THE SILK ROAD

NEXT MONTH, A FIRST-IN-THE-WORLD EX­HI­BI­TION CEL­E­BRAT­ING THE CRE­ATIV­ITY OF AN HER­MES SCARF OPENS RIGHT HERE IN SIN­GA­PORE. AHEAD OF IT, NOELLE LOH TRAV­ELS TO PARIS AND LYON TO DIS­COVER WHAT EX­ACTLY MAKES A SQUARE PIECE OF SILK FROM THE FRENCH MAISON SO INT

Female (Singapore) - - EDIT -

Con­fes­sion: I’ve al­ways had mixed feel­ings about vis­it­ing work­shops. It’s partly be­cause I’m a klutz with the bad habit of touch­ing things that are off lim­its (read: I can be an em­bar­rass­ing dan­ger in such en­vi­ron­ments). More than that, there’s the fear that the pro­cesses could get too tech­ni­cal and in turn – to put it plainly – dry.

This was not go­ing to be the case on this trip to see the mak­ing of Her­mes’ dis­tinct car­res (French for “squares” and how the brand refers to its scarves) at its ate­liers in France in the mid­dle of June. I knew this as soon as I got off the plane in Paris. An op­por­tu­nity to meet Chris­tine Du­vi­gneau, the head of Her­mes’ graphic de­sign stu­dio, and Pierre-Marie Agin, an in­de­pen­dent artist who’s been work­ing with the brand for a decade, had un­ex­pect­edly popped up, sched­uled for that very af­ter­noon.

The lat­ter, 36, looks like a char­ac­ter out of a Luca Guadagnino movie with his dark mous­tache and soft-spo­ken de­meanour (in­ci­den­tally he was be­hind the art­work for the di­rec­tor’s 2015 film A Big­ger Splash). With a twin­kle in his eyes, he ex­plained his de­sign phi­los­o­phy for the maison. “A good scarf is one that can tell a story from a dis­tance, tied around the neck of a per­son. (From this alone) you should be able to get a sense of a story, and when you un­fold it, and can look at it closely and for a longer time, you have all the de­tails,” he said. “It’s im­por­tant that the story works on two scales.”

Mean­while, the sweet-tem­pered Du­vi­gneau is like “mo­mager” to tal­ents like Agin within the house, work­ing along­side them and Bali Bar­ret, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Her­mes’ Women’s Uni­verse, to cre­ate prints based on an an­nual theme. (This year’s: “Let’s Play”, which ex­plains the whim­si­cal qual­ity of most of the Fall/ Win­ter 2018 re­leases you see on these pages.) She’s also in charge of shar­ing fi­nalised draw­ings with the brand’s var­i­ous artis­tic di­rec­tors – Nadege Van­hee-Cy­bul­ski for women’s ready-to-wear, for ex­am­ple – to see how they could get adapted.

As Agin put it, the scarf is “of­ten the king of draw­ing at Her­mes”; its mo­tifs pro­vid­ing the base for a whole gamut of lively printed prod­ucts rang­ing from blouses to wall­pa­pers. True to the brand’s ded­i­ca­tion to de­tail, they’re never lifted whole­sale – an artis­tic process in it­self. “It’s al­ways a new draw­ing adapted to the right scale and shape of the new ob­ject,” he said. “I’d have to put an al­most 1m-wide draw­ing into a 6mm-wide ban­gle and still be able to recog­nise the draw­ing and story be­hind it. It’s quite an ex­er­cise.” The whole time he spoke, his smile never faded.

The next day, I flew to Lyon, known for its savoir faire in lux­ury silk scarves, and the place where Her­mes has been man­u­fac­tur­ing its own since launch­ing its first in 1937. Both my main stops were short, non­de­script in­dus­trial build­ings hous­ing var­i­ous ate­liers: en­grav­ing, print­ing and dye­ing, to name a few. In­side though, the same en­thu­si­asm and sense of own­er­ship greeted me no mat­ter where I went.

Our guide was a mas­ter sto­ry­teller who had been at the com­pany for decades and spoke ef­fu­sively about ev­ery step of the pro­duc­tion. I couldn’t get over the young woman at qual­ity con­trol, who in­spected each scarf calmly with her naked eye and re­mark­able pre­ci­sion, able to spot de­fects no big­ger than a speck. When I asked a seam­stress who was hand-rolling and stitch­ing the hem of each scarf – a dis­tigu­ish­ing fea­ture of an Her­mes carre – if some vari­a­tions of silk were harder to work with, she replied like a true ar­ti­san: “(It’s just a mat­ter of them be­ing) dif­fer­ent, not more or less dif­fi­cult.”

Next month, the brand opens “Carre Club”, a first-time ex­hi­bi­tion here in Sin­ga­pore to cel­e­brate the cult that is its silk square scarves. While de­tails re­mained un­der wraps at press time, its name and the brand’s past pub­lic events are a good in­di­ca­tor that it’s go­ing to be any­thing but dry – and so was the hu­man touch that per­vaded my visit to its work­shops. On the page op­po­site, a break­down of the tech­ni­cal and de­sign feats that go into the mak­ing of an Her­mes carre with­out any tech­ni­cal hum­drum.

IT TAKES 300 SILK COCOONS TO MAKE ONE CARRE

Us­ing silk­worms farmed in Brazil, known to pro­duce the world’s best silk, Her­mes es­ti­mates that a sin­gle co­coon re­sults in about 1.5km of silk thread. A 90x90cm scarf – one of the brand’s sig­na­ture and most pop­u­lar sizes – calls for 450km of thread. You do the math.

A SIN­GLE CARRE TAKES TWO YEARS TO COM­PLETE

Start­ing from a meet­ing be­tween the brand’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Pierre-Alexis Du­mas, (also a sixth-gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of the brand’s found­ing fam­ily), Bali Bar­ret and the graphic de­sign team on the main de­sign in­spi­ra­tion; right down to qual­ity con­trol, with ev­ery step done – if not at least con­trolled – by hu­mans, not ma­chines. Only then are the car­res ready to hit stores.

THERE’S A DIF­FER­ENT DE­SIGN EL­E­MENT IN EV­ERY COR­NER

Be­sides the play­ful sur­prise fac­tor, the prac­tice helped es­tab­lish Her­mes as one of the first to cre­ate its own prints at a time when other brands were sim­ply buy­ing uni­formly pat­terned (read: less labour-in­ten­sive) de­signs from Lyon.

NO DEPICTIONS OF ANY­THING SHARP, PLEASE

Sim­ply be­cause the brand doesn’t deem it ap­pro­pri­ate, what with scarves usu­ally worn around the neck.

DON’T MESS WITH THE EN­GRAVER

Aka the one with the most painstak­ing task: trans­late by hand ev­ery de­tail of a life-sized draw­ing as faith­fully as pos­si­ble (yep, even the thick­ness of the out­lines) onto dif­fer­ent films that each then get scanned onto print­ing frames. So-called sim­ple de­signs can take at least 400 hours to en­grave; com­plex ones, as many as 2,000 – or more.

COLOUR IS EV­ERY­THING

Most car­res sport around 30 dif­fer­ent colours, though this can go up to 45, all cho­sen from a “recipe book” of 75,000 cre­ated by – and thus unique to – the brand. PS. The num­ber of films needed by the en­graver (and in turn silkscreen print­ing frames) cor­re­sponds to the num­ber of colours used.

EV­ERY COLOUR IS AP­PLIED IN­DI­VID­U­ALLY

Work­ing with three flat-screen ta­bles that add up to 150m in length, the silkscreen print­ers lay on the print­ing frames one after an­other – a la­bo­ri­ous and metic­u­lous af­fair. The out­line is com­pleted first, fol­lowed by the ar­eas of colour, start­ing with the light­est and end­ing with the dark­est.

THE FIN­ISH CALLS FOR A LIGHT TOUCH

A dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor of an Her­mes carre is its French style roulette, or rolled hem: seam­stresses del­i­cately twirl 15mm of each edge from back to front, then stitch it up with a silk thread – a process done en­tirely by hand. Even for an ex­pe­ri­enced roulot­teuse, hem­ming the edges of one carre can take 30 min­utes.

(From top) Let­tres Au Carre scarf, a ’30s Art Deco al­pha­bet de­sign from the archives that de­lib­er­ately leaves out the let­ter “W” to keep the square sym­met­ri­cal; Della Caval­le­ria Eye­liner scarf, so named be­cause the pat­tern is so pre­cise, it’s as if it’s been drawn with liner; and Cer­cle scarf (70x70cm) in vin­tage silk, up­dated to re¾ect this sea­son’s fun colour­ways

(From top) Pani La Shar Pawnee scarf – one of the most elab­o­rate de­signs that dates back to 1984 – now washed through an ex­clu­sive ar­ti­sanal pro­ce­dure to sport a vel­vety patina; Qu­a­tre Coins scarf (70x70cm) in vin­tage silk and a hip new colour­way; and the vin­tage sad­dlery-in­spired Man­u­fac­ture de Boucle­ries De­tail scarf, now also treated to be sup­pler and look “aged”.All 90x90cm wide and in silk twill un­less oth­er­wise stated

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