The bad news is that Hermès Beverly Hills has temporarily lost the valet parking spots behind its Rodeo Drive boutique. The good news is that in its place is a postage-stamp-sized museum-quality exhibition that explores the 181-year-old French luxury label’s long relationship with all things equestrian that is making its only stop in the United States.
Those familiar with the brand don’t need to be told that what is now a global leather goods, apparel, jewelry and accessories company began as a harness and bridle business founded in Paris by Thierry Hermès in 1837. But they’re just as likely to find something of interest in the collection of items on display in the vitrines and frames throughout the compact, five-room space as someone who has stumbled across the world of Hermès for the very first time.
For the latter of these groups, the “Harnessing the Roots” exhibition, which is free to explore, will serve as a condensed version of Hermès History 101, illustrating how equestrian equipment such as horse blankets, bridles and horse bits are referenced in the company’s ready-to-wear and jewelry collections; a horse’s hood inspires a lambskin-trimmed hood in the fall/winter 1969 collection, for example, and a striped horse-blanket pattern is plucked from the archives and shown in various permutations, including in the form of a tiny wool broadcloth pouch wrapping a bottle of the brand’s 1998 Rocabar fragrance.
On a recent tour of the exhibition, Ménéhould de Bazelaire du Chatelle, the curator of the Emile Hermès collection (from which many — but not all — of the pieces on display are culled), pointed to an early 20th century print of a horse kitted out in a fetching hood and blanket combination in wide stripes of yellow and red. “The name of the pattern — Rocabar — came about because someone was referring to the pattern as ‘a rug with bars,’ as in stripes, and over time it became ‘Rocabar.’”
While visitors won’t be lucky enough to have the curator at their elbow, they will be able to use an accompanying audio guide — the wand-like devices used in museums — to learn more about what they’re looking at.
It’s those kinds of next-level details that will make a spin through the exhibition enjoyable for that first category — the hardcore Hermès fan — particularly a 19th century lithograph by Alfred de Dreux titled “Duc Attelé, Groom à l’Attente” (Duc [carriage] harnessed, groom waiting), which Charlotte David, executive vice president of Hermès (who toured the exhibition with us), singled out as her single favorite piece. It’s not immediately apparent why — unless you know that, since the 1940s, the silhouette of the carriage, horse and groom, has served as the official logo of the house.
“There are just so many layers to it,” David said pointing out in the lithograph details that aren’t apparent in the smaller version that appears on brand packaging. “The shape of the duc [carriage] and the fact that there are two horses signifies speed, the way the harnesses fits the horses so perfectly, the fact that the groom is waiting with his hands in his pockets and the fact that there is just one thing missing from the image — the rider.” She paused for a moment. “We like to think of that person missing from the image as our customer.”
Whichever category you’re in, you’ll need to saddle up and head over to the Beverly Hills boutique before next Saturday, when the exhibition is scheduled to close. According to company representatives, the second installment of the Hermès Heritage series — this one focusing on the house’s long-running love affair with the color red (some 20 shades and counting), which recently made its debut in Jakarta, Indonesia — is expected to come to Los Angeles later this year.
“Harnessing the Roots,” Hermès Beverly Hills, 434 N. Rodeo Drive, 10 a.m. to 6 pm. Monday through Saturday; closes April 7.
For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me at @ARTschorn.