Tucked away behind an anonymous door down a back corridor of Hermes’ corporate headquarters in Paris is where the magic happens. There, in a small, natural light-flooded L-shaped room, just five craftspeople - nearly all women, unusually for the leather goods industry - work on special projects for the French luxury goods maker.
From a guitar case in crocodile to canteens for sports cars, cuff-link boxes to photo frames to official gifts from the Elysee Palace to mark state visits, from a basketball to a Bible cover to an apple carrier and, of course, lots of bags - this is where Hermes produces its one-off, never to be repeated, made-to-order pieces.
“It’s a dream product - and often a very personal one - for the people who order something from here,” explains Kerry Hollinger, Hermes’ custom-made projects manager. “It’s something they can’t find, be that with the functionality they require - a pocket in a certain place, or, as we made for one customer, a fully perforated dog bag so she could take her pet into restaurants she wasn’t allowed to take it into - or just an aesthetic idea they want to pursue.”
Such a product, unsurprisingly, does not come cheap - it would be many times the price of a more standard equivalent, should such a thing exist, although Hermes will not talk figures other than to the client. Hermes charges a non-returnable 10% design fee, then a non-returnable 50% on confirmation of the order. Nor is it a fast process. Once a design is agreed on - a back and forth that may in itself take six months - and a mock-up made in canvas and approved, it may be a further six months before a classic leather item is completed, depending on the workshop’s schedule. But then it is made by one craftsperson from start to finish, from classifying and cutting the skins. “And there’s a lot of pride in that,” Hollinger notes. “There’s the sense that: ’This is my project. I made it and it’s a reflection of my skills’.”
Not that Hermes will do anything. Hollinger notes that some customers need a little education - those who, as she puts it, “expect perfection” and don’t immediately appreciate that, for instance, the wrinkles, veins and other characteristics of the leather are natural, and so an important feature of an Hermes product. Other customers can be overly picky about details - the distance between stitches, for example.
But, Hollinger stresses, this is not a bespoke design service so much as the chance to own a unique but still quintessentially Hermes item. Yet not too much Hermes - other customers want branding writ large. “And we won’t do that either,” she notes. “Nor will we mess with the classics - the Kelly bag or the Birkin bag, for example. We don’t have an actual list of rules for the projects we will accept and those we won’t but we know which are right for us.
Some of the ideas are off the wall but that doesn’t mean they’re not right for us - we did a beautiful American football for one client as a gift for his father.”
The designs that are approved by Hermes’ artistic director - as each of them has to be - are, certainly, often inventive and striking. One customer who wanted her date of birth in large numbers across a bag had to make do with a more subtle, and playful, way of displaying these figures - via the dimensions of exterior pockets. More recently the workshop has put 200 hours of work into the making of three small, minimalistic trunks in a tin-coloured leather, with delicate drawers and sections and handles made from multiple layers of compressed leather.
Each of the three special trunks is for L’Odyssee d’un Roi - a collaborative project exhibiting also the craft of venerable French silversmiths Puiforcat (a white gold pipette), crystal-makers Saint Louis (four engraved glasses and a carafe) and Remy Martin’s Louis XIII cognac (which produced a special edition).
“It’s very unusual for the workshop to work with other companies, so this is a particular kind of one-off,” explains Hollinger. “But it’s also been fascinating for us to work with craftspeople in other disciplines too.”
One trunk each is to be auctioned for The Film Foundation charity in America, Europe and Asia with a starting bid of £70,000. “All of the workshop’s products are costly - we say that rather than ‘expensive’ because the materials are special and the skills of the craftspeople who make them are very rare now, which is why they’ve been with us for decades in many cases,” explains Hollinger.
“The results achieve a standard that the main collection pieces perhaps don’t attain. They’re costly too because we’re making them here amid the rooftops of Paris - but that allows clients to be sent up from our stores, and also allows clients to visit us when they’re next in the city.”
The workshop takes on just a few hundred projects per year, though receives requests for many more - like getting to see the workshops in action, just getting an order successfully placed might seem something of a trial. But Hollinger stresses that to take on many more orders would be to cut against the ethos of the whole operation; to give individual attention and produce Hermes’ highest rung of leather goods, even if the technical reasons behind much of the exhaustive detailing - the use of saddle stitch, the coating of edges with beeswax and dye, for instance - are lost on many customers.
“But since we’re in Paris many customers come to the workshops and see it all happening - and they typically leave with an understanding of everything that goes into the special kinds of things we make here,” she says. “And why it’s ‘costly’.”