It’s this conviction that lies at the heart of the second edition of Harnessing the Roots, which forms part of the Hermès Heritage exhibition series. Its latest iteration at the National Museum of Qatar comprises five chambers within a rotunda dedicated to ceremonial bridles; the horse and its tack; the saddle; buckles; and ties and straps respectively.
“Hermès offers a unique balance between values and history, between modernity and roots,” observes Bruno Gaudichon, curator of Harnessing the Roots, who seeks to takes a fresh look at these ideas by creating an open dialogue between Hermès’ heritage and the maison’s contemporary collections.
The harness and saddle proffer a tangible connection between horse and rider, a conduit for secret codes of communication between the two. And when it comes to the history of Hermès, they’re also the gateway to its creative odyssey, and the bridle path between the past and the present. Seamlessly proving this point is a shagreen corset from spring/summer 2011 designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, then the artistic director of women’s ready-to-wear, inspired by the construction of a saddle, and the Haut à courroies—a ludicrously capacious bag designed to store a rider’s equipment—which was unmistakably the inspiration for the Birkin 100 years later.
Taking the reins of these archival adventures is Marie-Amélie Tharaud, Directrice du Conservatoire des Créations Hermès, founded in 1987 in honour of the 150th anniversary of the house. From the Ateliers Hermès in Pantin in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, the archivist and cultural heritage director presides over 60,000 items dating from the 19th century to the present day which serve as a testament to the storied history of the house.
Marie-Amélie explains, “The Conservatoire des Créations is one of the three heritage entities that work hand-in-hand to preserve the history of Hermès: the Conservatoire holds a selection of Hermès creations from 19th century to today; the archive stores materials linked to creation, communication and institutional archives; and the Émile Hermès collection keeps pieces related to horses, movement and motion amassed by the founder’s grandson from the age of 12-years-old until his death in 1951. It’s a cabinet of curiosities that has become a museum for all the Hermès teams. It’s an important, inspirational place.”
As pursuits and parades of novelty without a compelling narrative begin to lose their allure, more and more luxury maisons are leaning into their legacies and giving voice to their curators to parlay their patrimony into both a creative currency and a meaningful message.
“We are the keepers of the history, and thus, the identity of Hermès,” declares Marie-Amélie. “We are part of the artistic direction of Hermès, reporting to Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and our role is to share this history and this identity to inspire the creative teams.”
Among other acts of service, the Conservatoire des Créations Hermès is a luxury lending library of priceless antiquities, with Marie-Amélie as the learned gatekeeper. “We work with our creative teams on a daily basis in different ways,” she discloses. “They can come to see pieces in our storerooms, or we can loan pieces for a few weeks for inspiration when they develop a product. Many are interested to know what was created before, and understanding the history of a product, the typology of an object, or a value or a notion. They may ask, ‘What was created in this colour? Is this colour important for Hermès?’ And sometimes when coming up with a new technique, you need to look at what techniques were used before.”
Keen to point out that this process isn’t at all imposed, she adds, “Some of the artistic directors know the history of the maison very well, or don’t feel the need to look to the past. It’s always at their demand. We don’t push anyone to work with us, but we will always answer every question.”
She continues, “Generally, they don’t focus only on the pieces, but more the idea behind them, the theme. We don’t really want to have precise codes. The idea is more to be faithful to what Hermès is. It’s interesting to have a larger vision and not to be imprisoned in a code.”
In defence of purpose over product, she clarifies, “Of course, the Conservatoire is comprised of objects but we want to contextualise the history around them. That’s why we work with the archive department to conserve the creative intention, the drawings, and meaning behind the creation of an object.”
On the interplay between past, present, and future, Marie-Amélie believes, “Because Hermès has always been a family company, the link and loyalty to the origins and what we do today is implied, and its history lives on.”
Yet rather than restricting creative thinking, the storied heritage of Hermès is intended to give its artistic directors a free rein. Echoing Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Marie-Amélie emphasises, “There is a very strong belief that to innovate, you need to understand what existed before. So it’s not being too attached to the past and always repeating it. It’s respecting the past in order to seek renewed inspiration to create in a new way.”
Of the 60,000 items kept in the temperature-controlled surroundings between 18-19 degrees Celsius with 45-50 per cent humidity—museum-grade conservation conditions—the oldest is a saddle that pre-dates 1880.
“We don’t have precise archives from those times, but we have a saddle embossed with ‘Hermès Rue Basse-du-Rempart’, the address before 1880, on the Boulevard des Capucines, very close to the Madeleine Church, a few hundred metres from Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. So this saddle must be from the 1860s or maybe 1870s,” she points out. “We also have Hermès harness elements from the 1860s. So saddle and harness are approximately from the same decade, the 1860s.”
And although a current season necklace by Pierre Hardy, the current creative director of Hermès jewellery, is likely to be the most expensive piece in the Conservatoire des Créations, Marie-Amélie is careful not to conflate price with worth. She suggests, “The most valuable piece might not be the most expensive. The saddle from the 1860s is not the most expensive from a financial point of view, but for us, it might be one of the most important because it tells us a lot about the beginnings of Hermès, about its identity in the 19th century, and shows how we still are faithful to it. The financial value might not always be exactly the same as the heritage value.”
If fashion is an expression of the zeitgeist, the evolution of Hermès documents the spirit of the times—in particular, the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of four-wheeled, rather than four-legged, transportation—better than most. “I’m always impressed by the new categories created when Hermès started expanding from equestrian equipment to fashion accessories, jewellery, and watches in the 1920s,” Marie-Amélie admits. “I’m moved by pieces from that time because it was really an era of a change and adaptation for Hermès.”
As the role of horses evolved in the new world order, so did Hermès. “Automobile cars arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, but they had become more and more popular by the 1920s,” she recounts. “Émile Hermès understood the necessity to adapt to this new society so started to diversify production but always with this idea that Hermès was created for travel. It may have been by horse in the 19th century, then thanks to Émile Hermès, the maison embraced transportation by car, train, and boat. This is why we design bags and accessories with the ethos of travel in mind.”
Among the saddlery and leather craft in the Conservatoire des Créations Hermès, Marie-Amélie was impressed to discover brightly coloured, perfectly preserved knitwear pieces from the end of the 1920s designed for skiing and alpine activities as a case in point.
The effortless ability of Émile Hermès to astonish and adapt in times of change and uncertainty has remained a constant love language of the family business 100 years later, and goes some way towards explaining its enviable consolidated revenue of €3.38billion in the first quarter of the fiscal year of 2023, reporting a 23 per cent growth in global sales, which peaked at 26 per cent in Japan and nearly 28 per cent in France.
Yet beyond the significance of the Conservatoire de Créations Hermès to the house itself, the collection also possesses a wider resonance that transcends luxury fashion. “Participating in the exhibitions and loaning our pieces to museums carries with it a cultural dimension that belongs to the history of France,” insists Marie-Amélie. Put simply, “An important heritage collection like this one has no value if you don’t share it with anyone. If no one sees it, it’s no longer a treasure.”
Why it matters to Marie-Amélie and Hermès that these objects live another life outside the Conservatoire as part of the cultural conversation is to celebrate and transmit the craftsmanship, and increase public awareness and appreciation not only of Hermès and the quality of the materials but also its equestrian beginnings.
And considering the “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” made the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in November 2022, surely the Birkin can’t be too far behind as a symbol of France? “It is important that these skills and social habits continue to exist in the future,” proclaims former French Minister of Culture and Communication and Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay of these protected practices, expressions, and knowledge officially recognised as part of cultural identity.
A maison with deep roots that embodies the spirit of travel can be only in constant motion by carrying this responsibility lightly. An iconic bag helps, too. And positioning of the history of Hermès as what artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas calls “active heritage”, imbues it with renewed relevance to spur creativity for its onwards journey.
Photography VLADIMIR MARTI
Creative Direction DANÉ STOJANOVIC
Executive Producer JEAN-MARC MONDELET
Digital Operator FAYÇAL BOUHASSOUN