Hermès staff on Collins Street, Melbourne were pleasantly surprised by the unusually high number of people popping in to buy leather gloves last weekend. Most of these customers had come straight from the Hermès at Work event at Melbourne Town Hall, where they had observed fascinating demonstrations of the French artisans at work, while high quality interpreters from Translationz explained the techniques behind each craft. They were captivated by the iconic brand’s ethic of combining artistry with practicality – or as Hermès’ Director of Cultural Heritage, Ménéhould de Bazelaire du Chatelle described it: “giving materiality a soul.”
The Hermès at Work event is a unique interactive fusion of artistry and cultural history, where onlookers can stroll around the nine mini workshops, observing first-hand how the skilled artisans create Hermès bags, jewellery, leather goods and accessories using methods perfected over two centuries. In another bridging of artistry and practicality, interpreters from Translationz mediated between the French-speaking artisans and the audience, answering questions about the techniques and craftsmanship of producing intricately beautiful items by hand.
On the first evening of the event, the saddle-maker began the process of creating a complete saddle, which would be finished on the last day of the exhibition, some ten days later. ll the stitching would be completed by hand, the final product being an amazing piece of mastery. Nearby, the handbag-maker was no less incredible to watch, completing each piece with a level of skill and attention to detail rarely seen in today’s products. Unfortunately the completed bag will never be sold as all Hermès bags are marked, ‘MADE IN FRANCE’ while this one was actually made in Australia.
The gem-setting station and the watch maker both proved extremely popular with the public, due to their intricate skills and the rare privilege of standing so close to such valuable jewellery while seeing each piece being made.
The screen printer’s station was also often crowded with onlookers. However, there were many mirrors set up around it to enable people to watch from the back of the crowd. When we admire an Hermès scarf, it is difficult to appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating it. As with all products, the pattern is printed by hand, and then goes through numerous separate prints before.
Next door to the screen printer’s station, we could watch how a scarf design is created. This is one of the few places where machinery is involved – a high-tech computer superimposes each level of the design on top of the last so that each screen in the scarf printing process can be created. Nearby, the porcelain painter had a similar design process although all the beautiful and highly detailed designs were painted by hand onto plates, cups and saucers.
The tie maker also was a delight to watch and hear her explain the different types of stitching used and it was captivating to watch the artisan making the gloves.
Marie-Paule Leroux, French Interpreter for the glove-making artesian, (pictured here with the glover artisan-Christian) provided this insight.
The main skins used for glove-making are: lamb-skin, kidskin (goat), pecari skin and deer skin. A ‘regular’ glove is made of different pieces: the main body with 4 fingers, the thumb, the 3 gussets, the 3 welts and the finishing strip/strap. Hand-stitching a pair of gloves can take up to 3 hours. The difference between a bad and a good pair of gloves lies in the preparation of the skin and its stretching both in its length and in its width before you cut the skin on the various dies. And that is an art in itself which requires up to 5 years of training.
On the opening night of the event, Guillaume de Seynes, who welcomed the crowd said that the interpreters were “an important element of the event, so people could interact with the craftsmen.” Translationz interpreters were instrumental in highlighting the beauty and intricacy of the craftsmanship for onlookers, inspiring the purchase of Hermès items from the store on Collins Street. Translationz also provided all the simultaneous interpreter equipment for the event, including 70 receiving devices.
Ménéhould also gave a speech exploring Hermès history and legacy, entitled Heritage and Inspiration. Through Translationz simultaneous interpreter John Benson, she told the crowd that the luxury brand was founded in the 19th century by master craftsman Thierry Hermès, originally producing high quality accessories for horses which were the main mode of transport at the time. During the 1920s and 30s, the company had a major shift under the helm of Emile Hermès, who was an avid collector, drawn to practical objects with a romantic second purpose, such as walking sticks with secret compartments – one walking stick held a parasol, making it the perfect accessory for any gallant gentleman who might want to provide shade for a lady.
“Emile’s world travels and magpie-like propensity to collect the rare, unusual and useful brought incredible growth,” Ménéhould said.
“He secured the exclusive rights to use the new American ‘zip fastener’ on leather goods for Europe and this proved to be a veritable goldmine. It coincided with the company’s first ‘handbag’ – a riding bag for ladies with the revolutionary ‘zip fastener’ proudly on display,” she said.
“Needless to say, the handbag was a success.”
One of the hallmarks of Hermès has always been its ability to incorporate past, present and future in its designs. For example, the brand’s iconic printed silk scarves, first launched in 1937, became essential couture pieces for celebrities such as Jacqueline Kennedy, and featured a wide range of cultural motifs, from Napoleonic and other 19th century military symbols to avant-garde work by the contemporary iconoclasts such as Bauhaus, Cubism and other modernist movements.
Translationz simultaneous interpreter John Benson believes the most inspiring element of the luxury brand is its ability to adapt to changing times while retaining the highest standards of quality and creativity.
“When Hermès was founded by master craftsman Thierry Hermès in the 19th century, it produced the highest quality accessories for the main mode of transport at the time – horses,” said Mr Benson.
“For over two centuries, Hermès has constantly adapted to change, incorporating new creative ideas for products while sticking to an absolute mantra of the highest hand-made quality.”
“It’s a winning formula.”
So how has the Hermès brand merged with modern Australian society, where the connections to European history are not so keenly felt? When Ménéhould first heard that she was coming to Australia to give a talk on the past, present and future, her first reaction was that she was visiting a country “a bit like America, but with even less culture.” Yet only a few hours after landing, she realized her error as she was introduced to a vibrant eclectic city, humming with creative energy.
“It’s this openness and childlike innocence, along with an ability to take the best from every place you visit which is the hallmark of the house of Hermès,” she said.
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