Exhibition: Hermès at Work

A rendezvous with French artisans showcasing their craft in Vancouver

The aroma of ink hangs in the air as the silk printer demonstrates the art that goes into an Hermès silk scarf. Using a palette knife, he scrapes ink onto a steel frame, lines the frame up with the delicate pattern, presses a squeegee over top and imprints a pattern. These fluid steps create just one of perhaps dozens of colours that will be expertly transferred onto the silk, which will later become one of the French luxury goods company’s distinctive scarves, bow ties and pocket squares.

Clad in a white coat like a scientist, the silk printer is just one of Hermès’ diverse team of artisans demonstrating their craftwork in Vancouver during the Hermès at Work exhibition (September 21–25 at Jack Pool Plaza). Each of the French-speaking artisans are paired with a translator who relays curious questions from visitors captivated by the laborious handiwork that goes into making each item.

Guillaume de Seynes, executive vice-president of Hermès, takes a few minutes to welcome guests to the event and share a bit of history about his family’s business, which was established in 1837. He gamely tells the crowd about a question he was asked earlier: “Who’s your target audience?” The answer, he says emphatically: “Everyone!”

Hermès will celebrate its 180th birthday in 2017, and while it’s evident the company celebrates craftsmanship and tradition it is also firmly focused on the future. Witness its ongoing collaboration with Apple in creating a stylish smartwatch (Read more: Hermès and Apple team up with new timepieces).

Another example of its evolution. That laser-sharp pattern that’s being printed is brought to life by the silk engraver. She’s working on a tablet—a process adopted just three years ago—to outline each colour in a 31-layer design of a panther in the grass. Across the aisle is the silk roller, who puts the finishing touch on each scarf. Armed with a needle threaded with silk, she uses the French rolling technique—roulottage—twisting the silk between her fingers and hand-stitching the edges. “It’s almost a lost art,” I say. “C’est vrai,” she agrees, smiling. 

Farther along in this temporary atelier set up in the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre is a porcelain painter. Bent over a delicate plate and holding a thin sable-hair brush between her fingers, she adds vivid strokes of blue to the intricate pattern that’s starting to take shape. The plate she’s painting requires about a week of work before its complete.

Nearby, the glover is wielding an outsized pair of scissors. It’s part theatre for the photo I’m taking. But he says he still uses this tool (it looks like it belongs in the previous century) to cut the supple leather he’ll transform into hand-made gloves. He says it takes him about two to three hours to make a wrist-grazing pair—five or six hours for longer ones.

Other busy artisans include the leather-worker who’s crafting a luxe leather saddle and hammering nails into a form. A gem-setter is virtually hidden among the crowd of guests craning to see the delicate work of placing precious stones. And the watchmaker, armed with a pair of fine tweezers, is demonstrating the intricate process of putting together the countless parts that go into even the simplest Hermès timepiece. He says that developing a new timepiece, from research and development to the final composition takes about three years.

In the age of fast fashion and “throwawayism” it’s heartening to see such handiwork alive. Φ

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