Fashion 101: Why Luxury is Expensive

The Hermès Bag

The Hermès Kelly bag.

We all know the Hermès bag is one of the most coveted luxury goods in the world, with the Birkin and Kelly bags leading the way as two of the most desirable handbags in existence. But they do not come cheap, prices start at around $7,500 for a Kelly bag and can go well into the hundreds of thousands if you are using crocodile, diamonds, and other precious materials. But it is not just the materials we are paying for, or the brand name, the Hermès bag is expensive because of the laborious construction process involved in making each bag. Today’s Fashion 101: Why Luxury is Expensive is about the Hermès bag.

Part of my research comes from Hermès themselves, and the rest was researched at the Vancouver Hermès store, where in October they invited one of the master craftsman to work in the store, so that the customers could witness first hand the steps involved in creating one of the most exclusive luxury products in the world.

The Hermès Birkin bag.

First of all, the craftsman will train for several years before they are allowed to make a bag. Most of the Hermès craftsman come from a school in Paris called Ecole Grégoire-Ferrandi, who specialize in leather, particularly saddle making and “maroquinerie” which refers to handbags and similar items. Once you’ve completed the course there, you have 15 months of training at Hermès, where you make watch straps, handles, and do other exercises. After that you can start on bags, but craftsmen need five years experience making bags before they can “graduate” to crocodile. There are about 2,000 craftsman working for Hermès, and each craftsman usually only specializes in four bag shapes. Luggage is made in a separate workshop, and is usually made by men as luggage requires a lot more strength during its construction, particularly when it is turned out.

THE CUTTING

Each cutter will cut 5 or 6 bags a week, one at a time. They start by examining the skins and identifying which area of the skin will work for each part of the bag. The tools used for cutting are a paring knife or press knives, which are more precise, as they allow for the cutter to cut, prick, and make the marks for placing the clasps. The most popular models have cutting plates for their pieces, but they differ according to the skin being used, as different leathers have different elasticity.

Leathers ready to be cut.

How much leather is used for a Kelly bag?

  • One calfskin
  • Two or three crocodile skins (as only the stomach is used, the rest is covered in bony scales)
  • One and a half ostrich skins, so that there are as many follicles visible as possible.
  • Four to five lizard skins (the heads and tails are not used.)

Crocodile skin being cut for a bag.

The thread used for Hermès leather goods is mouline linen thread, which has excellent dimensional stability and will not be affected by different climates. The thread comes in one hundred different colours, and a Kelly bag uses about 20 metres of thread. Before assembly, the thread is coated in beeswax so that is it waterproof and smooth.

Mouline linen thread in the Hermès atelier.

THE TOOLS

The Hermès craftsman use the same tools that they did 150 years ago (I love that!) The most important element is the human hand, but there are three other tools that assist in the contruction of a bag. The grid resembles a comb with pointed teeth that imprint the leather so that the craftsman knows where to stitch, and to ensure the stitches are even. The awl is a thin, diamond-shapes pick that punctures the leather and makes way for the needles, the third tool, which are quite blunt and come in pairs.

Like a thimble to a seamstress, each craftsman has his own set of tools, which are extremely personal and mould and conform to the owner’s hands and movements. I love this image of the craftsman having a set of tools which essentially become an extension of his body at work.

THE ASSEMBLY

Let’s start with the saddle stitching. The saddle stitch is a very solid stitch now used on all of Hermès bags, belts, watch straps, and most other leather pieces. The technique involves crossing a thread over itself between two pieces of leather, and it is very strong because if one stitch breaks, the rest remain intact. While saddle-stitching, the leather is held in a large wooden clamp that the craftsman holds in between his legs. I tried the saddle stitch during my visit with the master craftsman at the Hermès store, and although I managed a few pretty good looking stitches, you can tell right away why it takes three years of training before a craftsman is allowed to make a bag. It is quite a challenge to make an row of perfectly even hand-done saddle stitches, let alone an entire bag.

Cecile working on a bag with the leather secured in a clamp held by her legs.

Other details on the bag include the manual bar tacking, which are always done by hand. There are a few parts of an Hermès bag that are machine sewn, which includes the inside pockets, the shoulder straps, and the zippers, and even these have hand-sewn manual bar tacks. The bar tack is used to finish the edge of a stitch. You can’t just leave the threads loose and you can’t cut them off at the end, as the stitch will unravel. Rather than tie a knot, at Hermès they hand-sew a bar tack which is then flattened with a hammer. The edges of the leather that are visible will be buffed with sandpaper, dyed, waxed, and polished several times to ensure they are soft, the correct colour in order to match the bag, and are safe from humidity.

Any creasing on the bag is outlined by hand with a hot tool that needs a very strong, stable hand. The linings are always in leather, usually a very soft lamb or goatskin, so that when the owner’s hand reaches into the bag, the inside feels soft and luxurious. Even the zipper teeth are polished to ensure they don’t have any rough edges and are soft to the touch.

Inside an Hermès bag-making atelier.

A craftsman takes about 3 to 4 days to assemble a bag, and each bag is worked on by one person alone. Essentially, the bag ends up being a part of the person who created it. A Kelly bag (which takes four days) has about forty pieces that needs to be assembled, and they start by stitching the lining to the inside pockets, and the linings for the small straps and the gussets. The straps are then sewn onto the back of the bag, and then the base is stitched to the two sides. The next step is to create the rigid handle, and then the shanks or handle loops are attached to the bag. The bag is no longer flat when the craftsman assembles the body, front and back with gussets. The edges are then buffed and dyed, as explained above, and the jewelry is attached (the lock, the plates, and the rivets.)

Cecile attaching the hardware.

Once the bag is finished, it must be turned outside in, as most of the Hermès bags are worked on from the inside out. This is a very delicate process, which must be done without marking or rubbing the bag, and without damaging its shape. Once the bag is turned, it will be lightly hammered and steamed to ensure the perfect shape and removes any traces of handling.

A Birkin bag after it has been turned out.

The final touch is to hot stamp the Hermès logo and the craftsman’s code, as each bag can be traced back to the person who made it. If you return a bag for repairs, they will always send it back to the person who originally made it, if they are still working. Then the bag is packaged in its dust bag, and placed into the orange box, tied with the brown Hermès logo bolduc ribbon, and is ready to be delivered!

Ohhh… to be on the delivery end of this transaction…

Special thanks to Cecile Van Rookhuijzen, a master craftsman from Hermès, for showing me your incredible skills.

Read more Fashion 101′s
Fashion 101 Why Luxury is Expensive: Le Carré d’Hermès (The Hermès Scarf)
Fashion 101 Why Luxury is Expensive: The Tiffany’s Yellow Diamond
Fashion 101 How Haute Couture Works
Fashion 101 Where do Fashion Trends Come From?

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  • JP Kuehlwein

    A wonderful example of how a ‘product’s creation story’ can be part of what makes the it desirable, part of what feeds the brand’s legend and makes it so appealing to many. You can read more about how brands leverage creation stories here: http://masstoclass.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/when-product-creation-becomes-brand-legend/

    Prestige brand equities feed on perceived exclusiveness, uniqueness, preciousness and Hermes can give us a lot of this through the demonstration of craftsmanship they do. However, the worth of a prestige or luxury brand can not be defined adding up the bill of material and hours spent by people to make the product. Rather, it can be measured by the price buyers are willing to pay, which in turn is derived from the image they believe the possession of the item will project on them. Be that status, sophistication, a sense of fashion, beauty, belonging to a sisterhood of… Whatever it is, utility or commodity value will not be the key driver for most people to buy a Hermes bag, Ferrari car or Chanel perfume.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ellen-Tsai/553678062 Ellen Tsai

    I’ve just taken up sewing as a hobby and I’ve only hand sew 2 sets of bag handles (8 attachment points). After that, despite my hand sewing techniques and the fact that I don’t even know how to do saddle stiches, I know I won’t hand sew an entire leather handbag even if I’m paid $7500. It hurts and it takes an absolute age to sew. As for the replica issue… One know in one’s heart that one’s carrying a replica…

  • Cheryl

    Could you do a comparison as to how knock offs are made?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I’m a lot less familiar with that, but I would guess, 100s are cut at the same time, stitched super quickly on industrial machines, barely any quality control, and every single manufacturing short cut in the book…