Why the Hermès scarf is an investment piece to hold on to for life
That prestigious square
It's not every day one gets to be immersed in the brilliant, exquisite, and intricate world of a French fashion house, that has for years built a reputation upon its coveted Birkin and Kelly bags, silk scarves, watches, and leather goods. Over its 181-year lifespan, there's so much that's known about Hermès, and yet so much that remains to be discovered.
I'm standing in one of Hermès' ateliers — or to put it simply, workshops — located 50km from downtown Lyon. Hermès takes pride in its various ateliers, which run the gamut from engraving to printing. Housed in unassuming industrial buildings, you'd never have known that behind these closed doors are a talented crew that wield their skills to bring art to life in numerous forms. Today, we're about to delve deeper into the making of an Hermès carré (French for 'scarf' or 'square'), told to us through an ebullient guide who has been with the luxury maison for decades.
There's a quiet, palpable dedication to the craft inside the atelier. Each person focuses on one specific task, whether it be painstakingly engraving a design, sewing a label, or dyeing fabric. Heads bowed, nimble fingers flying — some with earphones plugged in, deep in concentration.
THE MAGIC FORMULA
How long exactly does it take to make one carré? Our guide dropped the all-important number — two years — early on in our tour, only to put things into perspective. He also let on, with scholarly flair, that it takes 300 silk cocoons to make one carré. A single cocoon produces 1.5km of thread, while on the flipside, a typical 90x90cm carré calls for 450km of thread. Mind-boggling? We feel the same.
We pause at an engraving station, where a middle-aged lady appears absorbed in her task. The idea behind engraving is designing and separating by colour all the different slides of the print pattern by hand and the process could take up to nine months, depending on the complexity of the design. What's more, the number of films which the engraver ends up using is in line with the number of colours employed. Hermès carrés typically showcase 25 to 30 colours, chosen from the brand's in-house catalogue of about 75,000 hues.
THROUGH A DESIGN LENS
Engraving is only one part of the scarf-making process — there's the artful expression of designing which comes before engraving, the flourish of printing and finishing, and the finesse which comes with stitching.
The design behind a scarf is a major component, and the day before our trip to Lyon, we had a chance encounter to sit with Pierre-Marie Agin, an independent artist who works with Hermès, and Christine Duvigneau, head of Hermès' graphic design studio, in Paris. The former is soft-spoken and earnest, answering each question with deep thought and concentration, while the latter, a perfect minder that helped to fill in any blanks.
"I like to design real scale," explains Pierre-Marie, when asked about his design method. "My hand is doing the same thing as the engraver. When they engrave the screens for the printing process — and if they do something very big, for example, and I scale it down to the actual format, the risk is that some details are too thin and delicate and we wouldn't be able to reproduce [it]."
The talented Pierre-Marie has been working with Hermès for the last 10 years. That relationship has evolved and blossomed over time — resulting in designs that have done remarkably well, such as his Le Laboratoire du Temps, which depicts the imaginary laboratory of a mad genius. It takes six months just for a design alone to take shape; the result of three to four meetings with the design studio for it to evolve and encapsulate the spirit of the brand.
However, there's one rule Pierre-Marie abides by, and that's not to have any knives or sharp items on a carré design — as the carré is a precious item to be worn around the neck. Instead, a good carré is "one that can tell a story from a distance, tied around the neck of a person," says Pierre-Marie.
He thoughtfully sums it up: "You have a sense of a story, and when you unfold it and look at it closely and for a longer time, you have all of the details. But it's important that the story works both from a distance and when you're close to it."
FINISHING WITH A FLOURISH
Off to the printing atelier we go, and we watch intently as silkscreen printers fastidiously lay one printing frame after another on a conveyor belt. Every colour is applied separately, and we're told that there could be eight to 10 colour variations of the same design. The lightest colours are meted out first, followed by the darker ones — and a similar rule applies with smaller to bigger motifs.
Finally, as part of the finishing touch, a seamstress takes 15mm of each edge, gently rolls it from back to front and stitches it up by hand. This is known as the 'rolled hem'. Our guide cheekily asks one seamstress to show us how it's done, and we're floored by the level of precision and surgeon-worthy steadiness of her hand. Even for the most experienced seamstress, the edges of one carré can take her at least half an hour. Only then is it sent to quality control, to ascertain whether the carré is good enough to be worn on the necks of women all over the world.
From 19 to 21 October 2018, from 11am to 8pm daily, visit the Hermès Carré Club to learn more about the process behind the beloved silk square. Think artist demonstrations, café gatherings, literary experiences, and more — all running day to night. Admission is free. For priority access, register to join the club here.
*Shuttle services run to and from Hermès Carré Club every 15 minutes from 11am to 8pm daily. Hop on a Carré-van at: Liat Towers taxi stand (next to Hermès at Liat Towers) Plaza Singapura taxi stand. For drop-offs only, head to 3 Lady Hill Road. Please note that parking facilities will not be available on site.