My mother once asked me: ‘Wouldn’t you rather buy art than an Hermes bag?’ While it is no secret that I one day aspire to be the proud owner of a Birkin, my adoration for art has often given the bag second place in my list of currently unattainable items. However, after visiting the Leather Forever exhibition celebrating the 175 year history of Hermes in Mayfair, I must confess that the Birkin is right back at the top of my list.
Founded in 1837, Hermes has been at the forefront of luxury leather goods for almost two centuries. The brand originally began as a specialist in saddle making and later branched out into other items such as bags and shoes, which is what most associate Hermes with today. We are greeted into the fabulous world of Hermes by a white ostrich skinned rhino. The gold horned creation is affectionately named Zouzou and was crafted in 1978 for the fashion house’s Christmas windows. After a brief encounter with Zouzou, Hermes educates us in its library of skins – a room full of leather skins from alligator, crocodile and lizard to goat, lamb, ostrich and calf. In this room, viewers are encouraged to touch the skins thus allowing an engagement with all the senses – touch, feel and smell, as the aroma of fine leather lingers throughout the galleries. The attention to detail in the quality of leather is continued into the next room with the inclusion of one of Hermes’ bag makers making a live Kelly bag. We are told that each bag takes between 15 to 20 hours to make and there is a huge emphasis on quality of craftsmanship.
After our lessons in construction and quality of leather, the spotlight is handed over to the bags themselves. One room is completely devoted to the original ‘it’ bags: the Kelly and the Birkin – so called after Grace Kelly and Jane Birkin. They are displayed in dimly lit rooms with flickering spotlights, highlighting their beauty in a way which is understated and not at all vulgar or in your face. Many vintage pieces and one-of-a-kind items are on display and a striking black Birkin adorned with large gold spikes definitely caught my eye.
Later there are examples of travel bags and saddles – the domain in which Thierry Hermes began his career and the one item in the exhibition that I feel did not get as much attention as it deserved. The bags were given centre stage, whereas the original product took the back seat. That said, the final displays which showed off four one of a kind bags designed to celebrate Britain’s role as Olympic host and the Queen’s diamond jubilee, really were stunning. The bags which are themed around England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are to be auctioned by Christie’s, profits of which will go to the Royal Academy.
This exhibition which acts as a shrine to the beautiful and much sought after Hermes bag is an impeccable display of years worth or tradition and craftsmanship. It is a taste of luxury and opulence and not to be missed.
Hermes – Leather Forever is open at Burlington Gardens until May 27