by Laurie brookins | November 14, 2011 | Style & Beauty
|Hermès engraver Nadine Rabilloud demonstrates techniques for creating silkscreen layers|
|Each scarf design is divided into 10 palette variations|
Deep in the hills outside Lyon, a little more than half the distance from Paris to Marseille, Nadine Rabilloud is examining a scarf design, a multihued illustration dominated by the pensive visage of a Native American Indian. “I see about 16 colors in his face,” she says in French, before leaning over to demonstrate how she indeed traced out every subtlety in each of these 16 tones.
Rabilloud is an engraver for Hermès, and for 33 years she has looked upon the fanciful designs of the house’s iconic carrés, those highly coveted squares of silk twill (carré is French for “square”), and discerned the number of colors that must go into each. Hers is no minor task in the intricate process that finds dozens of artisans working daily on every inch of Hermès silk; it’s Rabilloud’s hands and eyes that take many designs, once approved back in the label’s Paris headquarters, and put them on the path from paper concept to silk reality before they find their way to boutiques in fashioncentric cities such as Las Vegas.
For more than a dozen years, Las Vegas has been an enthusiastic audience for the designer, having embraced Hermès since its first boutique opened in the city at Via Bellagio in 1998. The label ultimately opted out of that location in favor of opening a boutique at Crystals when CityCenter premiered that retail destination in 2009; earlier the same year, Hermès had opened its second Las Vegas location at Encore. But the lure of a prime location just inside Bellagio’s main entrance, coupled with Las Vegas’s status as one of the top markets in the US for the French label, proved to be irresistible, Chavez says. “What convinced us to go back is that we were given such a phenomenal location, so we’re beyond excited,” he says, adding that the selection in the 2,600-squarefoot store is influenced by its prominent positioning adjacent to the highly trafficked Bellagio entrance.
The label’s Fall collection includes Cosmogonie Apache, with Rabilloud’s pensive face as the centerpiece. For this design Rabilloud determined it would require 45 colors—that is to say, 45 individual silkscreen layers, the maximum number allowed by the house—to produce an exact match. And how many hours went into tracing each of these 45 layers onto clear film to make it silkscreenready? “About 2,000,” she says matter-of-factly; after more than three decades, Rabilloud embraces the notion that such extensive handwork is not the exception, but the rule.
Throughout 2011 Hermès has been showcasing the care and dexterity of both its silk and leather craftsmen in a Contemporary Artisans series, which has included everything from commemorative scarf designs to a Festival of Crafts tour, in which artisans such as Rabilloud have demonstrated their skills in Hermès boutiques around the globe. “It was our desire to really put a key focus on the craftsmanship and also an opportunity to speak more about the craftspeople themselves, all of whom do such amazing work,” explains Robert Chavez, president and CEO of Hermès of Paris, the US arm of the French label. “Clearly we’re a company committed to quality and craftsmanship, one that works with the finest materials, but these materials are only as good as the craftsmen who make the products.”
A closeup of a scarf detail in the colorist workroom
|An Hermès craftsman tests a silkscreen layer prior to production|
At the new Bellagio store, iconic Birkins and Kelly bags are likely to be found in abundance— after all, the house’s heritage is steeped in leatherwork, having been founded in 1837 as a workshop to craft horse harnesses—and yet those coveted carrés are also sure to be key. “The focal point is centered more on accessories, the scarves included,” Chavez says. “It’s a pretty significant store for us. It’s not merely that visitors from all over the world cross the threshold of the Bellagio; we’re also viewing it simply as a great location to pick up a gift on your way in or out of the hotel.”
Touring the two workshops where the lion’s share of scarf work is produced (neither of which boasts blatant Hermès signage, by the way, for obvious security reasons), it’s clear that, as Chavez says about Rabilloud, “every artisan takes his or her task extremely to heart, [knowing] that scarf intimately.” Hermès has been producing silkscreened carrés since 1937, and technology has updated the process, but the level of handwork remains undeniably impressive, from the men who use Rabilloud’s transparencies to create silkscreen frames to the colorists who determine the 10 palette variations of each scarf. Then there are the “chefs” in the color kitchen, who mix custom dyes for each design, and the silkscreeners who monitor every layer of those dyes as they proceed down a 150-meter table of seamless white silk, each screen gradually turning that pristine, colorless strip into a vibrant wonder of tints and, ultimately, talent.
“A tremendous number of eyes and hands go into each scarf, from the engraver to the people who monitor every one of what can be 40 colors in the silkscreen process, examining each detail carefully to ensure not one micrometer is out of place,” Chavez says. “Each finished scarf isn’t just an example of superior craftsmanship; it’s also a tribute to commitment and dedication to quality, and to the rich history of Hermès.”
Indeed, after a full day in the Lyon workshops, observing both the precision and the passion inherent to each step of the silkscreen process, I remark to Chavez that never again will I question the price of an Hermès scarf, and quite frankly I’m surprised they don’t charge more. “That’s usually the reaction,” he says with a laugh. “And really, people love those details; they want to know about the care and craft that go into it. But that level of handwork isn’t just the thing that makes an Hermès scarf an investment piece; it’s really just part of our whole DNA. It’s second nature to the culture of the company and its craftsmen. For us, that will never change.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LAURIE BROOKINS (rabilloud; WORKROOM SHOTS)