CABINET OF CURIOSITIES
BEGUN LONG BEFORE LUXURY BRANDS BECAME OBSESSED WITH THEIR OWN HISTORY, THE HERMES MUSEUM IS A COLLECTION OF OBJECTS THAT TELL STORIES AND OFFER CREATIVE INSPIRATION TO TODAY’S DESIGNERS.
On the floors above the Hermès flagship store on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré – one of the most expensive retail strips in the world, based on average rent per square metre – is room after room of thousands of objects. They’re not goods for sale. This is a museum, but it’s no ordinary luxury brand museum, either. Firstly, it is not, strictly speaking, open to the public. It’s also not a museum about Hermès or an archive of its products spanning its nearly 200 years of history. Rather, this is a museum for Hermès and it is unlike any other fashion or luxury brand museum or exhibition you’ve ever heard of.
In Florence, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo have impressive museums that display items from the company’s archives and host temporary exhibitions inspired by or related to the brands. In Milan, Giorgio Armani has built a vast space in a former grain silo to display his archive and host exhibitions. Then there are the art galleries owned by luxury brands: Prada has Fondazione Prada in Milan, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and Louis Vuitton has its own museum in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry, which displays the brand’s vast contemporary art collections and stage temporary exhibitions. Hermès’ museum, on the other hand, is nowhere near as grand or ambitious.
What’s unique about this place – which doesn’t really even have an official name – is that it essentially displays the collection of one individual who, at first glance, appears to have been an obsessive collector with no clear guiding principle. On entering the rooms that house the museum the first impression is this is just a series of rooms filled to the brim with “stuff”. It’s the personal collection of Emile-Maurice Hermès (18711951), grandson of the company’s founder Thierry, who ultimately rose to the position of company chairman but started this collection at the age of 12.
“He became a kind of bulimic collector,” says Ménéhould de Bazelaire du Chatelle, director of cultural heritage at Hermès, who has overseen the collection for 31 years. There are more than 14,000 pieces in the collection and since starting with Hermès in 1986 after a career as a teacher of ancient Greek, Latin and French literature as well as a four-year stint in the drawing department of the Louvre, it has been du Chatelle’s undertaking to catalogue and research the provenance of each piece.
WISH was taken on a rare tour of the museum with du Chatelle late last year. “The first time I came through this door I was truly amazed,” she says as she turns the key. “And I am still amazed every time since then.” The space that the collection now occupies was once Emile-Maurice’s office and his desk remains in the same position. According to du Chatelle this was more or less how he kept his workspace: cluttered with all manner of objects that he delighted in showing to people and telling their stories.
“The collection is almost endless and not everything was documented by Emile-Maurice Hermès when he bought them,” says du Chatelle. “But you can see there is an iron thread that runs through the collection. Many things are related to the horse because the horse was our first customer, but it’s not only about the horse it’s about other paths of movement and elegance and comfort.” After almost three hours spent in the museum with du Chatelle discovering a random selection of pieces, it becomes clear that this is a museum where the main focus of collection is about quality and craftsmanship.
One thing is clear: this collection is not focused on what Hermès made in the past. It’s not a museum for the leathergoods maker to tell its own story. “The collection is telling more about the spirit of Hermès through what Emile-Maurice Hermès and now the sixth generation of the family continue to admire, to respect and to collect. What we collect is a source of inspiration for us and a way for us to question the mystery of quality and beauty and that tells us more about what we already made. But at Hermès we don’t want to repeat what we already have done, we want to go further and to go further we have this springboard from the past, from other civilisations and cultures to give us the energy to go further. This is something contrary to a brand museum.”
The collection, however, does have a small number of Hermès-produced items which have been included because of the story they tell about craftsmanship and innovation. One such item is the very first handbag Emile-Maurice Hermès designed in 1923 specifically because it caused a minor sensation at the time of its introduction as it was the first bag to use a zipper as a closure. Also in the collection is one of the first saddles Hermès produced when the company was headquartered on rue des Capucines. “The saddle was acquired at auction five years ago because we had nothing with the old address, we didn’t keep anything,” says du Chatelle. A drawing of a pair of horses pulling a carriage which dates from around 1830 and hangs behind EmileMaurice Hermès’ desk was the inspiration for what would eventually become the company’s logo – “although it is more a coat of arms than a logo because it tells the story of the past of Hermès and the production of harnesses for the horse”, says du Chatelle. Given the history of Hermès there are also a lot of saddles, harnesses and bridles in the collection.
As well as items from France and other European countries the collection contains pieces from Indonesia, China, India, Africa, South America and even Australia. Emile-Maurice Hermès also amassed a vast collection of books, one of which du Chatelle has out ready for our tour: a volume of colour drawings made for Napoleon I about the discovery of Australia and New Zealand and contains illustrations of flora, fauna and people.
Some other items du Chatelle has selected for us on the day include a clock housed in a stirrup. “It’s interesting because it’s a reminder that the horse was once a measurement of time and distance. You would say Paris to Bordeaux, for example, is three days on a horse away,” she says. There’s a small chess and backgammon board which dates from the early 18th century made from ivory and tortoiseshell. “It’s a reminder that when you travel it is important to pass the time pleasantly,” du Chatelle remarks as she contemplates it. A set of opera glasses from the late 18th century have a unique function – they can observe things sideways as well as straight ahead. “There is also a compass in the case in case you have noticed a person you want to meet at intermission so you can find your direction to them. Inside there is a place for a small perfume so you can make yourself smell nice before you meet the person. So it’s a little story in one whimsical object. It’s interesting for Hermès not to copy but to remember that an object can be much more than just an object, it can be three things in one.”
Also in the collection are several nécessaires – trunks containing everything one might need to travel in style. “A very strong part of the collections focuses on these travelling nécessaires. Of course weight wasn’t as important when travelling at the time of Napoleon I but it was still a challenge to make this kind of trunk to contain the most in the least amount of space,” says du