill would attain such must-have status (one is sold every 20 seconds) or that it would lend itself so well to interpretations from artists as diverse as Rei Kawakubo, Daniel Buren and even a postman from Texas called Kermit Oliver. This astonishing fact is just one of many gleaned from a fascinating afternoon spent with the artisans of Hermès on display at the Festival des Métiers held at the Saatchi Gallery in London. This travelling festival serves to underscore the point that in addition to superb good taste, matchless craftsmanship is at the heart of the brand. Says Kamel Hamadou, who heads the silk printing atelier – “We are more than just a luxury brand, we are about the craft.”
Wandering the stands, meeting a remailleur (twin-set linker) or gem setter or the bag expert who makes the iconic Kelly bag from start to finish; you get a sense of savoir-faire that Hermès has invested in its craftsmen. Case in point is Hamadou who studied photographic printing and came to Hermès on a whim, where he has remained for 25 years. For him, “the Hermès scarf is like a chain that links”, each design taking two years from its inception by Bali Barret, the creative director of the Women’s Universe to the finished product. A deceptively simple scarf with 46 colours takes 46 separate silk screening processes and a painstaking 2000 hours to develop. And as for the silk itself? “We use one butterfly, 400 cocoons and 450km of thread to make one Hermès scarf! It’s a nice story, no?”
"We use one butterfly, 400 cocoons and 450km of thread to make one Hermes scarf! It’s a nice story, no?"
For Hamadou, who always carries with him a pochette with a design by Oliver called "Pani La Shar Pawnee", the enduring power of a Hermès Carré lies in the ability to inspire lifelong devotion among its customers. “It’s not just a piece of silk but something deeper. When my daughter Sonia was born I gave her a 45 by 45 square in cotton. For my daughter if she doesn’t touch this material, she doesn’t sleep. It’s more than an accessory. For her she will keep this souvenir.” Far from being stuck in the past though, these artisans continue to challenge themselves, as evidenced in the special limited edition collaborations with artists that artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas initiates every two years – "Carre D’artists". There they have created "edge-to-edge" printing to faithfully recreate the infinite chromatic variations of Josef Albers, to developing new inkjet technology to replicate the intense subtle gradations of prismatic colour in collaboration with Hiroshi Sugimoto. It is challenges like these that are the most fulfilling for Hamadou: “In it we keep the spirit of artisan alive but with Hermès, we always look forward.”