When a French businessman asked Jennifer Carter, CEO and president of Hermès Canada, if she’d consider donating her handbag to his museum, she gave him a definitive, “No.” But when he enquired if he could take a look inside, she graciously conceded. He was not just any businessman, he was Jean-Louis Dumas, the chairman and fifth-generation of the Hermès family, and hers was no ordinary handbag — it was a rare black crocodile Kelly originally owned by her mother.
“In 1963 my father was heading to Paris on business and my mother on a whim asked him to get her one of those Kelly bags,” reminisces Carter.
As though it were yesterday, Carter recalls her mother’s expression as her father returned and she opened the iconic orange box. “My mother almost fell off her chair!”
Fast-forward a couple decades and on Carter’s 33rd birthday, and on the eve of embarking on a new career at Hermès, her mother gave her that Kelly. Today the treasured heirloom beautifully illustrates Hermès’ tradition of “spirit-infused craftsmanship.”
Amidst keys, coins and perhaps a stray mint or two, Dumas found exactly what he was searching for inside that Kelly — a subtle signature mark.
Dumas led Carter through the building and upstairs to the atelier where the leather craftspeople were hard at work.
“I was then introduced to the gentleman who had made my mother’s bag many years ago,” says Carter. “His signature stamp was there inside my bag, and as fate would have it, he was retiring the next week and his son would be taking over for him.”
The Kelly bag, like all Hermès’ leather goods, is created by highly skilled craftspeople. A single artisan laboriously works on one handbag at a time — each Birkin, Kelly or Constance taking about 14 to 16 hours to create employing the same Old World techniques and tools that built the maison’s reputation since 1837 including the traditional two-needle saddle-stitch using linen thread coated in beeswax.
Hermès at Work, a travelling exhibition that lands in Vancouver September 21–25, gives consumers a rare opportunity to unbridle their curiosities and get up close and personal with 10 of the French maison’s artisans as they demonstrate their daily routines in gem-setting, tailoring, silkscreening, watchmaking, porcelain hand-painting and of course, saddle and handbag making.
The artisans will be stepping away from their workshops in France and trading their intimate surroundings for a mountain and Vancouver harbour backdrop at Jack Poole Plaza, before the travelling exhibit moves on to visit 18 countries.
“We felt this event would unlock the poetic and unique craftsmanship that are the essence of the house,” says Carter, who anticipates the free event will attract art students, those with a personal connection to the brand, and others who may have never set foot in an Hermès boutique.
“To hear how things are made is one thing, but to see and experience the screening process of an Hermès scarf is amazing. It’s about craft, it’s about storytelling, it’s about poetry. There’s always a story behind each object — it’s a very moving brand.”
At a time when fashion is increasingly mass-manufactured, Carter’s own endearing tale demonstrates the real value and interest in handmade luxury products made with authenticity. An exhibition of this calibre clearly plays to Hermès strengths.
Hermès at Work is fully open to the public from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and sheltered in a custom enclosure at Jack Poole Plaza adjacent to the Vancouver Convention Centre at 1055 Canada Place.
Text by Janine Mackie Translated by Rui Chen Produced by Peggy Liu Photos Courtesy of Hermès Canada