Bagged treasures

Times Staff Writer

Women who dream about Birkin and Kelly bags know it by heart: 24 Faubourg Saint-Honore. It’s the name of a fragrance, a logo on a silk scarf, but most important, it’s the address for the style temple that is the original Hermes store. The harness shop turned luxury fashion house has been open on this particular corner of Paris’ chicest shopping street since 1880, when Charles-Emile Hermes moved his father’s workshop from the Grands Boulevards.

Today, the company has swelled to 5,000 employees, with stores across the globe. But the brand’s heritage remains intact in three creaky rooms above the boutique. With more than 400 historical objects, the attic-like space could be a museum. Except it’s not open to the public. The treasures are kept as inspiration for the house’s designers. “It’s a place to keep the link between tradition and the future,” says Hermes cultural historian Menehould du Chatelle.

Every nook and cranny is crammed with iconic Hermes pieces as well as the cultural artifacts that inspired them. Du Chatelle spends her days on the phone bidding on collectibles in auctions around the world; her most recent acquisition is a 19th century men’s needlepoint bag depicting a hunter and his hounds. Several framed drawings of the “duc carriage” are a reminder that the house’s first customers were horses. (The horse-drawn carriage without a driver is the brand’s unofficial logo.) Tall black leather boots stand sentinel near the door, near an aged leather saddle.

Under the name of Hermes-Freres, the third generation by 1914 employed 70 to 80 saddlers. But soon after, Adolphe and his younger brother, Emile-Maurice, had to confront the age of the automobile. Sent to the U.S. during World War I to supervise leather purchases for the French army, Emile discovered a country transformed by mass production, modern technology and transportation. He was particularly impressed with the zipper, or the American fastener as it was then known, and became the first to introduce it in France.


The First World War was a turning point for the company. With many women newly widowed and becoming independent, Emile -- the father of four daughters -- moved the house into designing leather goods for women, as well as the now-famous silk scarves.

At the museum, hidden in the corner of a glass case are three dog collars -- not the kind that would fit Paris Hilton’s handbag-size canine. In thick leather with imposing spikes and doorknocker rings, these seem better suited to the beefy necks of wolves. Hermes began making the collars in 1923, says Du Chatelle, when it became chic for Parisian women to travel the city with packs of giant dogs protecting them.

“We started to make dog collars but then discovered that many designers were buying them to use as belts,” she says. So, in 1927, the famous Hermes belt, with its signature chunky hardware, was born. Bracelets followed and, this fall, more than 75 years later, the house’s ready-to-wear designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier, created evening gowns with leather collars. Indeed, the French couturier’s two seasons with the house have brought about a revival of the clothing line, which had taken a back seat to the accessories business.


Traveling companions

Beneath a window near Emile’s original desk is an 18th century British cherrywood and bronze trunk that folds out into a bed. “Servants did not have regular places to sleep when their masters traveled, so they used these,” Du Chatelle says.

In 1987, Hermes introduced the Pippa chair in pear wood -- a kind of folding chaise designed by architect Rene Dumas, wife of Hermes chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. It has evolved into the line of Pippa foldable furniture.

The impressive collection of luxury travel chests includes a piece owned by France’s last queen, Marie-Amelie d’Orleans, that is fitted with dozens of tiny crystal toiletry bottles. Hermes began producing its own leather chests in the 20th century. One of the earliest pieces is a pigskin picnic set from 1925, with individual sterling silver containers for sandwiches, tea and dessert that fit inside like puzzle pieces. In 1957, a suitcase-sized bar set was fashioned out of black crocodile for Sammy Davis Jr.


The sets, with their elaborate compartments, were the inspiration behind today’s In the Pocket line of men’s accessories, with such things as a corkscrew in a leather sheath.

But Hermes may be most famous for its bags, still made by hand, some in a workshop just steps away from the private museum. The first designs, called “sac-mallettes,” or bag-suitcases, appeared in the 1920s but were modeled after the carpetbags popularized with the advent of public transportation in the 19th century. They combined the suppleness of a pouch on top with the sturdiness of a separate box compartment underneath.

“You were assured to have the essentials with you, since the rest of your luggage would not be available,” says Du Chatelle, gesturing toward a tattered tapestry bag on the floor. “You would send your big trunks ahead one week before and travel with this.” (The later Hermes versions came with zipper tops in leather, crocodile or the canvas favored by Humphrey Bogart.)

In 1956, the house gained the worldwide attention that only celebrity can bring when Grace Kelly was photographed carrying a leather purse modeled after a saddlebag, with a short, top handle and flap top. The bag had been introduced in 1930 but was renamed the Kelly bag in 1959. The Birkin bag, named after the British actress Jane Birkin, was popularized in the 1980s.



A history of handbags

Today, art and fashion are more closely entwined than ever, and like many luxury companies, Hermes is a deep-pocketed benefactor, which means offering store windows for exhibitions, as well as awarding annual prizes in contemporary art and photography. This fall, the house collaborated with Paris’ Musee de la Mode et du Textile to produce “Le Cas Du Sac,” an exhibit open to the public that explores the handbag as totem. (The exhibition book, “Carried Away: All About Bags,” will be published in March by Vendome Press.)

The more than 400 objects on display through February trace the importance of bags throughout world history, from pocket-shaped pouches embroidered with scenes from court life that date from the Middle Ages to last year’s multicolored logo bag created by artist Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton.


The exhibition is organized by theme, the first examining the domestic, professional and traveling functions of the bag, and the second the religious, symbolic and aesthetic purposes. It begins with the topic of convenience, displaying a simple rope fishing bag next to a gold mesh Chanel tote.

More exotic specimens include a 17th century French bag that resembles an amoeba with eight drawstring pouches, and a “sorcerer’s bag” used today in Papua New Guinea to hold herbs and other ingredients for spells. Made from hibiscus bark and bamboo, dripping with bones and shells, the Papuan bag doesn’t look much different from Chloe’s au courant designs.

Bags were on their way to becoming coveted accessories after World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they became a market unto themselves. Now, handbags come in innumerable varieties, from Judith Leiber’s headphone-shaped minaudiere, to Jamin Puech’s corset-shaped purse, both on display.

In the exhibit’s “iconic” section, the legendary French houses are well represented, including the newly hip Goyard, as well as Dior and Vuitton. And, of course, there’s plenty of Hermes, including the famous $6,000-plus Kelly. And with the waiting list now closed for the precious bag, a glass museum case may be the closest some women ever get.