Hermès' longstanding ability to create a lasting memory comes as no surprise to those familiar with the French fashion house. In 1937, the famous scarf was born, and wearable art became part and parcel of its legacy. Who can forget Hermès' iconic Brides de Gala, a testament to the house's first vocation, as a saddler and a harness-maker? Its Birkin bag, named after British actress Jane Birkin in 1984, was born out of a serendipitous encounter between her and the late former Hermès CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight from Paris to London. That moment led to the creation of a product that speaks of a story beyond its exclusivity, and a craftsmanship which surpasses its price tag.
Fast forward to today and I'm standing in a dreamily manicured garden in the heart of Paris, looking up at the palatial neoclassical architecture of Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, where fresh memories are about to be inked in another brilliant Hermès chapter. This time, with a veritable touch of unbridled fun and whimsy — as the house unveils the theme of the year, "Let's Play!". In 1987, on Hermès' 150th anniversary, Jean-Louis thought it appropriate to come up with a yearly theme to unify everyone at the house, which would translate down to its products and store windows — and eventually, a memoir that stays within each consumer and adds on to the brand's heritage.
The order of dress for the evening was to "come overdressed", and well-adorned did they come. Women flocked in shrouded in a mirage of gowns, flapper dresses, pantsuits, and oversized coats in dazzling colours, prints, and textures. Glamorous squads waltzed around in slinky velvet and fur accoutrements, while artistic cats flaunted berets, scarves, and quirky headpieces — we saw one that even featured its very own carousel. And let's not forget the gentlemen, who were far from getting upstaged. From idiosyncratic sunny-side up printed suits, to sequinned bomber jackets, the men were ruling the grounds in their own right.
Transformed into an Hermès playhouse with rooms of varied themes and activities, guests could immerse themselves in the many facets of "play" throughout the evening. There were board games, optical illusions, televised and mechanical games, a casino, and a larger-than-life version of musical chairs. Nothing was spared in bringing the message to life — according to Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès, play is "movement, freedom, imagination, fantasy, seduction and lightness." When play exists, hope resides.
The evening began with a grand welcome by a slick Parisian butler cum Master of Ceremonies, who dramatically checks your attendance with a flourish and announces your arrival through a megaphone. From there, I was greeted by two beautiful sphinxes at the entrance of the building, before being lured into a magical world of fun and games. There were several actors, including a magician, jousters, and their squires, who engaged individuals or small groups in conversation or a trick or two. For those wanting to test Lady Luck, the 'Wheel of Fortune' and 'Get Lucky or Die Trying' were popular options — the former self-explanatory, and the latter a makeshift casino where guests could try their hand at roulette and blackjack. 'Fast and Hilarious' housed a race track, where participants manoeuvred a remote-control car, and the person who clocked the most number of laps in a certain time frame won. I made sure to stay till King Kong made his appearance, creating the illusion of an oversized creature looming over a miniature city.
Other memorable rooms were 'Sit and Run', essentially musical chairs for up to about 20 adults. Brave souls were made to dance around the tight circle till the music stops, and the rest is as you know it. Our favourite game of the night? Hands down, 'Skittle Dog', which featured three bowling alleys fashioned after dog kennels. Each player was given a choice of two stuffed toy dogs which they used to slide down the alley to knock over as many pins as possible. Ingenious? Without a doubt. Hilarious? We left the room in peals of laughter.
"Who knows, maybe that is the secret of our longevity. For 180 years, this house has never stopped playing."
"Could we create? Could we invent? Could we even just imagine if we didn't play? Certainly not at Hermès in any case, where our first comrade in play was the horse," explained Pierre-Alexis, who starts thinking about each theme three years prior. "Who knows, maybe that is the secret of our longevity. For 180 years, this house has never stopped playing."
And the Hermès house truly hasn't. An exclusive tour through Émile Hermès museum, atop their store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, is proof of that. The space houses precious treasures over the years collected by the Hermès family, including a melange of antique knick-knacks, historical artefacts, equestrian-related objects, and games that have been in existence since the 19th century. Émile certainly had a knack for play — we unveiled a mini backgammon set, a peacock-feathered umbrella, horse carriages, a walking stick with a horse head (that would stick out its tongue when triggered), and several rocking horses.
How do we embark on our own journey of play? Whether it's picking up your own gem, in the form of these Hermès objects (all items in the gallery below are inspired by "Let's Play!") or others, let that imagination of yours create a story. I'll start with that gorgeous dice set in maple marquetry.
Last year's theme, 'Object Sense', focused on the years Martin Margiela stepped up as the creative director of the womenswear universe. The exhibition, 'Margiela, les années Hermès', is now still showing at Musée des Arts Décoratifs till 2 September 2018.