Here is another of one of my most popular posts, a Fashion 101 article on why luxury is expensive, exploring the making of an Hermes scarf. Pretty amazing stuff. Enjoy!
Les Carrés d’Hermès
I want to write a little about the cost of luxury, because I don’t love luxury just because it is expensive, I love the process, the quality, and the craftsmanship involved behind most good luxury products. Some people think luxury goods are very expensive and overpriced. Expensive, yes. Overpriced, not always. Some luxury brands, in fact, most luxury brands, make a lot of money from selling things with very high margins, which are generally overpriced. But those things are usually perfumes, handbags, and licensed goods, which they sell in huge quantities. A lot of the luxury goods we see on the catwalks, or in the clothing stores, are not necessarily big money makers. I know this as a fact, because I used to see the markups of the clothing at Sonia Rykiel, and I was always surprised at how much things cost to make, compared to what we actually charged.
This Fashion 101 is going to study a very classic luxury fashion item: the Carré d’Hermès, their famous 90 x 90 cm printed silk scarf. Most people think it is an overpriced scarf, but once you understand the process involved in creating one of these scarves, I think you’ll realize that the price is in fact excellent value.
The first carré d’Hermès was made in 1937. Since the late 1930’s, over 1,500 different versions have been made, and Hermès tends to work with a number of different artists every season, some recent examples include Christine Henry, Aline Honoré, and Henry d’Origny. Hermès worked with 20 artists for the spring summer 2010 collection of scarves. Most designs start with the painting of a motif, which then needs to be translated into a scarf.
Once the artwork is created, choosing the colour combinations is generally the next step in making a carré. Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès, and the grandson of the founder of Hermès, describes their colour process as very complex. “Sometimes we discuss a single colour for a considerable time for a scarf that will include more than thirty (colours.) This research into colour is the work of incredible perfectionism. The palette is infinite, its variations at the limit of what the eye can perceive.” Leila Menchari, the director of the colour panel explains that “The work of colouring the Carrés takes time, because each design must be produced in around ten different colour schemes.”
“Bad colours don’t exist, only bad combinations” -Leila Menchari
While the designs and colours are being perfected, the silk is being woven and prepared for print. Hermès’ silk comes from a Brazilian mill, who supply the “flottes” (skeins of raw silk) to the Perrin establishments in France, who have been weaving the silk for Hermès for half a century. The silk takes three months to weave into fabric ready for printing.
(1 moth = 300 eggs) + (2 mulberry trees = 300 cocoons) = 450,000 m of silk thread = 1 carré. The length of thread of 1,000 Hermès scarves is equal to the distance between the earth and the moon.
The engraving workshop is where the artwork gets translated into films. For those of you that don’t understand how silk-screen printing works, it basically involves a different screen for each colour of the motif. For example, if we were printing a yellow happy face onto a t-shirt, we’d have a screen with a big circle on, which we would use to apply the yellow, in order to make the shape of the face. Then we would apply a second screen with black paint to create the outline of the face, the eyes, and the mouth. Imagine it as layers of cut paper, each colour requires its own screen. That alone explains the cost of an Hermès carrré, as each ones tends to have at least 30 colours. But I’ll continue the story.
If the engravers get a painting, they need to translate it into distinct, separate colours, which is very difficult to do, since painting tends to have many different tones and blends. The engraver’s role is to “interpret the nuances of the design and translate them into combinations of colour, which will determine the number of films necessary.” He traces them one by one, over a light box. A design broken up into 30 colours takes between 400 and 600 hours of engraving. Each film will correspond to a silk-screen.
The craftsmen then make the colours for the scarves, using the formulae from the colourists. This is chef’s work, using pots, mixers, and scales, and they simmer the pigments and vegetable gums on a stove to achieve the right hues.
Once the colours and the frames (or screens) are ready, they are brought to the printing table. The woven silk is stretched onto the tables, which, at Hermès’ atelier, measure 150 metres in length, and the screens are applied one after the other, each one adding a new colour to the fabric.
When the silk has been printed, it dries on the table, and the colours are then “fixed.” This process invovles steam cooking for an hour at 130°C, washing the fabric to remove glue or unfixed colours, and then drying on a hot air carpet.
The final step, which my mother claims is the true USP of a carré d’Hermès, is the hand-rolled finish (she can spot the hand-finished edge of an Hermès scarf by about ten miles away). The seamstresses use silk thread and hand stitch a rolled hem, called the “roulotté.” At Hermès, unlike other brands, this is done on the right side of the scarf. After that, the final quality control will take place, and then the scarf is packaged in its beautiful orange box, wrapped in the bolduc (the brown ribbon tied around the box) and sold.
The carré d’Hermès is one of the brand’s most iconic pieces. I remember going into their flagship store on rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, and being shocked at the number of scarves being sold. They had a counter that was about five metres long, about 12 staff, and even more customers, all buying the scarves. It was crazy, like a supermarket selling vegetables, but instead expensive silk scarves (and not quite like a supermarket, because an Hermès store is a much better place to be.)
Their packaging, the orange boxes tied with the brown bolduc ribbon, is also such an important part of the scarves, since a lot of people tend to store the scarves in the boxes. There is nothing better than a stack of orange Hermès boxes in your house, I have a few, but the collection needs to increase.
Now that you understand the process involved in creating the carré d’Hermès, I am sure you will agree that the price, $420 (CDN), is actually quite good value.
Images and quotes courtesy of Hermès.