It always starts with a question.
What if you dared to hand-stitch saddles for horses?
What if you dared to craft handbags entirely by hand?
What if you dared to print on both sides of a silk carré?
The house of Hermès, like any legacy maison, has thrived from generation to generation from its ability to constantly move forward. "There are two legs at Hermès," shares artistic director Pierre Alexis-Dumas. "One is innovation, and the other, tradition. To walk is to lose balance as you shift from one leg to the other. That is, you have to take risks. But the risk is necessary if you want to progress."
For 10 years, the Hermès silk ateliers have been trying to find a way to print on both sides of a silk scarf. Since 1937, silk carrés have only been coloured on one side until the dye seeped through to the other. However, the coloured side was always more vibrant than the underside. As the artistic directors of Hermès silk wanted to preserve the delicate translucency of a classic Hermès scarf, simply sewing two carrés together or using a thicker silk fabric was not a solution. To print on both sides required a new approach—a certain deftness of hand so that the dye merely 'kissed' the silk as opposed to seeping through—which effectively required an unlearning of techniques that the maison had mastered for decades. But finally, after years of testing, Hermès has unlocked the secret and is debuting its double-printed scarves this spring/summer 2020 season.
It's an overcast day in New York City, but even as I hold up the Della Cavalleria Favolosa carré by designer Virginie Jamin—a series of mythical creatures in various stages of advance, like an army frontline in the wondrous world of Narnia—the light breaks through. Such is the delicacy of the silk membrane. On one side, the animals are painted in rainbow hues; on the reverse, a monochromatic shade of aubergine. Two prints, one scarf. But never a muddied image of different colours, despite being back-lit by the afternoon sun.
Governors Island is a 172-acre island in the centre of New York Harbour—just a short eight-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan—that's open to the public during the summer months from May to October. However, on a bitingly cold day in January, Dumas has booked out the island and invited the global menagerie of fashion editors to attend a pop-up Hermès University to unveil the theme for Hermès in 2020: Innovation in the making.
Every year, the house chooses a theme to focus the energy and direction of its métiers—previous themes include 'Metamorphosis', 'Let's play' and 'In pursuit of dreams'—but no other theme in recent memory quite captures the inexorable spirit of the house to continually stride forward. For many, Hermès is seen as a traditional bastion for the bourgeois. But at its heart, Hermès is a catalyst for creativity. Like the doubly beautiful silk carré, the innovation is not immediately obvious, until you look closer.
Dumas, as the principal for Hermès University, has planned a one-day curriculum presided over by a heavy-hitting list of lecturers, each unpacking the idea of 'innovation in the making'. There's French philosopher, Hellenist and sinologist, François Jullien; NASA chief astronaut and the first woman to command the International Space Station twice (2008 and 2013), Dr Peggy Whitson; British-American paleoanthropologist and curator emeritus with the American Museum of National History in New York City, Ian Tattersall; Igbo-Nigerian American choreographer, performer, artist and writer, Okwui Okpokwasili; and, to end the day, ex-chief design officer at Apple and holder of over 5,000 patents, Sir Jony Ive.
Jullien kicks off proceedings, leading the editor 'students' through mental gymnastics in an attempt to dissect the constituents of 'innovation'. "It is through the 'act' that innovation is grounded into reality," he purports. "It is by and through the 'act' that the future opens and man's adventure begins. The act precedes the thought, so it is the painter before the philosopher."
First thought: Is this the epitome of the ivory tower? Intellectualising innovation with the world's top fashion editors all dressed in Hermès?
Second thought: Is there an exam at the end of the day? Oh gawd. Whose notes can I copy to pass this test?
Thankfully, Jullien summarised his main points—innovation occurs when: first, there is a conscious stepping aside from the known, a 'gap' fuelled by a dissatisfaction with the status quo; second, there is an element of luck, of coincidence, leading to a 'productive mistake', but this coincidence must then be made intentional (which he called a 'de-coincidence') in order to progress; and, third, there is something normal made new. As I said, mental gymnastics.
But this notion of normal made new is fundamentally Hermès. Take, for example, the humble zip. Emile Hermès, grandson of Hermès founder Thierry Hermès, first saw the metal fastener when he travelled through the States during World War 1. Emile acquired the exclusive rights to use the zip in France, applying this industrial device—which, until then, was predominantly used in the military and camping industry—on luxury leather goods and clothing. This fusion of an industrial tool with the artisanal world of craft created something new. The common and ordinary was transformed into something novel.
So, the next time you unzip your Hermès leather jacket, those dusty pink Hermès cotton trousers dropping this summer, or indeed, on your Hermès goat leather cover for your 2020 agenda, you are unpacking the innovative marriage of function and elegance. Look closer. It's innovation hiding in plain sight.
Tattersall, as a paleoanthropologist, studies human evolution. "Our history of decorating daily utilitarian items and improving them highlights that innovation and aesthetics are a universal part of the human condition," he explains. "Animals make tools to survive. For example, a bird might use a rock to break open a nut. Humans make tools to survive, but critically, they also use tools to make beautiful things."
This season, in the perennial search for beauty in new forms, Hermès presents two existing accessories—the studded Collier de Chien cuff crafted from metal fastened to leather, and the perforated H leather bracelet—in a new anodised aluminium. The vision was to create aluminium bracelets in bright candy hues, but merely covering the metal with a simple colour varnish would leave the jewellery prone to unsightly chips and scratches. The solution? An anodisation process that opened the pores of the aluminium in order to embed a layer of colour into the surface of the metal itself. Tools for beauty.
We've had our morning break at Hermès University. Fruit salads have been washed down with teas and coffees, but it's not the sugar-and-caffeine fix that grabs our attention when we return to the lecture room. Okpokwasili has just finished her classification-defying performance that is a mélange of theatre, dance and song—an achingly beautiful, and almost glacial, unfurling of her body on a single sofa-chair accompanied by operatic acapella—and we're mesmerised.
"We are porous," she finally shares, in a moderated talk post- performance with Lili Chopra, the executive director at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; the organisation that operates the arts centre at Governors Island that is the location for today's pop-up. "There is innovation in slowing down. In slowing down, we are open to micro-perceptions that affect how we move, react and respond to what is happening to us, within us and around us. How do we respond to the energy that we are sending each other?"
So far, we have been focusing on innovation in external objects, but Okpokwasili is asking us to question the innovation in our internal world; in our thoughts and emotions. "Is innovation always progress?" she questions. "Or is it also in returns and diversions? Can going back be innovative?"
Interestingly, it was the act of going back that led Martin Margiela—womenswear designer for Hermès from 1997 to 2003—to create the now seminal 'double-tour' leather strap for the Hermès Cape Cod timepiece. During one of his visits to a flea market while he was still a fashion student, Margiela chanced upon a suitcase that was fastened by a long leather strap wrapped twice around its body. The encounter sparked a double-tour leather belt design as a student and, years later, as artistic director for women's ready-to-wear at Hermès, he would return to that idea for the Cape Cod, showing the watch with his double-tour leather strap on the runway in 1997. The watch sold out. And eventually, this fashion frenzy built the foundation for a fashion classic.
But just as Hermès has birthed icons from new thinking, it has birthed products from failure as well.
Pierre Alexis-Dumas wanted to use the double-tour Hermès leather band for the Hermès Apple Watch, but Apple engineers said it was impossible as the double-tour band kept sliding under the watch sensor, preventing the Apple Watch from taking biometric readings of the wearer. But then a craftswoman at Hermès found an elegantly simple solution—skiving the leather with varying thickness to prevent it from overlapping and slipping. Genius.
"I like it when something doesn't work rather than when things go according to plan," confesses Sir Jony as he chats to Dumas on stage. "Innovation is not just doing something new or different. That's easy. Innovation is solving a real problem to make it better. And it can be small."
Prima facie, it's not clear how the storied craft house of Hermès finds common ground with a Silicon Valley technology company like Apple. But as Sir Jony and Dumas share their stories—one giant talking to another in a room warmed with the scent of roast chicken, wafting in from the adjacent kitchen as chef Daniela Soto- Innes prepares lunch—you soon discover a mutual love for the tangible object.
"We shape objects, but the object shapes us as well," expresses Dumas. "The object is a medium. You have to be close to your materials in order to be innovative."
Sir Jony concurs: "People can sense care in a product far more than they can articulate it. The human presence in an object is always there. Personally, to hold and use something that is beautifully conceived and beautifully made, I feel fortunate."
It starts to spit when we board the ferry back to Manhattan island. By the time we're in the hotel, the overcast skies have turned a worrisome grey and the mercury is hovering at just a few degrees above freezing. I pull the Della Cavalleria Favolosa carré out of its orange box and fasten it around my neck, double-looping it as an extra barrier from the cold.
The silk thread has been on a long journey: an ancient craft originating from China; nicknamed 'cloth of gold' for its common use as a form of currency along the Silk Road; worn by royalty and revered for its rarity; its manufacture and craft spreading to Lyon; remastered over the last decade as a double-printed Hermès carré; and, now, the fine silk embraces my neck, gently soothes and then warms. I sense the care. And I remember Dumas' parting words at Governors Island: "As long as we put humans at the centre, with care and empathy, with a desire to create comfort, then that is good innovation."
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