Craft / November 2017

How Hermès Created a Silk Dynasty

The sensual feeling of an Hermès silk creation can act as a transportive moment back to a time or place. It is one of the reasons why the family owned house has been a byword for rarefied style for nearly two centuries.

Caval d'Or Geant 140cm silk scarf, Hermès. Photo by Kalle Gustafsson, styling by Jo Grzeszczuk.

Since ancient times, silk has been inextricably linked with society’s upper echelons. In Europe, the home of silk has been in and around Lyon, in France, primarily because of Louis XI’s decision in 1563 to take advantage of the area’s trade routes with the Rhône, the Mediterranean and, by road, to Italy. And if silk were an empire, there would be one dynasty with true dominion over it: Hermès.

While Lyon has been home to Hermès’ silk operations since 1937, the house’s sericultural partner is in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. An eco-friendly farming co-operative, it produces silk of the highest quality. The biological development of silk is remarkable, too. A female butterfly of the Bombyx mori species produces roughly 300 to 500 eggs, and their microscopic offspring eat up to 50,000 times their initial weight from the mulberry tree’s leaves. The larvae evolve into cocoons and internally secrete a silk filament. If you were to unravel one, you’d be left with a silk thread that would measure an astonishing 1,500m. Hermès’ first silk design was the iconic ‘Dames-Blanches’, a 70cm x 70cm carré depicting a group of women playing a popular board game surrounded by horse-driven carts — a nod to the house’s roots of equestrian wares — that was created in the traditional process of woodcut prints.

Today the house produces its silk creations in a vertically integrated manner using the most sophisticated technology and highly trained craftspeople. “We control every step. It’s not that we don’t trust other people to do certain things, it’s because we want to do things in the best quality possible,” Christophe Goineau, the Artistic Director of men’s silk, tells The Rake in the house’s mothership in Paris. He continues: “Hermès is a company that has an obsession with quality. The idea could be quite expensive, but we don’t do it because it’s expensive. We do it because it’s the best way we can do it.” This rings true, and the proof is in the pudding. Hermès resides at the zenith of the luxury world, free from downward conglomerate pressure, and remains family owned since Thierry Hermès founded it in 1837. Axel Dumas, the sixth generation of the Hermès family, is the current Chief Executive Officer.

Goineau’s role is to oversee all areas of men’s silk, which is separate to the menswear sector run by Véronique Nichanian. “It’s a kind of ping-pong relationship, I work very closely with her on the patterns,” Goineau says. Each season, the two meet and discuss the evolution and direction of men’s silk. “We both get very excited about the small details and try to do something different,” he says.

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Benedict Browne

Benedict is The Rake's Associate Style Editor.