Inside the Workshop where Hermès Makes Its Iconic Bags
Located in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, France, the Hermès workshop presents a unique learning opportunity for new leather artisans. Here, they can hone their craftsmanship on the Kelly bag, an iconic and revered item from the Hermès fashion house.
The expression "Kelly bag" is a common phrase for the iconic Hermès Petit sac haut, à courroie, simplifié. It first achieved global fame when Princess Grace was photographed on the cover of Life magazine in 1956, holding it to conceal her early pregnancy. Although many successful brands have endured throughout time, few have achieved such high saturation as the Kelly bag has. The timeless style, originally designed in the 1930s, continues to stand strong.
The Kelly Bag produced by Hermès is more than just a symbol of luxury; it's also a valuable learning experience for the artisans who craft it. The bag encapsulates the company's know-how and traditional saddle craftsmanship, and brings with it an impressive set of challenges, requiring 36 pieces of leather, a few metal parts, and 15-20 hours to build. It serves as an introduction to virtually all other products in their repertoire; once one perfects the creation of the Kelly, building any other Hermès bag is straightforward. Olivier Fournier, Executive Vice President for Compliance and Organization Development at Hermès International acknowledges this as he oversees sustainable development initiatives within the company.
Craftsmanship has been a hallmark of Hermès since 1837, when German-born harness maker Thierry Hermès founded the company in Paris. The tight stitches used by our artisans represent nearly two centuries' worth of tradition and expertise. Our 51 distinct workshops scattered throughout France are devoted to unique aspects such as women's ready-to wear, perfumes, shoes, jewelry, menswear, silk and home furnishings--all working together to preserve unparalleled standards and techniques from generation to generation.
At Hermès, the marriage of craft and legacy is made tangible in their maroquinerie workshop - situated in the tranquil village of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, near Bordeaux. A team of 180 artisans (expanding to 250 after completing training) work tirelessly to create a flotilla of iconic bags out of supple leathers. It's no wonder it takes time and skill - the bags are so exquisitely crafted they each hold a little bit of the soul! Emilie, who was part of this passionate crew since 2015, explains "There’s a little bit of our soul in each bag".
Charles-Émile Hermès opened the first flagship store of his family's business in 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1880, setting off a chain of remarkable events and accomplishments. In 1989, they expanded beyond Paris to open a location near Lyon, followed three years later by a new store in Pantin. The Spring 2019 Women's Ready-to-Wear collection by Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski drew inspiration from this particular site with its signature waistline that copied the aprons worn by employees at the Pantin store.
At Hermès, craftsmanship is incredibly important. “We believe in quality and durability for our leather goods, which is why we've been practicing this artisan approach for so many centuries," explains Fournier. The former CEO Robert Dumas-Hermès summed up the company philosophy perfectly with his maxim “Luxury is that which can be repaired." Each year, the team at 15 dedicated repair shops worldwide fixes up to 120,000 pieces. Hermès prides itself on being able to return even the most worn handbags or saddles back to like-new condition. At times, an artisan might even have the opportunity to work on a piece they crafted more than 30 years prior—a unique challenge that only Hermès could offer!
The transmission of craftsmanship is essential to Hermès's success. In an effort to uphold their standard of quality, the French fashion house employs 80 master trainers who teach and mentor new artisans in a rigorous 18-month program. The first part of the training consists of lectures, while the second involves hands-on practice under the watchful eyes of 200 designated mentors. Hermès continues to hire highly skilled artisans throughout the world as they open new workshops, staying true to their commitment to providing exceptional craftsmanship.
The expert craftsmen and craftswomen at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul have to put in a lot of hard work to create the elegant objects synonymous with Hermès. Every single gesture is important, with factors like the angle and pressure of hands, hips, torso and more all ultimately affecting the outcome. Each artisan hired for the job—often recruited through vocational schools and employment agencies—is initially unfamiliar with leatherworking. However, once they understand each tool's purpose and hone their technique through physical means such as dancing or yoga-style stretching, they soon become experts in creating beautiful pieces exactingly crafted to Hermès' high standards.
This Fall, Hermès is ushering in an era of modern materials with its new mycelium leather, known as Sylvania. Developed through a collaboration with the San- Francisco based biotech company MycoWorks, this product derives not from animals but from mushrooms. Despite its unconventional origin, Fournier insists that this unique material possesses the same degree of quality and durability found in traditional leather goods and adds to Hermès’ long legacy of innovation.
The use of new technology does not have to be at odds with the traditional, handmade approach, according to Fournier. He views it as an opportunity for creativity and experimentation. This concept has been realized in the Victoria handbag from the autumn/winter 2021 collection, crafted exclusively by the specialist at the workshop.
As Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Artistic Director of Hermès, has noted, leather is a way to come face-to-face with reality. The same can be said for mycelium leather, which speaks to the changing times. According to Fournier, there's no one formula to success and certain styles may take years before they're embraced. But all creativity starts with freedom. That's why Hermès pursues new avenues of creativity--even when it comes to something as classic as leather.