All the cars on the Detroit People Mover train were adorned with the colorful Hermès universe. The Paris-based luxury house had just concluded a week of activations in the metropolitan area. It might seem like a mismatched pairing, but both have roots in manufacturing and ingenuity. And the Michigan town began as Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, after all, in what was then New France. But, as I learned on a recent press trip, there is a little-known and deeper connection.
About a century ago, when Émile-Maurice Hermès (grandson of founder Thierry) visited the Ford Motor Company factory, he was captivated by a fastening device used to attach fabric tops to cars. He adapted and patented the technology, and “The Bolide” was released in 1923: the world’s first handbag with a zipper, still in production.
Other convergences are emerging. Hermès, a $16 billion heritage brand, remains a family business and of France’s 11,000 employees, more than half (55%) are artisans. Meanwhile, Detroit has a thriving arts scene and is settling into its renaissance as a creative hub. “We want to be part of the community,” the house’s executive vice president, Diane Mahady, explained during a June 10 panel at the city’s College for Creative Studies.
Indeed, last week’s press tour itinerary included a visit to the Detroit Achievement Academy, a free charter school to which Hermès provided grants and art supplies. Third graders were making kaleidoscopic butterflies out of beautiful leftover silk scarves. When asked why they called them “bird saviors”, they explained that they had to be hung from the windows of the school, to prevent birds from crashing into the glass of the new modern extension in construction course.
Craftsmanship and sustainability are key principles of Hermès, but what does this mean in practice? Which brand does not claim to be eco-responsible? It is increasingly difficult to penetrate the rhythm of a company’s messages and focus on the truth. Hermès has implemented a “show, don’t tell” strategy with the centerpiece being travel, “Hermès in the making.” Certainly, I was absolutely schooled.
“Hermès in the Making”, which took place in the suburbs of Troy from June 10 to 15, is a traveling pop-up that allows viewers to witness the creative process. This iteration was held in a large space within the high-end Somerset Collection mall (the brand opened a store there in 2021). If spies from a rival company came to glean trade secrets, they would leave empty-handed: it would be neither possible nor profitable to reproduce the work presented. The techniques are laborious, complex and time-consuming. They require the most advanced skills and training, and many procedures are proudly and decidedly low-tech.
With eight craftsmen at work at a given time, the colorful atelier is like a chic, Pompidou version of an immersive, kid-focused science museum, but for fashion-savvy adults. Detroit is not the only stage: they are like a troupe of Shakespearean actors, exercising their art from community to community. Next stops are Singapore in September, Austin in October and Kyoto in November.
The site is divided between the trades of the house. At one station, a craftswoman was meditatively lost in her work. She glanced at a finished vase, then dabbed the current one with a thin brush to match the patterns. It looked accurate, but on closer inspection there were very slight, barely noticeable nuances, a human touch that made each one distinctive. Other sections showed the sewing of a Kelly bag or the making of leather gloves.
Most relevant, perhaps, was the spectacle of the printing of one of the famous scarves. The craftsman placed a succession of screens on the square of virgin silk and dyed it. An entire screen would be used to apply a barely noticeable one-inch signature. The screens are then removed, washed and placed in a different pile. Another screen has been placed, resulting in a thin black outline. This one-man conveying technique continued until the artist Alice ShirleyThe design of three giraffes was slowly revealed. It was as impressive as it was sleepwalking. I had to exit after screen 17, just when the colors of the giraffes filled in. There were still many other screens leaning against the wall waiting to be applied.
The exhibition highlighted other trades, as well as strange ephemera. A glass dome was filled with what looked like candy but turned out to be silkworm cocoons. A meteorite fragment – a piece of Mars discovered in North Africa – provides chips used in the Arceau L’Heure de la Lune watch. The punk grandeur of the black leather Vivace saddle sparked a hitherto unknown desire to want to display horse gear in the home as a sculpture. Many of these products are art-adjacent, but the mini-line dubbed “little h” really blurs the line between art and luxury craftsmanship, and is fundamentally a couture approach to sustainability. Leftovers from all of Hermès’ efforts collide and are reborn into artful, one-of-a-kind pieces by the design team, like an absurd/awesome porcelain skateboard more suited for sipping aperitifs than kicking around. (Let’s hope that a “little h” retrospective is on the program.)
Overall, this intimate glimpse behind the curtain leaves the viewer with a more informed understanding of the quality and sometimes long waiting lists for Hermès pieces. If one of the purposes of the exhibition was to justify the price, then mission accomplished. But so much more is explored, such as informed consumption and thinking about each purchase as a potential legacy. What really stands out and moved me is the artistry and care of the people who create.
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