Enter the Hermès Leather Forever exhibit and find yourself in a library where the scent of leather hangs in the air and signs beckon you to touch a variety of leathers. From swift to epson calfskin, to ring lizard and crocodile skin, who would have known that there were so many kinds of leather?
At Hermès, the luxury fashion house has made it its business for the last 170 years to know all that there is about leather. Hermès, which first began selling saddles and now crafts a range of luxury handbags and accessories, still admits to not having fully mastered the skin. “But it will always take the greatest pride in having studied its lessons so thoroughly,” Hermès says in its exhibition pamphlet.
Leather itself is a malleable material that surrenders to the hammering and dyes that give if its shape and colour. The process, according to Hermès, is “as alive and fascinating as birth”. There in the artisan’s studio, I watched as a pair of Hermès artisans transformed a leather skin laying flat on their tables, with their handheld tools and century’s old technique, into a mint green handbag. Behind them, the artisans hung their finished works.
Romantic was the best way to describe Leather Forever, as I wound my way from an area of vintage Hermès briefcases and riding boots in the early twentieth century, to a sixties driving hat owned by the Duchess of Windsor. A room dedicated to the evolution of Hermès’ handbag fasteners had a motion sensitive showcase that turned into an explosive light display whenever someone approached the vitrine. There were holograms and even a performing showcase of the Passe-Guide handbag (my personal favourite was from Wales). The information plaques in each room eloquently described the relationship between Hermès and leather as “a tale with many twists to come”.
While I am far from a Hermès connoisseur, I did admire the supple texture of the leather saddles. I discovered in the room dedicated to the two most iconic Hermès handbags, the Kelly and the Birkin, that the Kelly bag got its name from Princess Grace, who used it to shield herself from the paparazzi. And Jane Birkin, the actress and singer for whom the bag got its name, just wanted more space to carry her personal items.
The collection of Hermès pieces was exhaustive too: leather corsets, shoes, gloves, luggage and binoculars in the finest of leather. Even the oldest pieces in the exhibit had managed to withstand the turning hands of time. If only Hermès would let me in on its secret…
The Leather Forever exhibit is on display at the Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, in London until May 27, 2012.