Hermès: From Humble Beginnings to Haute-Couture

Hermes Wall

Today, the Hermès name is known around the world, synonymous with haute-couture and exclusive style. But just like many now-infamous brands, it has humble beginnings. Nearly two centuries of history and generations of family leadership have made Hermès one of the most well-known and sought-after handbag makers in the world.

L’Histoire de la Maison Hermès

Thierry Hermès, the namesake of the now-iconic company, was born on August 24, 1801, in Krefeld, Germany. He moved to France in 1821 as an orphan, having lost his family to war and disease. Hermès already had French citizenship since the city of Krefeld had, at the time, been a part of Napoleon’s empire.

In 1837, Thierry Hermès opened his first workshop in Paris, France in a neighborhood known as Grands Boulevard. The company initially catered to the equestrian elite, crafting high-quality harnesses, bridles, and saddlery for horse-drawn carriages.

Thierry Hermès, 19th C. | Photo via Wikimedia
Thierry Hermès, 19th C. | Photo via Wikimedia

Hermès quickly gained a reputation for exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail, attracting a prestigious clientele. This included all manner of European royalty and elites. He made his name on a specialty stitch, one that could only be done by hand using two needles and two waxed-linen threads.

After Thierry Hermès’s death in 1878, his sons, Charles-Émile, Adolphe, and Emile-Maurice, took over the business and expanded the brand’s offerings beyond equestrian gear.

As the popularity of horse-drawn carriages waned and automobiles became the primary mode of transportation, the Hermès brand adapted its focus. In the late 19th century, the company transitioned from primarily equestrian accessories to luxury leather goods. They began designing and producing handbags, luggage, and other leather accessories.

Hermes Advertisement from 1923 | Photo via Wikimedia
Hermès Advertisement from 1923 | Photo via Wikimedia
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Iconic Design

Hermès introduced some of its most iconic designs during the early 20th century period of its history. In 1922, Hermès created the first leather handbag with a zipper, the “Haut à Courroies” bag. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the bag became known as the “Kelly” bag. Taking its name after the actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, who was often seen carrying it. This association with royalty brought immense popularity to the bag and solidified its status as a classic and timeless piece.

Hermès Kelly Sellier 28 Gold Madame Gold Hardware from Madison Avenue Couture
Hermès Kelly Sellier 28 Gold Madame Gold Hardware from Madison Avenue Couture

In 1937, Robert Dumas, a member of the Hermès family, brought the idea of creating silk scarves to the company. The first Hermès silk scarf, “Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches,” was an immediate success. The scarves featured intricate and colorful designs, often drawing inspiration from art, nature, and exotic cultures. These scarves became a symbol of luxury and sophistication and are still highly coveted by fashion enthusiasts worldwide.

Hermes Equateur Wash Silk Twill Scarf by Robert Dallet, Available at 1st Dibs
Hermes Equateur Wash Silk Twill Scarf by Robert Dallet, Shop It
hermes scarf Boite Au Vol Bali Barret 90 cm
Hermès Silk Scarf Boite Au Vol by Bali Barret, Shop It
Hermès Scarf Grande Tenue The Queen's Diamond Jubilee 2012 (Collector), Available at 1st Dibs
Hermès Scarf Grande Tenue The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee 2012 (Collector), Shop It

The Birkin Bag

Another Hermès original, the Birkin bag, remains one of the most iconic and sought-after luxury handbags in the world. It’s known for its exclusivity, craftsmanship, and hefty price tag. The bag received its name from the English actress and singer Jane Birkin, and as with every iconic name, there is a story behind it.

History goes that in 1981, Jane Birkin sat next to then-CEO of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight, she expressed her frustration about not being able to find a suitable leather bag to carry all her belongings. She wanted a practical and stylish bag, but all the ones she had tried hadn’t met her needs.

Dumas saw an opportunity and offered to create a bag for Jane. He worked with Birkin to design a spacious and versatile handbag that was both functional and elegant. The result was the now-famous Birkin bag.

Birkin 35 Diamond Bordeaux Porosus Crocodile Bag White Gold Hardware, Shop It
Hermès Birkin 35 Diamond Bordeaux Porosus Crocodile Bag White Gold Hardware, Make It Yours!

The bag exploded in popularity, becoming a status symbol among the rich and famous. The design’s exclusivity and limited production further added to its allure, making it highly desirable among fashion enthusiasts and collectors.

The bag comes in various sizes and a wide range of materials, including leather types like calf, ostrich, crocodile, and more. 

Skilled artisans handcraft each Birkin bag, and the production process is time-consuming and intricate, contributing to its high price point. It remains one of the most sought-after and coveted accessories in the luxury market.

Jean-Louis Dumas & Meticulous Craftsmanship

Jean-Louis Dumas, a talented artist in his own right, joined the family business in 1964. Dumas became the company’s artistic director in 1970.

In 1978, he assumed the role of CEO, succeeding his uncle, Robert Dumas. Under his leadership, Hermès experienced significant growth and modernization while remaining true to its heritage of craftsmanship and elegance. Dumas had a keen eye for innovation. He collaborated with various designers and artists to create fresh and exciting designs while preserving the brand’s classic aesthetic (i.e., the Birkin bag).

One of the core principles behind the success of Hermès history is an unwavering commitment to craftsmanship and quality. The brand employs highly skilled artisans who undergo rigorous training to master traditional techniques passed down through generations. Each Hermès product is meticulously crafted by hand, often taking hours or even days to complete. This dedication to perfection has helped the brand maintain its reputation for producing items of the highest quality and durability.

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Hermès Around the World

Over the years, Hermès has expanded its presence worldwide, establishing boutiques in major cities and luxury shopping destinations. This global expansion has allowed the brand to reach a broader audience of affluent consumers, further solidifying its position as a leading luxury fashion house.

Yet, they remain committed to cultivating the sense of rarity that has so long been associated with their name. Hermès has deliberately chosen to maintain limited production of its goods to preserve its exclusivity. Hermès deliberately restricts the quantity of items it produces, especially for its most iconic products. For example, new Birkin and Kelly bags are available to purchase by invitation only.

By not mass-producing items, the brand creates an aura of rarity and luxury around its products. This strategy has fueled a strong demand and made Hermès items highly sought-after status symbols.

A Lasting Legacy

hermes paris logo

The rich history and heritage of Hermès play a vital role in its success. The brand’s long-standing reputation for elegance, timeless designs, and superior craftsmanship has created a loyal customer base and a sense of trust and admiration for the brand.

Hermès’ success can be attributed to a combination of factors. From its origins as a renowned equestrian outfitter, the creation of iconic designs such as the Kelly bag and silk scarves, to the visionary leadership of Jean-Louis Dumas. Their dedication to quality craftsmanship, and a commitment to limited production, have set them apart when it comes to cultivating a sense of exclusivity. All these elements have made Hermès one of the most prestigious and revered luxury brands in the world.

Words by Bridget Kitson
Feature Image by Chi Lok TSANG

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