Paulette and Hélène are Parisian pensioners. Occasionally, they can be observed leaving the Hermès Paris headquarters in rue Faubourg Saint Honoré with bulging shopping bags. The plastic bags contain veritable treasures, but Paulette and Hélène keep that a close secret. The two women work discreetly behind the scenes for the luxury brand. They are home workers who hand roll the famous printed, but not yet hemmed Hermès silk scarves at their kitchen table with painstaking application. In years of practice, they have perfected their own system: first they hand roll three scarves and then they soak their hands in ice water. Followed by three more scarves, and then some more fresh ice water...
Stories like these sound bizarre in connection with a corporation that increased its earnings by 18% to achieve a record 2.8 billion euro turnover in the middle of the economic crisis. It is also difficult to place the humble figures of Paulette and Hélène in a corporation whose client list includes crowned heads, movies stars and millionaires, and that has recently fought off an unfriendly takeover in 2010. That was when, in a thriller-like scenario, the world's largest luxury goods concern LVMH garnered 20% of Hermès sought-after shares before the owner family of the Parisian establishment – driven by fears that the company culture would be lost irrevocably – managed to stop the buy-out. The Dumas family considers the Hermès company culture in all its aspects, including Paulette and Hélène's work at their kitchen table, to be its most valuable asset.
In my eyes, Hermès is not really a company. Instead, it is a house with parents and children.
"The family takes care of us. The directors know all the employees by name. Factories where no one knows each other have no place in this house," Kamel Hamadou contracts a metaphor to explain his appreciation for his employers. In his mid-fifties, Kamel has been working for the Hermes textile holding (abbreviated to HTH) for over 25 years. As their spokesperson, he introduces us to the Hermès lore. And the company that has been in the hands of a single family for six generations is generously steeped in lore and tradition. From the very beginning, it has been dedicated to manufacturing first-rate products and employing its accrued savoir-faire to create iconic quality.
"We are craftsmen," was the oft-repeated credo of the legendary company director Jean-Louis Dumas who died not long ago.
Today, the current directors – Pierre-Alexis Dumas, family delegate and creative director, and Patrick Thomas, the first outside chairman of the board who naturally is firmly committed to the company's values – continue to carry this credo out into the world. "We are always on the lookout to create the most beautiful products. Our craftsmen put their heart and soul into producing our goods. When someone buys a Hermès product, they acquire a modicum of this ethic with it."
The famous Hermès silk scarf, for example, as one of the iconic products of the establishment, is not simply a brightly printed piece of silk: it is a masterpiece in terms of quality and creativity, and a testimony to the joy that went into creating it. A carré, as the 36 x 36 inch square piece of fabric is referred to in the trade costs 310 euros. "Does that seem expensive to you?" Kamel Hamadou asks slightly provocatively and immediately goes on to supply the answer. "No, it’s not and let me tell you why. A total of 24 months, two whole years, of hard work, go into the creation of each Hermès scarf. Just producing the original illustration requires half a year."
Between 30 and 40 illustrators work for Hermès along with famous artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, graffiti artist Kongo or the American painter Hilton McConnico. To name but a few.
But anyone who wants to attempt to create a carré is welcome to send in their designs as well.
Some of the scarves we have made were actually designed by a Texan mailman. Not to forget the scarves designed by Sefedine." Sefedine Kwumi, a child soldier from Southern Sudan, started to paint in an NGO-run children's home. A medic brought back a picture made by the 14-year-old to Paris and showed it to Jean-Louis Dumas. Impressed by the boy's colorful style, Dumas went on to realize several scarves with Sefedine's drawings, amongst these the carré "Feux du Ciel" which was brought out on the occasion the new millennium.
A photograph, an oil painting, a collage or a drawing can all serve as a motif for a scarf design as long as its dimensions are 36 x 36 inches. This is an essential requirement for the next stage in the procedure – the photoengraving which takes place in Lyon. Hamadou proudly explains to us, "What you see here is an example of regional savoir-faire, or know-how, that hardly exists elsewhere today."
Nadine Rabilloud smiles at the passion with which her colleague praises her work. For 34 years, the attractive blonde has been transferring the original design motives onto foils that serve as blue prints to produce the print plates. It is painstaking work that requires a good eye, excellent drawing skills, a steady hand, and, above all, an incredible amount of patience. Armed with a narrow, pointed ink pen Nadine leans over the latest design. "This kind of craftsmanship has remained unchanged since 1945."
Nadine is considered the expert for difficult cases by the other 20 illustrators employed there. Which is why she was assigned to work on the image of Indian princess Wa'Ko'ni.
With two other coworkers she spent 2,000 hours preparing the foils for the carré that became available in stores in 2011.
The picture had to be separated into 46 separate color foils.
It was a huge amount of work, but also a joy to do. "I am pulled into a fresh story with every scarf I work on. And I always learn something new. In Wa'Ko'ni's case I actually came across the jewelry in her portrait in a book about Indian culture.
The foils that Nadine illustrates so meticulously are then digitized by Delphine in a further step toward preparing the design for printing. For yet a further stage, we leave the main building and enter an annex built onto the side where Philippe and Jean-François will transfer the digitized data by means of exposure onto 46 frames covered in polyester gauze that has been treated with a photo-sensitive coating. "For two years now, this stage in the procedure has been executed by a machine that utilizes a special type of wax. Previously, covering, varnishing and transferring the design was done manually. And if necessary, we still know how to do it the old way," Jean-François adds. Hermès has always placed great value on integrating new technology into traditional manufacturing procedures, Kamel Hamadou explains while giving his silk tie a business-like tug. "Only, however, if it improves the quality!"
But to introduce new technology in the traditional printing process, or to replace the colorists who choose the printing colors is considered pointless.
After all it is the individuals with their trained eye, their instinct for trends and their experience who are needed to select the right hues from over 75,000 color shades.
This is also the stage where the Parisian management steps in again. Creative director Pierre-Alexis Dumas is in charge of the color committee and personally involved in choosing the perfect colors. And only after everyone is satisfied – a procedure that takes three months on average – is the go-ahead for the printing of the legendary 6A+ twill silk, also know as Hermès silk, given.
Approximately two thirds of the printed and processed scarves are rejected in quality control. Today, the entire production of the carrés is realized 100% by Hermès-owned companies. Even the raw silk originates from a Hermès farm in Brazil.
Hermès does not have a second selection. Anything that does not pass quality control is destroyed or recycled. And all our produce go through quality control!
Over time, the Dumas family bought up their best suppliers in Lyon. "Despite having been taken over, the companies have retained their original names. Hermès doesn't so much buy the company as buy the savoir-faire of the employees. A very different approach," the textile holding's spokesperson emphasizes. Only in the final production stage, the hand rolling "à la française" in which just less than half an inch of the silk twill border is rolled inward on its printed side and then attached by a single silk thread, does Hermès employ home workers. "It's very difficult to find people for this kind of work. Even after thirty years of experience, it still takes 45 minutes to hand roll a single scarf.
Although Hermès trains its own employees, they are always on the lookout for talented personnel. "We look for people with a zest for the work they do. A diploma is of secondary consideration." In all likelihood, Paulette and Hélène did not have any diplomas to show either. Yet, the handiwork executed by the elderly ladies, who discreetly return the finished carrés worth several thousand euros to the Parisian headquarters in their plastic shopping bags, also contributes to the phenomenal turnover of the Dumas dynasty.
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