July 2021 7 Min Read

How Hermès became the Masters of Leather

By Russell Sheldrake

The idea of luxury is one that many brands have done their utmost to stay close to over the years. Whether it be in the worlds of fashion, cars, or watches, this label seeps into a whole range of industries, and can be fiercely defended by those who lay claim to it. Hermès is often thought of as one of these preeminent luxury houses, leaving their mark with the help of their signature patterns and shapes, repeated across various creations, or their bespoke pieces, including luggage and saddles.

The Birkin leather bag, one of Hermès’ lasting contributions, courtesy of Hermès.

Yet, walk into any of their leather workshops, especially their specialist saddlers above their flagship store, 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and you will see that luxury is the last thing on their mind. Here, their focus, laser-like, is on the practicalities of their product. How will this bag be used? What type of competition does this horse and rider take part in? How do we make the most of this rare animal hide? These are the sorts of questions that guide their thinking and have helped build the reputation they have today. While their impact in the world of watches is significant, the importance of the Hermès name is much greater, and worthy of discovery. We ourselves have been rather partial to some of their creations – from compendiums to ashtrays – for quite some time.

Starting gates

Maker of colourful scarfs, delicate perfumes and curious timepieces, Hermès has diversified quite a lot since its equestrian beginnings in 1837. It was founded by the harness-maker, Thierry Hermès, when he opened his first workshop on rue Basse-du-Rempart in Paris. At the time, horse-drawn carriages were the main mode of transportation, so he was kept in good business by the constant need of local Parisians and their preferred means of transport.

His work in this area was clearly surpassing that of his peers after a few decades, as he won first prize, twice, at the Expositions Universelle in Paris, in 1855 and 1867. The company would continue this bridle path until 1880, when Thierry’s son, Charles-Émile, moved the workshop, and now store, to 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a few doors down from the Élysée Palace, where earlier that century, Napoleon signed his abdication in favour of his son. The road also runs parallel to the famed Champs Élysées.

An advertisement from 1923, demonstrating the brand’s expanding offering, courtesy of Hermès.

Moving to such a location was a clear indication that the company was on the ascendency. Indeed, it was after this move that the brand branched out from harnesses and started crafting saddles for the active gentleman, that didn’t require a carriage to get around the city. This address is still the company’s flagship, and location of their bespoke saddle workshop. 

As their customer base grew, so did their offering. In 1900, they produced their first bag, the Haut à Courroies, which was designed to fit a saddle and other riding equipment. This expansion was clearly a part of their rise among the upper classes, as by 1914 Charles-Émile’s son, Emile-Maurice, began to furnish Czar Nicholas II with saddles. By this point, the company had grown to an impressive size, with eighty saddle-makers employed by the brand. It was the same year that they won the exclusive rights to what we now call the zip, introducing this innovative invention to France and much of Europe. In 1918, they would put this to great use by equipping a golf jacket made for Edward, Prince of Wales with a zip, or as it was known in France, the fermeture Hermès. A moniker we far prefer to the Americanised zipper.

The equestrian themes of the company were carried over into many of their creations, beyond the world of leather.

From here on in, the company started to take a more recognisable form to what we see today. The first handbag was designed in 1922 as Emilie-Maurice’s wife couldn’t find one to her liking, with one of their more iconic models, the Kelly, appearing later, in 1935. It was originally called the Sac à dépêches, with their iconic scarfs starting to sell about two years later. This shift towards luxury accessories and clothing clearly follows the evolution of the motorcar, which left horse riding as a pastime and sport for the wealthy, rather than an everyday means of transportation.

However, they did not leave their equestrian roots in the past. Staying true to the company’s foundation, they continued to produce saddles and kept horses as a constant theme in their aesthetic throughout. There were various silver goods they produced that incorporated horse heads, horse-bits, or ropes – with the money clips from the early 20th century being amongst our favourites – whilst they also appeared on the patterns printed into their colourful ties. They also went as far as using the saddler’s stitch – a complex technique that requires two needles and leaves two pieces of leather securely bonded together – throughout their baggage range.

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly, the namesake of the Kelly bag, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Engrained with leather

However, it could be argued that it is their leather products, especially their saddles, where they show the highest level of craft and commitment to technique. Take the work of Laurent Goblet for example, the brand’s Saddlery Atelier Manager. A keen rider himself, his work partly consists of collaborating with some of the top riders in the world to make the perfect saddle for both them and their horse. Located on the 5th floor of the company’s headquarters and flagship at 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, he moulds leather and foam into saddles fit for Olympians. He wants to make the saddle “immaterial” – paper thin and light enough so that the horse and rider can feel as connected as possible. This is something he admits to still be working on, yet thanks to the energy with which he goes about his work, you’d think that, if anyone, he is capable of such a feat.

Being able to create saddles that bring the best out of both rider and horse is not something that happens overnight. This is a craft that takes years to master and even then, only a few can reach the levels that Goblet has. He almost personifies the spirit with which Hermès approaches its leather production. Heritage and tradition are important and should be strongly considered, yet there is a constant strive to improve; to take the craft forwards and reach for a seemingly impossible goal through techniques that date back to before the company’s founding. A similar desire can be seen across some of the very best independent watchmakers of today.  

The Hermès saddle, which remains in production today, courtesy of Hermès.

While Hermès are known around the world for their bags, ties, scarfs and other luxury products, the fact that they still foster such an attitude towards craft is commendable. Not only does it place the brand at the heart of the equestrian world, it also helps to solidify their claim to this space in the other areas in which they operate. Placing references and motifs of horses on their products might feel a touch hollow, if they didn't produce such high quality saddlework. 

While the company continues to operate at the very top end of the leather world, it is also helping to populate the grassroots through their leather school. Here they take on two hundred budding artisans a year, from all different creative backgrounds, and shape them into craftsmen capable of producing anything from a Birkin, to a belt, in some of the most unforgiving materials, such as crocodile and ostrich leather. There is no physical building that houses the leather school, it is merely a method that is instilled in students by the fifty or so teachers certified by the brand.

The craft involved in putting together these leather creations, courtesy of Hermès.

While these students are all trained to incredibly high levels, just like in any manufacturing process, some mistakes are made, and faulty products can be the result. While the traditional way to deal with these was to sell them at a discount to Hermès staff, the company has recently launched a project called Petit h. This is where they take a faulty product and give it to artists, to create something different with, so that the precious raw materials that went into it don’t go to waste. From notebooks to leather-lined mirrors, and even buttons, this gives a second lease of life to these rejected products.

Just as you find in the watch world, there are those who work in leather that are purely artisanal – a one-man-band working from a small workshop, producing high quality goods at an extremely low rate. We would not want to suggest that Hermès is one of these. They are not. They are a large, multinational company with suppliers, factories, and shops all around the world. However, they have been able to stay true to a core set of values and beliefs that link them to their heritage and a strong tradition of craft. This in part must be down to the fact that they are still owned by a member of the Hermès family. Although the last name has changed, due to one generation only consisting of daughters, the lineage goes straight from Axel Dumas, the current CEO, back to Thierry Hermès. This is despite certain luxury groups having tried their best to steal some of the company’s horsepower.

The creations of Petit H, courtesy of Tatler Asia.

It seems that from the earliest entrant to the company, all the way through to their leading artisans and up to the CEO, Dumas, there is a prevailing philosophy of respect. Not only for the craft that got the company started in the first place, but the raw materials that they handle and the industry that they find themselves a part of today.