Why the 'Margiela, The Hermès Years' exhibition will turn you into a collector

Why the 'Margiela, The Hermès Years' exhibition will turn you into a collector

Objects for life

Text: Norman Tan

Site: 'A view from the front row' by Sarah Mower from the book: Margiela,
The Hermès Years

Site: 'Luxury,
Luxus: Redefining fashion for the new millennium' by Rebecca Arnold from the book: Margiela,
The Hermès Years

Image: Vanessa Caitlin
Image: Cover image: Benoit Tellier

Five Hermès objects to love for life

To own something from Hermès is to appreciate how that item makes you feel; not what image it projects. It's an appreciation for that magical process of how an object was first dreamt up in the designer's mind — how it will function, how it will look, how it will change over time — and then have that vision transformed into reality by an artisan's hands.

Which is not to say that carrying an Hermès Birkin bag, or wearing a colourful silk carré, doesn't project a certain image. For it certainly does. But the metamorphosis of these items into modern day symbols of luxury are by-products of their inherent good design, quality and craftsmanship; not the primary objective. To put it succintly, Hermès exists to elicit joy: The comfort of cashmere brushing against the skin; the gentle rattle of enamel bracelets on the wrist; the supple texture of saddle-stitched leather under the hand. Style, not statement. Function, not fashion. Craft, not commerce.          

It is in this context, and quite understandably so, why Hermès loyalists were shocked when, in 1997, then chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas appointed Martin Margiela as the creative director of the women's wear universe. A Belgium designer with a penchant for avant-garde deconstruction to oversee the storied French bastion of good taste? Surely not! It was almost heretic; and as Dumas later confessed, "[Customers] were expecting blood! And they did get a suprise! But it was something which was much better than they could ever have imagined." Although strange bedfellows, what ensued was a venerable wardrobe of 'slow fashion' — a beguiling interchangeable (and transformable) series of 12 collections by Margiela for Hermès from 1997 to 2003 that underscored the beauty and assured confidence of mature, real women. 

In a new exhibition currently showing at the MOMU Fashion Museum in Antwerp, 'Margiela, The Hermès Years', the sophisticated restraint and emphasis on tactile luxury displayed by Margiela for Hermès is contrasted with his statement anti-fashion pieces from his own collection, Maison Martin Margiela. The pared-back elegance of the deep-V cashmere 'Vareuse' sweater that Margiela designed for Hermès (so the wearer could slide it down her body to remove the garment without messing her hair) juxtaposed against oversized sweaters in artificially aged knits (replete with seams and darts) for his own line; Hermès coat with an opening under the sleeve inset so that the sleeves themselves could be tucked inside, transforming them into capes, sitting alongside Maison Martin Margiela's infamous duvet coat modelled after sleeping bags — however you look at it, the exhibition is a veritable fashion mash-up. (And, if you find yourself in Antwerp before the end of August, it is a must-see.)

Having had the pleasure of recently visiting the exhibition myself, I left with a greater appreciation for the genius of Margiela (you see his influence percolating down to current designers, from Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga to Raf Simons at Calvin Klein), and an even greater love and desire for all things Hermès — that dedication to skill, craftsmanship and whimsical story-telling in every garment and accessory. To own a piece of Hermès is to own a piece of wonder. And it is from this new-found revelation that I now present five of my own Hermès objects to love for life; hoping that my personal connection with these pieces will inspire you to treasure your own slice of the Hermès world. To savour, to enjoy, to caress... we all need a bit of Hermès in our lives.   

1. SOMETHING TO READ: Margiela, The Hermès Years

Margiela, The Hermès Year book

A tome on the seemingly incongruous pairing of a nihilistic Martin Margiela with the bourgeois house of Hermès. A fascinating read of what can happen when you dare to take risks and act on your convictions. As Rebecca Arnold explained in her essay, 'Luxury, Luxe, Luxus: Redefining fashion for the new millenium', which can be found in the book, Margiela emphasised dress-as-experience rather than fashion-as-image:

"Margiela... upended the heirarchy of the senses. Rather than focusing on the visual, or in other words, the viewer's appreciation of clothing and its presentation, he instead took an emphatic approach and considered the way the clothes would feel on the wearer's body. This is not to say that the clothes did not look good, but they needed to be worn to be truly experienced and appreciated."  

2. SOMETHING TO CARESS: Hermès silk twill carré

Hermès silk twill carré scarf

An unequivocal icon of the maison, the silk carré with its hand-rolled edges and vibrant hues, takes a total of two years to create from the ateliers in Lyon, France. Available in an increasingly diverse range of sizes (from the classic 90 x 90cm to the almost blanket-size 140 x 140cm) and with countless styling possibilities (drape it, tie it, belt it), for me, there's nothing more luxurious than feeling that cool touch of soft silk sliding against the neck.

Fun fact: Margiela abstained from using the colourful carré in his collections for Hermès, but did employ the traditional hand-rolled finishing found on the silk scarfs for his blouses and tunics in silk twill crêpe. 

3. SOMETHING TO SAVOUR: Hermès Cheval d'Orient teacup and saucer

Hermès Cheval d'Orient teacup and saucer

Why invest in a Hermès tea cup and saucer? Putting aside the fact that this particular collection, the Cheval d'Orient, is so richly plated in 24 carat gold that it's not available for sale in Singapore (I had to buy it on a trip to Moscow a few years back) and is so finely crafted that when you hold it up to the light, it glows with a pearlescent quality, consider this: Every sip of tea from an Hermès cup is a daily touch of luxury. That sensation of gold on your lips; that clink of fine French porcelain in your hands; and that reflecton of light from the vividly painted saucer to your eyes. Why should you invest in a Hermès tea cup? The real question is: Why shouldn't every tea time be this beautiful?    

4. SOMETHING TO STRAP ON: Hermès Cape Cod timepiece

Hermès Cape Cod watch with black double tour leather straps

The Hermès Cape Cod celebrated its 25th anniversary last year — it was designed by Henri d'Origny in 1991 as a men's watch — but only really gained cult status in 1997 when Margiela added a double-tour leather bracelet to the timepiece and showed it on the women's ready-to-wear runway. The reaction? Sold-out success. You know how there are now queues and waiting lists for the Hermès Birkin Bag? Well, this was the watch equivalent back in the day. Today, it is available with a cleaner dial design — reminiscent of its earlier, classic incarnations — and comes with interchangeable straps for you to mix-and-match as you please.

My favourite thing about the Hermès Cape Cod? The double-tour strap means that it moves on the wrist; it's both a time keeper and accessory with a dynamic personality.

5. SOMETHING FOR THE JOURNEY: Hermès Etrivière strap shoes

Hermès Etrivière monk strap leather shoes

It is often said that a man is judged by the shoes that he wears, so why not make those shoes a handsome pair of pebble-grained Hermès derbys. This particular pair comes finished with an Etrivière strap — a maison favourite often used for belts and, in the case of Margiela for Hermès, as removable leather fasteners on transformable outerwear in his autumn-winter 2000/2001 collection — for a touch of Hermès whimsy on your journey around town and country. Of all the shoes that I own (and I have countless pairs from various houses and makers, believe you me) these are one of my all-time favourites for its marriage of form and function. So unbelievably comfortable — even without socks.

Did you know? Hermès acquired luxury shoemaker John Lobb in 1976 and, as such, has a wealth of shoe-making savoir faire to draw from to create its own killer kicks.   

Be sure to catch the 'Margiela, The Hermès Years' exhibition if you're visiting Antwerp, Belgium. It is currently showing in the MOMU Fashion Museum in Antwerp until 28 August 2017.

Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. Read more columns from @MusingMutley.

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