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Stopping by Hermès in Paris

Have you ever walked by the Hermès Paris flagship store? If you haven’t  and, whether or not your budget allows you to shop there, you should make it a priority to drop by. If only to see the the windows. Each season, Hermès’ window designer, the legendary Leila Mencharin, creates fantastic displays that are usually the stuff of fairy tales. With her magic wand, she stages bags, scarves, belts or gloves in opulent decor that highlight the goods sophisticated polish and incomparable elegance. The result is extraordinary.  As extraordinary as Hermès’ tale.

Most of us don’t take the time to hear the story behind a name or a label. In fact, sometimes, there is no particular story to tell. Other times, however, there is a history or anecdotes that may grab your interest or that of your audience at a dinner’s party. Hermès’ tale is one of them.

It all began with a man named Thierry Hermès.  In 1837, the German native opened a shop in Paris. He specialized in one-of-a-kind harnesses and saddles, each one painstakingly stitched by hand. The artisan quickly gained recognition for his impeccable and inventive craftsmanship. European noblemen and royalty swore by him. It was even rumored that coronations were postponed until Hermès completed the design of the royal carriages. In the 20th century, however, the automobile took over and the family business declined.  But, rising up to the challenge, the company decided to diversify the leather collection. Gloves, belts, bags and upscale luggage bearing the famous horse-drawn carriage logo found a niche in the luxury goods market. The items quickly became the rage among rich and chic clients from around the world. Today, six generations later, the House of Fashion remains in the hands of the founding family. “Hermès Universe,” as it is often referred to, has been expanding steadily to include silk scarves, women’s and men’s fashion accessories, jewelry, watches, even baby’s gifts.  Two centuries after it was born, Hermès rules over an empire of more than 280 boutiques worldwide.

One of Hermès’ most recent shops opened in 2010 at 17, rue de Sèvres on Paris’ Rive gauche. Set within the converted swimming pool of the Lutetia Hôtel, the store features the brand’s new home-furnishing line. Instead of the traditional glass cases displaying silken scarves or leather wallets, you will find oversized wooden huts, each one showcasing stunning furniture and home accessories. If you pop in, don’t miss the café on the second floor’s balcony.  The view will take your breath away. Appropriately named “Le Plongeoir,” (diving board, in French), the restaurant proposes light and chic fare, rare teas and home-made pastries served in Hermès porcelain.

Hermès Icons

Few fashion houses in the world stir strong feelings as does Hermès. Whether you hate them or love them, the house’s iconic items are attention-grabbers. Probably, the three accessories that best epitomize the luxury brand are the ‘square,‘ the ‘Kelly’ and the ‘Birkin.‘

The square

In 1928, inspired by the kerchief that Napoleon’s soldiers tied around their neck, Hermès designed this unique silk scarf. It measures 36 inches square — hence, its nickname the ’carré,’ or ’square,’ in English. This new accessory created an immediate sensation. It became the indispensable accessory of any stylish women.  Fashionistas wore it day and night, wrapped around their shoulders or neck, their heads or their handbags. Today, the square  remains the symbol of ultimate elegance.

The Kelly

In 1956, a picture of Grace Kelly of Monaco appeared on the cover of Life magazine. The princess is holding a large Hermès black crocodile bag — apparently to shield her pregnancy. The picture travels the world and….the rest is history.

It takes about 18 hours of work by a single craftsman to produce a Kelly.  Furthermore, in her book, Handbags, the Power of the Purse, Anna Johnson mentions that the finishing touch requires ironing the bag to get the wrinkles out of the skin.

The Birkin

In the 1980’s, actress/singer Jane Birkin inspired the design of what ranks as the most sought-after handbag in the world.  While flying from London to Paris, Ms. Birkin found herself seated next to Jean-Louis Dumas,  Hermès’ CEO.  As she was trying to keep the content of her purse from spilling out, the young woman commented that she had yet to find a bag that would be practical to travel with. Not missing a beat, Mr. Dumas challenged her to come up with the design of the ‘ideal traveling’ companion. And the Birkin was born.

Handmade by a master craftsman, the Birkin takes two days to come to life and each bag has a unique, hand-made identification code.  Hermès  creates only five Birkin a week, which explains the long waiting list — up to six years, the longest of any luxury accessory.

Written by Brigitte Aflalo-Calderon for

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