Workshop of Wonders
Deep in the hills outside Lyon, a little more than half the distance from Paris to Marseille, Nadine Rabilloud is examining a scarf design, a multihued illustration dominated by the pensive visage of a Native American Indian chief. “I see about 16 colors in his face,” she says in French, before leaning over to demonstrate how she indeed traced out every subtlety in each of these 16 tones.
Rabilloud is an engraver for Hermès, and for 33 years has looked upon the fanciful designs of the house’s iconic carrés (French for “square”), those highly coveted scarves of silk twill, discerning the number of colors that must go into each. Hers is no minor task in the intricate process that finds dozens of artisans working daily on every inch of Hermès silk. It’s Rabilloud’s hands and eyes that take many designs, once approved back in the label’s Paris headquarters, and put them on the two-year path from paper concept to silk reality. That pensive face, for example, is the centerpiece of the Cosmogonie Apache carré, part of the fall delivery that just arrived in Hermès boutiques (locally at Bal Harbour Shops). For this design Rabilloud determined it would require 45 colors—that is to say, 45 individual silkscreen layers, the maximum number allowed by the house—to produce an exact match. And how many hours went into tracing these 45 layers onto clear film to make it silkscreen-ready? “About 2,000,” she says matter-of-factly. After more than three decades, Rabilloud embraces the notion that such extensive handwork is not the exception, but the rule.
A Talented Traveling Band
This year Hermès has been showcasing the care and dexterity of both its silk and leather craftsmen in a “Contemporary Artisans” theme, including everything from commemorative scarf designs to a “Festival of Crafts” tour, for which artisans such as Rabilloud have demonstrated their skills in Hermès boutiques around the globe. “It was our desire to put a key focus on the craftsmanship; this was an opportunity to speak more about the craftspeople themselves, all of whom do such amazing work,” explains Robert Chavez, president and CEO of Hermès of Paris, the US arm of the label. “Clearly we’re a company committed to quality and craftsmanship, one that works with the finest materials, but these materials are only as good as the craftsmen who make the products.”
Hermès engraver Nadine Rabilloud demonstrates techniques for silkscreen layering during the scarf design process.
The Color Kitchen
Back in Lyon, as we tour the two workshops where the lion’s share of scarf work is produced (neither of which boasts blatant Hermès signage, by the way, for obvious security reasons), it’s indeed clear that, as Chavez says about Rabilloud, “every artisan takes his or her task extremely to heart, knowing that scarf intimately.” Hermès has produced silkscreened carrés since 1937, and while technology has undeniably updated the process, the level of handiwork remains nothing less than impressive. There are the men who use Rabilloud’s transparencies to create silkscreen frames and the colorists who determine each design’s 10 palette variations, the “chefs” in the color kitchen who mix specialty dyes for each design, and the silkscreeners who monitor every layer of those dyes as they move down a 150-meter table of seamless white silk, each screen gradually turning that pristine, colorless strip into a vibrant wonder of tints.
After a full day observing the silkscreen process, I tell Chavez that never again will I question the price of an Hermès scarf, and quite frankly I’m surprised they don’t charge more. “That’s usually the reaction,” Chavez says with a laugh. “But that level of handwork isn’t just the thing that makes an Hermès scarf an investment piece; it’s really just part of our whole DNA. It’s second nature to the culture of the company and its craftsmen. For us, that will never change.”