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.’ What’s truly extraordinary is that more than 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. Since then, many great names have worked on creations, until in 2004, Grasse-based Jean-Claude Ellena joined the house, 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. As the charming Jean-Claude explains, ‘in this great house, with its profound commitment to craftsmanship, I am realising a fantastic dream: living my passion with both creative rigour and complete freedom.’
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 – and 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 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 explains, ‘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.’
‘Pleasure is selfish,’ he also observes. ‘Luxury is something you share. The aim of perfumery, like all the arts, is to create products that arouse sensual pleasure. As a man and as a composer of perfumes, I have to feel pleasure in order to be able to give it. The pleasure of surprising, of evoking, of suggesting, of gradually hinting…’ And his scents do just that: giving us a glimpse of faraway places, taking us on a journey – without even stepping outside our own four walls.
And a PS: we’re excited, by the way, by the news that Christine Nagel – creator of countless stunning creations (read more about her here, in our ‘nose’ interview) – has now joined Jean-Claude, working alongside the master as a second in-house perfumer. Her first Hermès perfume is yet-to-be-unveiled – but what we do know is that it will be beautiful, and exquisitely-crafted.
And – because it’s Hermès – in utterly perfect taste.
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