Class in the Bag - TheAustralian

  1. A Hermes bag is a thing of handcrafted beauty, writes Edwina McCann, who watches one made from scratch November 21, 2007.

    PANTIN is a long way from the Paris of postcards. It only takes me a 30-minute taxi ride to reach the suburb that sits on the northern fringes of the city, but you won't find its shabby, grey public housing blocks mentioned in any guidebooks.
    I have come to Pantin to visit Hermes's largest leather workshops, where gems such as the coveted and costly Birkin and Kelly bags are produced.
    The gleaming glass tower that houses the Hermes subsidiary is at odds with its surrounding buildings. Inside, slick steel holds together panels of multistorey glass windows that surround an internal courtyard, into which light floods through an atrium roof. Elegant cane chairs sit in a corner staff cafe behind which a wall is adorned with metres of continuous Hermes silk scarves, all in the company's signature orange. I'm told the building was constructed in 1991 and decorated by acclaimed interior designer Rena Dumas, wife of Hermes family member and former chairman Jean-Louis Dumas, who retired in 2006. More like a posh apartment, it certainly doesn't look like any other factory I've seen.
    "I don't like it when people say factory," says my guide, Canadian-born Kerry Hollinger, who has been in charge of various sections of leathergoods and is looking after small items such as wallets, "because it implies that it's industrial. What we have are workshops." Fifteen workshops, in fact, or ateliers, employing 300 people in this production site alone. The Pantin workshops produce the majority of Hermes leather goods, but the company totals 28 production centres on 22 sites in France, 12 of which are devoted to leather. It has just two European sites outside the country's borders: one in Switzerland for watches and the other in Northhampton, Britain for shoes. Notably Hermes does not make leathergoods outside Europe, which places the company at odds with most of its competitors in the luxury goods market.
    Buying a Hermes handbag is still a true experience in luxury, writes Dana Thomas in her book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre, which claims the luxury goods market has gone mass-market, sacrificing its integrity and undermining its products in the process. Hermes boutiques do receive a few bags each season to sell to customers who walk in, rather as a good restaurant always saves a table for a regular who drops in without a reservation.
    But generally, if you want to buy a Hermes bag you have to order it. They have long been the bag of choice for those who can afford to choose, explains Thomas, who is highly complimentary of the company's commitment to its handmade leathergoods.
    That commitment is most evident in the cutting section of the special orders department, where expensive crocodile skins are being laid out on a table to undergo a grading of sorts. On one brightly coloured pink skin, tiny imperfections are circled by white pencil. They must be cut around, and if there are too many of them the skin may have to be discarded. This skin will only make the base, sides and smaller sections of the small Kelly bag on order, which will cost more than $20,000. In the next room craftspeople, who generally look more like art students than blue-collar factory workers, are making bags from one of the three species of crocodile skins laid out before me. Hermes uses alligator from Florida and the niloticus crocodile from Africa, but the most prized and expensive is the porosus from Australia and New Guinea, and an upside-down V is placed on the inside of every item made from it. The signature of the craftsperson who will work on the bag from beginning to end (a larger Birkin will take approximately 25 hours to make) will also be noted on the inside of the bag.

    The craftspeople working in this atelier are among Hermes's most experienced and talented. Their average age is 33 and yet most have been with the company longer than 10 years. If they were to leave there are few other places in France where their skills could be employed, but no matter, because among the white and beech wood benches there don't seem to be any unhappy faces. It's light and airy and quiet except for the sound of gentle hammering, like cobblers at work. Each craftsperson has tools and a desk; some are adorned with photos of children. From one light hangs a tiny pink ballerina doll. It looks elegant and delicate, and perfectly at home. After graduating from one of France's leather-working schools these craftspeople have started their careers with Hermes under the direction of a godfather who guides them for at least 18 months or until their skill base is considered up to company standards. Only the very best will end up working with crocodile or ostrich skins because mistakes are expensive.

    The master of the crocodile workshop is Pascal Tuffin. He looks like a jolly French chef and takes his job very seriously. Every completed item goes to him for approval before he places it in one of the signature orange bags ready for departure to a client who has probably been waiting months and maybe even years.

    The day I visit only five orange bags sit on Tuffin's desk. He takes me through the process of the creation of a Birkin bag. I see leather being painstakingly beaten around the edges with a tool called a griffe, so that long needles can be threaded through by hand to sew the seams. They use a classic saddle stitch that nods to the company's heritage of saddle making. Cowhide is inserted between leather and lining so that the bag stands stiffly. In a corner sits a bespectacled man intently and lightly hammering hardware on to a Birkin bag. Its a process called pearling and requires skill, precision and patience. Rather than simply (and quickly) screwing hardware on to bags, Hermes uses an age-old and rare procedure whereby a fine nail is placed through the pieces of metal and then snipped and finally pearled until it looks like a smooth, elegant and perfectly even, tiny button. As the bags are made inside out they need to be turned when completed, and watching this being done is a little nerve-racking as I have been told the bag can be easily damaged if it is not done quickly and properly. Tuffin looks on, over the top of his glasses, as a middle-aged woman with a very friendly face turns a bag. She cannot stop for photographs, he politely but firmly says in French. We hold our breaths but we need not have worried. She turns the bag confidently and quickly and a very large black crocodile Birkin bag appears. I feel like I have discovered fashion's holy grail and for me, no mass-produced bag that comes off a factory line in China, expensive and fashionable though it may be, could ever compete with these precious gems
  2. Loved this, thank you!!
  3. :girlsigh:Merci.
  4. Now that does make a nice read! looking at my Kelly, I can just imagine the craftsman who made it! :p
    Thank you archangel.
  5. Thank you for posting this archangel. Very informative.
  6. Wow, loved the story, she really took us there!
  7. Thanks for posting. :tup:
  8. Thanks for posting :flowers:
  9. Thanks very much! I was absorbed in all the details and now I appreciate even more all the care and craftsmanship which went into my bags.
  10. Thankyou very much archangel! What an enjoyable read!
  11. Thank you for posting. McCann wrote a good article that makes you feel that you are in the workshop with her watching these talented artisans. This is a dream to go to this workshop and see this process.
  12. Thank you for sharing. Reading this makes me treasure my birkin even more.
  13. Thanks for sharing this. Love the article!
  14. I so enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting.
  15. Thanks for this wonderful piece of entertainment archangel!