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Two days ago the Saatchi gallery on King’s Road, London threw open its doors and enormous,white-walled space to a new show.
Visitors streamed in but this time they were not ogling the latest in Chinese painting or yet another YBA retrospective, but art of an altogether different kind: 11 Hermès craftsmen demonstrating their daily routine in leathergoods, silk, gem-setting and tailoring.
The most recent stop in an itinerary that has included Beijing, Seoul, Munich and Houston, the Hermès programme is an example of the latest luxury strategy: an attempt to ground the myth in reality and to justify the often exorbitant price points by showing, not telling, consumers about the work that goes into each product.
“We want to demonstrate that for us, craftsmanship is something that happens everyday,” says Guillaume de Seynes, the company executive with responsibility for the brand’s manufacturing division and equity investments, and a great-grandson of Emile Hermès, the family member who transformed the company from saddle makers into luxury goods purveyors. “That is isn’t about history or restoring old things, but about now.”
Hermès is not the only luxury brand thinking in this way: a few months after it launched the programme, known as Festival des Métiers, in early 2011, their rival (and part owner) LVMH launched a similar initiative: the Journées Particulières, in which this year will see it open 40 of its ateliers to the public for a weekend.
However, there are differences in approach. “We go to the consumers instead of asking them to come to us,” says Mr de Seynes. “And one of the really important parts of the experience is that the visitors can meet the craftspeople, not just watch them.” Each craftsman is accompanied by a translator in all non-French speaking countries.
When the festival took place in Taipei, one woman asked a silk engraver who had been with Hermès for 30 years how many scarves she had made over the course of her career with the brand. The answer: 39. “She suddenly realised that one woman might work on one scarf print for an entire year,” says Mr de Seynes.
So far, the initiative, which lasts a week in each city, has drawn up to 30,000 visitors per stop. Mr de Seynes says this has the effect of increasing footfall in bricks and mortar stores.
In Seattle, for example, Hermès opened a store in late 2009 and held a festival in 2011; the following week, traffic increased 20 per cent.
Partly as a result of the popularity of the tour, the company is increasing its investment in ateliers. Two leathergoods factories are being constructed in France, each of about 6,000 square metres, potentially accommodating more than 250 people.
Hermès is also building a silk production facility, and 400 new production people have been hired. Though Mr de Seynes would not specify the amount of investment, he did say it was in the “many millions of euros” – not just for the buildings themselves, but training, which can take between 12-18 months per craftsman.
This is on top of the 2,200 leathergoods workers and 750 silk artisans the company employs at 14 different sites in France.
Some are so specialised – one woman, for example, weaves silk into velvet and is one of only two or three such skilled artisans in the company – that if they are “on tour” it can hold up production.
Which doesn’t mean the exhibit will close: after London there are plans to take the artisans to Düsseldorf, Toronto, Huangzhou and Luxembourg.
As for 2014, the company is still deciding on cities. But Mr de Seynes says there is no question: the (luxury) show will go on.
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