In 1940, the New York Times reported, ‘It has been said of Hermès that it is perhaps the only establishment in the world in which one cannot buy a single article that is not in perfect taste.’ Well over 70 years later, that comment rings equally true…
The history of the house of Hermès goes back much further than that, though. In 1837, Thierry Hermès opened a harness shop in Paris (and a carriage is still part of their logo, today). Napoleon III was among the distinguished loyal clients, and in 1867, Hermès won a First Class Medal at the Exposition Universelle.
Thirteen years later, the business wowed smart Paris by opening a store (with workrooms behind) at 24 Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where you can still find the flagship store for a brand which has become a global by-word for luxury.
From saddlery, Hermès moved into luxury leather goods – and into fashion. (Savvily, third-generation Hermès family member Émile-Mauric secured the European patent on the zipper, used on garments like the zip-fronted jacket that the future Prince of Wales – already a style icon – would wear golfing, in Biarritz.) Hermès‘s womenswear line was unveiled in 1929, and then came sportswear: skiing, skating, tennis clothes and more, for the newly ‘sportif‘ rich.
Throughout, craftsmanship and artisan touch remained the signature of Hermès. And before perfume entered the Hermès realm, perhaps the most accessible way to discover and enjoy the stylish creations of this Parisian house was to swathe yourself in one of the silk scarves first launched in 1937, swiftly becoming status symbols for women including the future Queen Elizabeth II. (In The Perfume Society‘s archive, we’re lucky enough to have – what else? – one of the stunning Hermès 1980s ‘perfume bottle’ scarves.)
Hermès has always attracted stylish women. Grace Kelly famously went on an Hermès shopping spree, accompanied by Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, in 1955 – and a year later, Hermès re-named the ‘petite sac a courroie pour dame’ (which was first designed in the 1930s) as the ‘Kelly bag’, after the Monaco princess was photographed in LIFE magazine concealing her pregnancy with the handbag.
Hermès‘s bags are still lusted-after, longed-for, saved-for by women who are prepared to join waiting lists sometimes years long for bags like the Birkin (named after Jane Birkin), which was created for the actress after chairman Jean-Louis Dumas encountered the actress/singer by chance on an aeroplane. Charlize Theron, Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett: all have been photographed at some point, embracing Hermès chic.
The masterful hands-on approach Hermès has always taken to its carefully-crafted clothes and accessories, meanwhile, also extends to fragrance. Hermès’s ‘fragrant adventure’ began in 1951, when legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska composed Eau d’Hermès. Many great names have worked on creations, before Grasse-based Jean-Claude Ellena joined the house in 2004, becoming its exclusive perfumer: a great admirer of Roudnitska, he too seeks to ‘pare down’ his creations, creating magic with the olfactory equivalent of a few painterly strokes.
So alongside the classics within Hermès‘s portfolio – the women’s floral-chypre Calèche (created by Guy Robert in 1961) – sit Jean-Claude Ellena’s creations: fresh Eau d’Hermès splashes and Colognes (above), for instance, invigorating the soul and the spirit, along with the senses. Voyage d’Hermès, too, with its amazing ‘swivel’ flacon, inspired by a stirrup. The bestselling Terre d’Hermes, blending elements of earth, air and water, the exquisitely feminine Jour d’Hermès, a sensual, luminous (and widely-acclaimed) floral.
Or travel through the world’s most evocative green spaces, with the ‘Garden Perfumes’. Un Jardin Sur Le Nil is a stroll beside that river, where the desert meet lush green, billowing with the aquatic lotus flower. Un Jardin en Mediterranée, woody and green, blends the milkiness of fig with orange blossom, water lily, white oleander and red cedar.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all, though, is Un Jardin Sur Le Toit, which takes us upstairs to the secret roof garden above 24 Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where Jean-Claude Ellena had his first meeting with Hermès: ‘a garden of delight, a paradise in green and white,’ box trees and hawthorn, magnolia, an apple tree through the passing seasons, rosemary and lilac… As Jean-Claude muses, ‘A perfumer’s place is everywhere and nowhere. That’s how, one day, I found something I thought was a long, long way away, right under my nose. I had been there several times. My footsteps had produced a burst of aromas, lush grass, damp soil – and I loved letting them work their way inside me.’
Excitingly in 2014, Christine Nagel – herself behind countless stunning creations (read more about her here, in our ‘nose’ interview) – was appointed by Hermès to work alongside the master as a second in-house perfumer. The torch passing to a woman, this time…
Together, these gifted ‘noses’ – pictured top – worked on citrusy Eau de Néroli Doré and tart, juicy-sweet Eau de Rhubarbe Éclarte, for the Cologne line. But in autumn 2016, Nagel’s solo creation Galop d’Hermès was unveiled, to great acclaim. It perfectly captures the leather for which the house is renowned in a bold signature perfume presented in an exquisite – and refillable – modern-looking bottle (left), inspired by a 1930s archetype Christine stumbled upon while perusing the archives.
‘At Hermès,’ she told New York magazine, ‘we don’t do perfume “briefs – so I have the freedom to do whatever I want… All my life, I had imagined leather as masculine. It’s sometimes used in feminine fragrances, but just a touch. It was important to me to express the femininity of Hermès, and I thought that this particular leather was elegant and soft, like a woman’s skin. I returned to my lab to create an infusion. To do this, perfumers put little pieces [of leather] into a beaker and after three or four weeks, you filter and filter and you get the odour of leather…’
Alongside this infusion, Christine opted for rose. ‘Combining the two is a delicate dance,’ she acknowledges, talking about the creation of Galop d’Hermès. ‘I chose a Turkish rose, which has a stronger scent than other roses. It was thanks to my experience as a chemist that I was able to balance the two notes. When you open the bottle, you don’t know if you smell the rose or leather first. On the skin, it’s the same thing.’
And thus, the house of Hermès gallops forward into another exciting phase, in its history…
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