The story of Hermes can be encapsulated in two of their most famous bags and the lives of the women that they were named after: Grace Kelly and Jane Birkin.
Epitomising the relationship between fame, finance and fashion, these bags have become cultural icons that reach far beyond the rarefied confines of high-end retail.
A Brief History
Before we look at why let’s go back to where it all began - Paris, 1837, Thierry Hermès opens his eponymous harness workshop. From there, he made finely crafted horse reins, bridles and other leather goods for the stables of the rich and aristocratic. But by the end of the 19th century, horse travel was falling out of favour. With Thierry’s innovative son Charles-Emile in the saddle, Hermes broadened their merchandise - from travel sets for the newly invented automobile to clothes and accessories.
181 years since its founding and many stores later, equestrianism still defines its spirit. Their logo - a carriage and rider - were inspired by Alfred de Dreux’s ‘Le Duc Attelé’ and it continues to speak of the house’s elevated origins and goal of product perfection.
‘Do I look orange?.’ When it comes to Hermes, the citrus hue of their packaging is instantly recognisable. Never inconspicuous, their boxes have captured our imaginations since their creation after WWII when there was a shortage of the cream materials they had used previously. With approximately 188 different shaped boxes to house the entire Hermes product range, they have become collectors items in themselves.
Hermes status as one of the world’s most valuable luxury brands is reflected in their product’s price tags - they are not for the fainthearted. But is the cost worth it? Their pieces are made almost entirely in France at their own ateliers using materials that they themselves have fastidiously produced to the highest specifications. You get what you pay for after all! So let’s go shopping…
Perfume, clothing, tableware, silk scarves, watches and lifestyle accessories all now come under the Hermes banner. But it was in the 1930s that Hermès introduced one of its biggest success stories – the bi bag, later renamed the Kelly in honour of actress Grace Kelly.
With little introduction required, this American film star has gone down in cinematic legend. Intelligence, talent and a refined personal style got her noticed early with her breakthrough role in 1952’s High Noon catapulting her into a quick succession of blockbuster films including Rear Window, The Country Girl and High Society.
11 films into her career though and everything changed. Whilst in Cannes to promote To Catch a Thief, she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco. It was a whirlwind romance for the two and soon after, the couple were engaged and with it the newly titled Princess Grace of Monaco abandoned the silver screen.
That same year, in 1956, a photograph of Grace caught the public’s attention. Plastered across the covers of magazines and newspapers around the world, it showed her dressed in the chicest of ensembles finished off with her beloved Hermes Sac à dépêches. She was strategically holding it to shield her pregnancy from the paparazzi but there was an unintended outcome: she was upstaged by her tote. Customers stormed Hermes stores asking for the ‘Kelly bag’ she was carrying.
The style quickly became associated with the actress and in homage to her pared-back but statement-making dress sense, Hermes renamed it after her. Yet, it wasn’t the only product from the designer that the filmstar made her own - she reportedly used one of their silk carré scarves as a sling when she broke her arm. Resourceful.
Grace’s life may sound like a fairytale but it was tragically cut short when in 1982, she was killed in a car crash on the Côte d’Azur. The official line is that she lost control of the car but rumours have always swirled around the supposed truth behind her death - someone else was driving, links to the occult, a pre-accident argument with a passenger. The truth behind the tragedy is likely much more straightforward but that hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theories…
Of Herme’s oeuvre, the only other item that tops a Kelly is a Birkin. In a league of its own, the bag represents the peak of the luxury goods sector. A household name, its place in fashion surpasses even the brand itself.
And it all started on a flight from Paris to London. The then Hermes CEO Jean-Louis Dumas watched as Jane Birkin spilled the contents of her basket out of the overhead locker. After introducing himself, the pair discussed what the actress and singer would want in the perfect accessory, drawing a design on the back of a paper sickness bag.
Jane, already a fashion icon by the time of their meeting, was known for her ‘haute-hippy’ style and bohemian character. The Anglo-French starlet began her career in the award-winning 1966 film Blowup, going on to take major roles in controversial classics such as Je t'aime moi non plus and making music most famously with Serge Gainsbourg.
In 1984, Hermes released the completed bag planned during that in-flight conversation. And although they named it after Jane, she has only ever owned four of the style in her life. “There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around so that it looks as if the cat’s been sitting on it...” the actress told Vogue.com nonchalantly.
The relationship with Jane and Hermes hasn’t always been sunshine and roses though. In 2015, the animal rights organisation PETA claimed that the brand was mistreating crocodiles in the manufacturing of the croc-skin version of the Birkin bag. Jane requested that they cease using her name in association with the style and it wasn’t until Hermes proved their ethical credentials that she agreed that the iconic bag would keep its moniker.
The Culture of Hermes
And though the style may now be fashion’s ultimate status symbol, it wasn’t a breakout hit. It wasn’tuntil the late 90’s that the age of the Birkin began, catalysed by the trend for ‘it-bags’ that dominated the noughties.
So coveted are the bags now that you can’t simply enter an Hermes shop and ask for one. Getting your hands on a Birkin bag has become a covert operation with tips and tricks shared between aficionados on how to schmooze the sales assistants with multiple other purchases; when exactly a bag may be in store (don’t bother trying in August or at the weekend) and how to ask to be added to the waiting list for one. Even then, expect to wait years before it’ll be on your arm.
An Investment Piece
The limited availability of the bags has resulted in a booming resale and auction market for the Birkin and Kelly models. It’s estimated that there are only around 200,000 Birkins currently in existence meaning that some investors even see them as better assets than gold or stocks and shares.
A recent study by Baghunter.com showed that the Birkin’s value has soared 500% since its launch. And 2019 saw this reach its peak with the record breaking sale of a 35cm version for over half a million US dollars. Known as the ‘white Himalaya,’ it features hand painted albino crocodile skin, gold hardware and is studded with more than 200 diamonds.
What such news stories say about elitism and social disparity in fashion is up for debate. And though it could muddy any other brand’s identity, Hermes has carefully sidestepped the conversation allowing the quality of their product to speak for itself.
Timeless is an often overused term in fashion but there couldn’t be a better descriptor for the company. Though they maintain an understanding of what we want now, they are not about fleeting trends.
Paid celebrity endorsements may not be their thing, but its identity continues to be subtly informed by those two early muses: Jane’s effortless and free spirited approach to style and Grace’s understated, elegant eye have shaped how Hermes continues to be seen today.
And for all its connections to fame and fortune, the key to its longevity is its ability to maintain an elevated air whilst still allowing fans to feel part of the brand. It’s a stroke of fashion marketing genius.