BESPOKE IS NOT JUST FOR CLOTHES. HERMES’S DREAM FACTORY DIVISION, HORIZONS, MAKES THE ULTIMATE LIMITED EDITIONS IN ANYTHING FROM A PLANE INTERIOR DOWN TO A HAMMOCK.
Imagine for a moment boarding an Airbus A319 aircraft. Not the usual single- aisle passenger aeroplane with 100-plus seats and commonly used by American Airlines, Delta and EasyJet among others, but a luxury version of it. And not your typical luxury aircraft, either. Think instead of an entire 34m-long A319 with an interior designed to your exacting specifications and manufactured by the French luxury house Hermès. That’s right, Hermès. Your personal jet now has just 17 single seats, two threeseater sofas and one four-seater sofa – all upholstered in the finest Hermès fabrics and leathers. In fact every part of the plane’s interior has been given the Hermès touch. And, in fact, it’s not a fantasy – at least, not for one Hermès customer it’s not.
The Airbus A319 is one of several custom private aircraft Hermès has worked on. As well as another Airbus the company has also made the all-white leather interior of a Falcon 7X jet, and lined a Eurocopter 135 helicopter floor to ceiling in the company’s Toile H fabric with calf leather seating. Hermès has upholstered the interiors of cars including a vintage Aston Martin DB4, a Citroën 2CV, an Avions Voisin, a vintage Bugatti once owned by Ettore Bugatti as well as a 2016 Pagani Huayra and, at the more “affordable” end, a suite of Smart Fortwo cars. Hermès has also produced or customised boats, bikes and baby bottle warmers (true story). If you can imagine it, Hermès can do it. A foosball table by Hermès? It’s already been done.
Hermès is perhaps best known today for its ready-towear collections and leather goods, but it has been in the bespoke business since its very beginnings. The company, which was founded in 1837, made its name creating custom harnesses and saddles for its horseloving customers. Saddlery, along with special orders of products within the normal Hermès universe, are still made in a workshop above the brand’s flagship store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, the city’s premier luxury fashion district. However, in a nondescript building in Pantin, a not-so-chic northeastern suburb of the French capital, a small team creates what are best described as Hermès fantasies brought to life. This little-known division of Hermès is called Horizons, presumably because the scope of design here is virtually limitless.
Hermès Horizons is headed by François Doré, an engineer by training, who says it’s his job to do the impossible for clients. “I always say that when a customer comes to do a project with us, of course, he is coming to buy a product at the end of the day, but I think he is also coming to have an experience and, really, to buy a dream.” It goes without saying that the projects produced by the Hermès Horizons division are for clients with very deep pockets – after all, an Airbus A319 costs about $US90 million ($120m) before Hermès even gets to work on it. (This is why we can’t show you these interiors: the owners, understandably, closely guard their privacy and images are not available for publication.) But even people with a seemingly endless supply of funds have to work to a budget.
“Don’t believe that it’s like an open chequebook – that’s never the case,” says Doré. “We are talking about dreams but we are also talking about business.” He says the process is not unlike building a house. When the design is agreed upon by the client the scope of work is then costed. When the cost is settled the subject of money is rarely mentioned again. “Then we switch to the dream,” says Doré. “When we do a project the relationship and the trust with the customer is so strong that they really let us propose things and ideas and we are not always having a discussion about price.”
For the Airbus project, however, the scope of work would be enough to send any accountant into a tailspin. The customer was based in Taiwan. The aircraft was based in the US. The new seats were designed in Paris and manufactured in another part of the US. When the seats were built they were sent to Toulouse in France to be checked by Airbus, then to the Horizons workshop in Paris to be upholstered, then back to Toulouse to be tested and validated. Then they were sent back to the US to be fitted to the aircraft. When the seats were finally installed in the aircraft, Doré and his team travelled to the US to do the finishing adjustments on board the A319 in person.
Doré says a big project like an aircraft interior refurbishment takes about one year. Hermès Horizons, which was created just over a decade ago, produces between five and 10 of these large-scale projects a year. Customers come from all over the world including Australia. There are just 10 craftspeople with a range of skills and specialities solely dedicated to the Horizons division (the total team including management and designers is 25), which means capacity for big-ticket projects such as planes, cars and boats is limited, although other Hermès ateliers can be used when necessary. That doesn’t mean the Horizons division can’t be nimble when it needs to be.
In 2014, according to Doré, five days before Queen Elizabeth II was due to arrive in France for a state visit, then French president François Hollande contacted Hermès to come up with a gift for the Queen. “He asked us to imagine something for the Queen in a short period of time,” says Doré. “So we made a small box in leather and in it we gathered all the pictures of the official visits to France by the Queen. There have been six official visits and we had three framed photographs from each visit in the box.” Despite the quick turnaround, the box for the Queen is undoubtedly one of the easier challenges the Horizon team has faced. Doré, however, says there is really nothing he and his team can’t or won’t do – within certain engineering limits, of course.
“We don’t have a list of things that we don’t do,” he says. “When we receive a project we try to evaluate whether we can do it. If somebody asks me to design the exterior of a plane, or create something like a plane from scratch, then no, of course I can’t do it. With every request we first analyse whether we can do it or not and until now nearly all the requests we have been able to find a way to do.” If that means working with a manufacturer outside Hermès to achieve it then Doré isn’t afraid to do that. When it came to the design of the Pagani Huayra, for example, Doré and his team worked directly with Pagani on the changes to the original design of the car before it went into production.
“When we are talking about new cars with airbags etcetera, we always work directly with the manufacturer because we never take any risk with safety,” Doré says. “In this case it’s better to be involved during the
construction of the car itself. For the Pagani we worked on the exterior colour of the car as well as the interior. This is a very sporty car and we tried to put some calm and simplicity inside. So for instance we reworked the shape of the seats in order to be less sporty, to have something a bit more classic.”
For classic cars the approach is simpler as Hermès is essentially just re-upholstering the interior. But even then there are some very unique Hermès touches. For the Aston Martin DB4, the seats were upholstered in tan calfskin with English green New Zealand woolcarpet, and the Horizons design team spent a lot of time choosing just the right shade. “But then we add some small but nice details to the car,” says Doré. “We added a small pocket on the left side of the trunk, we covered all the elements we found in the trunk – the tools, the fire extinguisher, for example, in leather.”
When it came to the vintage Bugatti, the new owner of the car wanted to recreate a large trunk for the back which was visible in early photographs but the car no longer had. It was established that it had initially been made by Hermès, so the owner contacted the company to see if it could be made again. Doré managed to find the original quote for the trunk but no design sketches. Working from photographs of the original trunk his team recreated it and, when WISH visited the workshop in Pantin, the trunk was there waiting for its owner to come and collect it. “It’s still here because the car hasn’t finished being restored yet,” Doré says. “But this trunk is a very good example of the relationship we have with the customers. The owner of this car is a really cool guy and each time he came to visit us for a working session he would spend the full day with the craftsmen to see how they work, whereas a normal working session is one or two hours. The project is a passion for him.’
When a customer wants a custom order of a Hermès bag – in a particular colour, size or leather – they typically make that request through a salesperson in a Hermès boutique, then the order is produced in the workshop above the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré store. There are about 400-500 of these special orders produced by Hermès each year. Orders for large-scale Hermès projects can happen via a personal referral, or because someone saw something on social media – but also in surprisingly conventional ways. According to Doré the company has had a request for an aeroplane seat by a customer who approached a salesperson in store about it and a request for a car interior in the same way.
“Every project has a different story,” says Doré. Sometimes it is envy. Occasionally Hermès is commissioned to design something because a client has seen someone else with it. “We recently made a small boat for a client and we made not only the interior of the boat, but the boat itself,” he says. “In fact we made two – a sailing one and a motor one and they were both made here in Pantin. It’s not a speed boat, it’s a slowmotion boat and the idea behind it from the client was that it should be a boat where you can enjoy a nice day on the water with your family.” The unusual design includes a bow where the sides of the boat fold down to form an open deck to swim off. Another customer saw the design and liked it so much he commissioned a variation with a deck that opens at the back instead.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to the whole boat, Hermès can just do the interior, or just the steering wheel. Doré and his team have produced entire house interiors as well as smaller items such as a picnic set. There’s been a motorbike seat and helmet, a hammock, a kite made from Hermès silk, an even a rickshaw – that was for the Four Seasons hotel in Kyoto and was created from scratch. “We proposed a new vision of the rickshaw, a more modern version of it,’ says Doré. “We made everything, we worked with partners to build the structure and then it came here to do all the leather work. We feel very lucky because we love what we do and we get to do a lot of crazy things. I never thought I would be asked to design a rickshaw. And with every project we always bring the Hermès values of creativity, exceptional materials and craftsmanship to what we do.”
As for his own dream project, Doré is unequivocal. “To be honest, one of my dreams when I started was to one day do an Airbus and we just made it. I was very excited when we finished it because the owner invited me to do the first flight with him. So now I have to find a new dream.” W
“We get to do a lot of crazy things. I never thought I would be asked to design a rickshaw.”
Managing director François Doré sits in a 1935 Avions Voisin C28 Aerosport with its original interiors recreated by Hermès Horizons.
Clockwise: a boat, rickshaw, Pagani Huayra and Eurocopter worked on by Hermès Horizons