All cars on the Detroit People Mover Train are decorated with the colorful world of Hermès. The Paris-based luxury home had just finished a week of activities in the metro area. It may seem like a mismatched pairing, but both have their roots in manufacturing and creativity. And Michigan City began as Fort Pontchartrain de Detroit, after all, in what was then New France. But, as I learned on a recent press trip, there is a deeper, unknown connection.
A century or so ago, when Émile Maurice Hermès (grandson of founder Thierry) toured a Ford Motor Company plant, he was taken with a strapping device used to attach cloth covers to cars. He adapted and patented the technology, and “The Bolide” was released in 1923: the world’s first zippered wallet, still in production.
Other convergences appear. Hermès, a $16 billion heritage brand, is still family-run, and of the 11,000 French employees, more than half — 55 percent — are artisans. Meanwhile, Detroit has a thriving art scene and is settling in a rebirth as a creative hub. “We want to be part of the community,” explained the House’s Executive Vice President, Diane Mahdi, during a June 10 session at the city’s School of Creative Studies.
In fact, last week’s press tour itinerary included a visit to the Academy of Achievement in Detroit, a free private school to which Hermès has given grants and art supplies. The third graders were making color-changing butterflies from the remains of an exquisite silk scarf. When asked why they were called “bird keepers,” they explained that they should be hung in school windows, to prevent birds from sticking to the glass of the new modern expansion being built.
Craftsmanship and sustainability are Hermès’ core principles, but what does this mean in practice? What brand doesn’t claim to be eco-friendly? It is becoming increasingly difficult to break into the rhythm of messages for a company and not focus on the truth. Hermes implemented a “show, don’t tell” strategy with the hub of the journey, “Hermes in the making.” Admittedly, I totally learned.
“Hermès in the Making,” shown in Troyes from 10 to 15 June, is a mobile pop-up that allows viewers to view the creative processes. The iteration took place in a large space inside the upscale Somerset Collection Mall (the brand opened a store there in 2021). If spies from a competitor come to collect trade secrets, they will be left empty-handed: it will not be possible or cost-effective to duplicate the craftsmanship on offer. The methods are laborious, complex, and time-consuming. They require the utmost in skill and training, and many procedures boast being defiantly low-tech.
with eight Craftsmen at work at any time, The colorful atelier resembles an elegant Pompidou-esque version of an immersive science museum geared toward children, but is for adults interested in fashion. Detroit isn’t the only stop: They’re like a troupe of Shakespearean actors, passing their art from community to community. The next stops are Singapore in September, Austin in October, and Kyoto in November.
The site is divided between home métiers. At one station, a female craftswoman meditatively lost her job. She peeked at a completed vase and then patted a running vase with a fine brush to match the patterns. It seemed subtle, but upon closer inspection there were very slight, barely perceptible nuances, a human touch that made each one special. Other sections showed Kelly bag sewing, or leather glove making.
Perhaps the most closely related scene is that of one of the famous scarves being printed. The craftsman placed a succession of curtains over the empty silk square and dyed a mop over it. An entire screen of a barely noticeable 1-inch signature application would be used. The strainers are then removed, washed and placed in a different pile. Another screen was placed, resulting in a thin black outline. This single carriage technique continued until artist Alice Shirley’s design featuring three giraffes was slowly revealed. She was impressive as well as sleeping. I had to exit after screen 17, just as the colors of the giraffes were filled in. There were still many screens hanging on the wall waiting to be applied.
The exhibition highlighted other crafts, as well as exotic ephemera. The glass display dome was filled with what looked like candy but it turned out to be silkworm cocoons. A meteorite fragment – a fragment of Mars discovered in North Africa – provides shavings for use in the Arceau L’Heure de la Lune watch. The sinister grandeur of Vivace’s black leather saddle provoked a hitherto unknown desire to display a horse statue at home. Many of these are juxtaposed with art, but the little font called Petit H really blurs the line between luxury art and craft, and is essentially a design built on sustainability. The remnants of all Hermès endeavours collide and are reborn in clever and one-of-a-kind pieces by the design team, like a sloppy/genius porcelain skateboard more suited to passing appetizers than doing kick flips. (Hopefully there will be a “small” retrospective on the agenda.)
Overall, this intimate glimpse behind the curtain leaves the viewer with a more educated understanding of quality and sometimes long queues for Hermès pieces. If one of the fair’s goals is to justify the price, the job is done. But more is being explored, such as informed consumption and every purchase being thought of as a potential legacy. What really stands out – and impresses me – is the art and care of the people who create.
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