I blame the heightened sense of emotions on airplanes, but when I watched Hearts and Crafts: The People that Make Hermès, directed by Frédéric Laffont and Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat, on an Air France flight last year, I was positively moved to tears. Ok, that was perhaps a pathetic step too far, but it was such a great short film, imbued with the sort of integrity, honesty and passion that is sometimes lacking in so many areas of the industry. In the opening sequence of the film, the stillness of watching the iconic Hermès 90cm x 90cm silk scarf (or carré) floating along a workshop and watching an engraver etch out the meticlous design for a scarf on to clear film were some of the most memorable bits of the film.
Fast forward a year later and I wound up going to Lyon to witness the process of how an Hermès silk scarf is made from start to finish. The Festival Des Metiers, which has toured around the world showcasing scaled-down version of all of Hermès' ateliers, is finally making its way to London at the Saatchi Gallery from tomorrow, and both Disneyrollergirl and I were lucky enough to visit Lyon to see firsthand just how much work goes into one single silk scarf. For me, it has all gone hand in hand with a renewed and ardent desire to know how things are made and why certain products warrant the seemingly high value placed upon them. I'm not apologetic about fetishising craft at all. It's especially worth the flowery eulogising at Hermès, where they truly believe that they are at the top of their game in their metier and where compromise and shortcuts are not in their vocabulary.
Robert Dumas introduced the first Hermès silk scarf in 1937 with future generations of Dumas - Jean-Louis Dumas and at present Pierre-Alexis Dumas carrying on the tradition of employing artists to design different motifs. The language of the Hermès carré is now rich and vast with a huge back catalogue of designs, with plenty that haven't even seen the light of a retail environment. It's perhaps a more fluid and dynamic part of Hermès' product range, in comparison to say the Birkin or Kelly bag. The artist collaborations have become more daring and boundary-pushing in recent years (they've even turned to their own exacting method of digital printing as opposed to the traditional Lyonnaise frame style of printing when dealing with photo prints such as those by artist Daniel Buren). The silk line comprises of the two sizes of carrés, twillys, losanges, gavroches and silk/cashmere shawls and it's a product category that has seen resurgent growth with projects such as the J'Aime Mon Carré or knotting cards (there's an Hermès knotting app soon to be released) injecting energetic relevance into the simplicity of a silk scarf again. In the hands of the wearer, it's open-to-interpretation and methodology.
But the two year process of creation of the Hermès silk scarf is a mostly solid, steady and well-practised routine in the hands of the colourists, engravers, printers and finishing craftsmen who work for Hermès in Lyon, the traditional city of silk in France. Kamel Hamadou, the highly knowledgeable communications manager of Hermès silk kept on emphasising the key ingredient to the success of Hermès products - passion on the part of the people that work for Hermès, who are often long-serving and enduring.
We were first taken to Bourgoin-Jallieu, where the beginning and end processes of engraving and finishing in the cycle of a silk scarf takes places. The engraving facility was actually once an independent engraving facility owned by Marcel Gandit and when Gandid retired, Hermès acquired the facility. It's interesting that Hermès don't necessarily have a policy of owning all their workshops and ateliers. They seek out the best partners to work with and where necessary financially support them so that artisans' livelihoods can be preserved but it's not necessarily in their interest to own these facilities. Slowly but surely, Hermès now have an ownership stake in their ateliers in Lyon but only through necessity rather than strategy.
From the design studio in Paris comes designs proposed by artists who work for the house on a freelance basis (essentially anyone could be an Hermès scarf artist) and they are interpreted by the engraver in a process of "decomposition". The engraver has to break down the colours into as many films as there are different colours, thinking in black and white, so that they produce thirty or so films, beginning with the darkest colours and working out to the lightest. Every colour in a scarf design is traced meticulously using different tools such as a quill, pencil or electric pen and filling out and outlining the areas with Indian ink. It's an incredible feat of draughtsmanship to watch and that's just on one slide and is painstakingly laboured so that the slides, transferred on to the frames later will result in a 100% accurate print. In total, 800 hours or so of decomposition is needed to obtain the films for one design. Some designs that are complex require more such as this Native Indian design, which we watched in the process of decomposition, as it has gradiated shading in the skintone. It's a precise and technical skil rather than pure artistry as it's the job of the engraver to reflect accurately the artist's design in their decomposed slides.
Human handwork is all very well but Hermès have in recent years adopted a more precise process of engraving the frames, which require computer generated files, with each individual colour picked out by the computer.
Each frame which corresponds to each slide and is prepared with a carefully stretched polyester gauze (different materials such as silk twill, chiffon or silk cashmere on which the frame will print onto, require differently stretched gauzes). Very recently Hermès have installed a new way of exposing the slides on to the frames using lasers, again for precision and accuracy. The more traditional way of creating the frames is something I've seen before in smallscale silk-printing facilities such as Insley & Nash, where the frames are coated with a blue photo-sensitive gelatine, and then the negative areas of the slide are penetrated with a strong UV light so that you're left with a frame with the exposed clear mesh, ready for those areas to be printed as part of the design on to silk. The handling of the frames, despite recent gadgetry still requires a hardy know-how though, especially when so much is at stake with the accuracy of these frames, which will result in the final print.
Over at A.S. Atelier in Pierre Bénite, where Hermès undertakes the colouration and the printing of the scarves, we don rather attractive rubber footwear to enter the colour workshop, another memorable part of the Hearts and Crafts documentary where a girl carefully mixes up the colours to be used in the printing process. When the final colourways are decided and the recipes from a possible 75,000 (and counting) colours figured out, here in the colour "kitchen", using pots, wooden mixers and scales, the colours are cooked up. First there are forty "mother" colours which are made up with pigments and solvements stored in large vats. And then the smaller quantities of each individual colour for the frames of a design, are made up using different quantities of these mother colours and mixed with a glue-esque "gum" to create the required shade. It's a process that is again about naked eye judgement on the part of the colour craftsmen who judges whether a colour is right or wrong.
Then comes the really exciting part and the step which makes Hermès rather unique in that their silk printing tables are incredibly long, at 150m in length, operating 24 hours of the day everyday (an unusual hours of operation in France). The silk twill is stretched out over the tables and fixed with an adhesive so that it doesn't move about during the printing process. One by one, the frames are applied with their corresponding colour, beginning with the "finesse" - the outline pattern and then the filled in colours, working from the smallest to the largest areas and from the darkest to the lightest of tones. After each frame has been used, you can see the design emerging and filling out. Here we saw the final frame being applied to this folliage design. Looking at the vast printing facility, it's a breathtaking bit of perspective to see the roll of silk lifted and floating down the table, ready to be washed, cut and finished.
Here's another printing facility where they can print the larger 150cm x 150cm designs where we saw a geometric design and an intricate rainforest scarf, in the process of printing. The actual process of printing is basically a mechanical version of hand silk-printing where you pour the colou on top of the frame and an eletronic squeegee spreads the colour and ensures it is evenly spread and then the frame runs along the length of silk, printing one square at a time. The printers obviously have to oversee the process to make sure there's enough colour and saturation on each print run and that the frame is perfectly in position each time. It's a therapeutic process to watch but stressful if you're the eagle-eye technician looking out for any slight mistakes (although it's very rare that a whole 150m bolt of silk is ruined as they normally spot a mistake sooner).
Then comes processes of fixing, washing and drying so that the silk achieves the right degree of softness and is rid of any gum residue.
Back at Bourgoin-Jallieu, the finishing of the scarves is completed in the "confection" workroom where the scarves are cut and their hems are rolled. It's the process that marks an Hermès scarf stand out from the rest as the "roulotte" - the rolled hem - is French-hand-hemmed, meaning the hem is rolled from back to front. It's a dainty 15mm roll that is exposed to the front of the scarf so that it's visible when worn, an aesthetic which Hermès prefers. Watching the seamstresses' fingers rolling the hem and stitching at the same time, is a mind-bogglingly intricate test of nerves - do they ever accidentally roll more than 15mm of material? Apparently not...
Even the way a scarf is folded, steamed and stacked is fascinating to watch as the outer corners of the square stand high.
We also got to see the cutting and making of an Hermès silk tie, which are also made here as part of the silk product category. From the precise hand-cutting of the pattern pieces to the sewing of the lining and then the hand-stitching of the folds of a tie and ensuring that there's a special loop of knotted thread inside the tie as a mark of authenticity - it's all a little unimaginable when you see the tie hanging in-store or being worn by a dreary businessman. By the naked eye, it's hard for me to judge one tie from another but clearly, these processes just aren't employed in the making of your run-of-the-mill tie.
Back to the roots of the silk scarf though is the raw material of silk itself. It's not a process we witnessed but it was certainly emphasised that Hermès have their own silk farm facility out in Brazil where the silkworms produce the cocoons to be made into the raw silk filament. Just one useful equation. One moth produces 300 cocoons, feeding on the leaves of two mulberry trees (planted outside Hermès' silk printing facility as a symbolic reminder) which creates 450,000m silk thread, which goes on to make one silk scarf. 300 cocoons = 1 silk scarf. The silk is then woven back in Lyon exclusively for Hermès in 150m rolls ready to be stretched out on to the printing tables. Hamadou was keen to dispel a myth about so-called 100% silk. Any type of silk made from any number of cocoons can be labelled with "100% Silk" but the truth is that there are various grades of silk, which aren't communicated to the customer. A 100% silk that say a high street brand uses is not the same as one which Hermès uses and that's evident from the touch of the silk, the strength of the silk twill and the threads that you can see at the fray. It's a technicality that isn't passed on to the end customer, which is a real shame, just because in the end "100% silk" isn't very useful as a label. Hermès don't communicate about the way their silk is made and instead hopes that the customer can feel for themselves what a Hermès silk scarf is like.
The most visually stimulating part of the visit was seeing the process of colouration, that initially stems in from a back-and-forth process between the colour committee in Paris, namely headed up by Bali Barret, formerly in charge of Hermès silks and now creative director of the womenswear universe. Baret will communicate moodboards and general colour ranges that she is feeling for a season and then the colourists back in Lyon will come up with a set of colours from their colour arsenal of 75,000 shades to use in the colour schemes for the proposed ten designs for each new season (in total there are twenty designs for the season including new designs and reissued classics). Each design then has a further eight to ten possible colourways produced as prototypes to be refined, edited and selected by the Paris team. The design of the scarves are loosely derived from the overall umbrella theme set by Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès - the theme for S/S 13 is sport - but there are designs that can stray according to artists' whims as seen in the Native American design, which just happens to sit with the colour schemes seen here in these moodboards and swatches. In equal importance to designs and motifs, colour is a bit part of the success of a scarf. One design in three different colourways can alter the look and feel of it dramatically, hence why the colourist team together with the design team in Paris take a long time to select the colours.
Even when the final design in the final chosen set of colourways make it to Podium - a bi-annual event where the buyers of Hermès stores from all around the world select the scarves they'd like to buy for their specific markets - it's unlikely that a huge quantity of each scarf is bought. That's the really trippy part of the way Hermès works. There are so many designs that aren't executed and when they are, the process of decomposing one design design, engraving its corresponding frames, making up correct colours and printing and finishing a scarf is so time-consuming, it's only ever for the sake of a sale of a few hundred scarves of that one particular design available in the entire world.
"It takes two years to make a scarf that takes two minutes to buy," joked Hamadou at one point but it's a joke that will resonate strongly every time I even look at an Hermès scarf. This journey of learning about the processes behind the silk scarf, was so provocative that it immediately prompted me to walk into the Hermès store on Sloane Street, on the weekend after my visit to Lyon and buy one of the latest S/S 13 silk scarves straight away. And when I carried the iconic orange box tied with the printed bolduc ribbon, out of the store, all I could think about were the engraver's hands, colourist cards, printing tables and fingers nimbly stitching the hand-rolled hems. There's a value to those skills that are priceless and all of a sudden £280 for a 90cm x 90cm silk square seems justified. It's easy to harbour cynicism towards the pricing of a product, and putting it down to pure greed but I do believe that at Hermès, it just isn't the case and in fact, it's not about shifting the highest quantities (reflected in the waitlists for their bags and the often-sold out products in the boutiques) but about maintaining their high standards of quality. "First and foremost, Hermès is a quality house, before being a luxury house," says Hamadou. Like I said before on the Chanel x Barrie post, even if buying an Hermès product is a distant fantasy, at the very least, it's about knowing what dizzying heights of quality are available out there and why they exist in the way that they do.
If I sound mighty knowledgeable and informed in this post, it's all down to me transcribing everything that Mr Hamadou said during this magnificent tour and he was very generous in answering my every tedious question that I threw at him. Luckily, he has a real knack for boorish audiences, having participated in every Festival des Métiers that Hermès has ever done. Hamadou will be bringing over a few key artisans over from Lyon to London for the exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and will be talking exhibition-goers through the process of silk scarf making, with physical demonstrations, albeit on a smaller scale. I was lucky enough to see the real scale shebang in Lyon but this Festival des Métiers rendez-vous is certainly the next best thing.