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The Silk Road: An Editor's Journey To Discover The Craft And Magic Of Hermes Scarves

Next month, a first-in-the-world exhibition celebrating the creativity of an Hermes scarf opens right here in Singapore. Ahead of it, Noelle Loh travels to Paris and Lyon to discover what exactly makes a piece of silk from the French maison so intriguing.

Confession: I’ve always had mixed feelings about visiting workshops. It’s partly because I’m a klutz with the bad habit of touching things that are off limits (read: I can be an embarrassing danger in such environments). More than that, there’s the fear that the processes could get too technical and in turn — to put it plainly — dry.

This was not going to be the case on this trip to see the making of Hermes’ distinct carres (French for “squares” and how the brand refers to its scarves) at its ateliers in France in the middle of June. I knew this as soon as I got off the plane in Paris. An opportunity to meet Christine Duvigneau, the head of Hermes’ graphic design studio, and Pierre-Marie Agin, an independent artist who’s been working with the brand for a decade, had unexpectedly popped up, scheduled for that very afternoon.

The latter, 36, looks like a character out of a Luca Guadagnino movie with his dark moustache and soft-spoken demeanour (incidentally he was behind the artwork for the director’s 2015 film A Bigger Splash). With a twinkle in his eyes, he explained his design philosophy for the maison. “A good scarf is one that can tell a story from a distance, tied around the neck of a person. (From this alone) you should be able to get a sense of a story, and when you unfold it, and can look at it closely and for a longer time, you have all the details,” he said. “It’s important that the story works on two scales.”

Quatre Coins scarf (70x70cm) in vintage silk and a hip new colourway (left); and (right), the vintage saddlery-inspired Manufacture de Boucleries Detail scarf, now also treated to be suppler and look “aged”. All 90x90cm wide and in silk twill unless otherwise stated.

Meanwhile, the sweet-tempered Duvigneau is like “momager” to talents like Agin within the house, working alongside them and Bali Barret, artistic director of Hermes’ Women’s Universe, to create prints based on an annual theme. (This year’s: “Let’s Play”, which explains the whimsical quality of most of the Fall/Winter 2018 releases you see on these pages.) She’s also in charge of sharing finalised drawings with the brand’s various artistic directors — Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski for women’s ready-to-wear, for example — to see how they could get adapted.

As Agin put it, the scarf is “often the king of drawing at Hermes”; its motifs providing the base for a whole gamut of lively printed products ranging from blouses to wallpapers. True to the brand’s dedication to detail, they’re never lifted wholesale — an artistic process in itself. “It’s always a new drawing adapted to the right scale and shape of the new object,” he said. “I’d have to put an almost 1m-wide drawing into a 6mm-wide bangle and still be able to recognise the drawing and story behind it.
It’s quite an exercise.” The whole time he spoke, his smile never faded.

The next day, I flew to Lyon, known for its savoir faire in luxury silk scarves, and the place where Hermes has been manufacturing its own since launching its first in 1937. Both my main stops were short, nondescript industrial buildings housing various ateliers: engraving, printing and dyeing, to name a few. Inside though, the same enthusiasm and sense of ownership greeted me no matter where I went.

Our guide was a master storyteller who had been at the company for decades and spoke effusively about every step of the production. I couldn’t get over the young woman at quality control, who inspected each scarf calmly with her naked eye and remarkable precision, able to spot defects no bigger than a speck. When I asked a seamstress who was hand-rolling and stitching the hem of each scarf — a distiguishing feature of an Hermes carre — if some variations of silk were harder to work with, she replied like a true artisan: “(It’s just a matter of them being) different, not more or less difficult.”

Next month, the brand opens “Carre Club”, a first-time exhibition here in Singapore to celebrate the cult that is its silk square scarves. While details remained under wraps at press time, its name and the brand’s past public events are a good indicator that it’s going to be anything but dry — and so was the human touch that pervaded my visit to its workshops. Below, a breakdown of the technical and design feats that go into the making of an Hermes carre without any technical humdrum.

 

It takes 300 silk cocoons to make one carre

Using silkworms farmed in Brazil, known to produce the world’s best silk, Hermes estimates that a single cocoon results in about 1.5km of silk thread. A 90x90cm scarf – one of the brand’s signature and most popular sizes – calls for 450km of thread. You do the math.

A single carre takes two years to complete

Starting from a meeting between the brand’s artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, (also a sixth-generation member of the brand’s founding family), Bali Barret and the graphic design team on the main design inspiration; right down to quality control, with every step done – if not at least controlled – by humans, not machines. Only then are the carres ready to hit stores.

There’s a different design element in every corner

Besides the playful surprise factor, the practice helped establish Hermes as one of the first to create its own prints at a time when other brands were simply buying uniformly patterned (read: less labour-intensive) designs from Lyon.

No depictions of anything sharp, please

Simply because the brand doesn’t deem it appropriate, what with scarves usually worn around the neck.

Don’t mess with the engraver

Aka the one with the most painstaking task: translate by hand every detail of a life-sized drawing as faithfully as possible (yep, even the thickness of the outlines) onto different films that each then get scanned onto printing frames. So-called simple designs can take at least 400 hours to engrave; complex ones, as many as 2,000 – or more.

Colour is everything

Most carres sport around 30 different colours, though this can go up to 45, all chosen from a “recipe book” of 75,000 created by – and thus unique to – the brand. PS. The number of films needed by the engraver (and in turn silkscreen printing frames) corresponds to the number of colours used.

Every colour is applied individually

Working with three flat-screen tables that add up to 150m in length, the silkscreen printers lay on the printing frames one after another – a laborious and meticulous affair. The outline is completed first, followed by the areas of colour, starting with the lightest and ending with the darkest.

The finish calls for a light touch

A distinguishing factor of an Hermes carre is its French style roulette, or rolled hem: seamstresses delicately twirl 15mm of each edge from back to front, then stitch it up with a silk thread – a process done entirely by hand. Even for an experienced roulotteuse, hemming the edges of one carre can take 30 minutes.

This story first appeared in Female’s September 2018 issue.

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November 2019
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