Hermès Follows the Silk Road
By Laurie Brookins
Hermès Harnais de Cour scarf
|A pile of delicate Hèrmes scarf material|
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.”