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Hermes

The brand has come a long way from its roots as a saddlery to become a byword for luxury and craftsmanship.

French high-fashion house Hermes started life in the 19th century as a harness workshop established by a family of German protestants in Paris. The brand's equine roots - it also branched out into saddlery - are reflected in its logo, adopted in the 50s, of a Duc carriage and horse.

Hermes catered for the rich and discerning from its earliest days, supplying aristocratic stables with harnesses and saddles. It was rumoured that the monarchies of Europe would postpone coronations until Hermes could create an original carriage design.

However, as the use of motor cars became more widespread after World War I, Emile Hermes, grandson of founder Thierry, decided that these new-fangled trains, planes and automobiles were the future, and the company began to produce leather luggage and sports goods.

Hermes' output later widened to include belts, diaries, watches, jewellery, silk scarves, leather jackets, perfume and other fashion items. The company was boosted by the fact that it was exclusively licensed to use the zip in France for two years, Emile having spotted the novel fastener on a trip to Canada.

Its famous products have included the Sac a depeches, dubbed 'the Kelly bag' because Grace Kelly was often pictured with one, and was rumoured to be using it to hide her pregnancy in one photo.

A Hermes scarf featured on a postage stamp in 1956, when Queen Elizabeth II wore one for a portrait.

Since the 50s, Hermes products have been packaged in distinctive orange boxes, which are now almost as coveted as the goods they contain.

By the 70s, however, sales figures were poor. Analysts blamed the brand's insistence on natural, high-quality materials such as leather and silk, at a time when fashionable opinion leaned toward the man-made.

However, in the 80s, a good decade for luxury brands, Hermes recorded explosive growth, as annual sales leaped from about $50m in 1978 to $460m by 1990.

Growth continued in the 90s, when the company pursued a worldwide policy of reducing the number of franchised retail outlets and increasing the amount of its directly owned shops.

Today Hermes is still a family business; they own a majority of shares in the company. However, current chief executive Patrick Thomas is the firm's first leader from outside the family.


BRAND LESSON

Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR

Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR

Here's a brand that creates desire beyond reason, yet succeeds through rigorous control of its products as much as through emotional flights of fancy. A brand famous for maximalist scarves and, conversely, its super-simple, but highly prized boxes.

A brand continually innovating, while also remaining somehow faithful to its traditional roots. A brand with a cutting-edge aesthetic, yet one that your granny would love to wear. In short, with Hermes, the relationship between design and business has some inherent contradictions, but it all works beautifully.

Perhaps it successfully embraces contradiction because all its designs share two fundamental qualities: skill and art. On the one hand, this is a brand of craftsmanship, from the high-end saddle-making to the 'hand rolled' hems of its scarves.

As with a fine Cuban cigar, one knows 'it's the best'. That lovely word 'atelier' comes to mind. Craftsmen and women in workshops using the best materials and the best (often very traditional) methods, and hang the expense.

These skills are put at the service of 'art' - from the stunning scarf designs to the bonkers shop windows and the ultra-contemporary homeware.

In Britain we might say that quality should be known, not shown.

In Europe it's both, with knobs on. This marriage of art and craft - is this not what all great design strives to be? Eye-watering prices, offered without a blink, simply compound the impression of excellence.


TIMELINE

1837: Thierry Hermes established an elite harness workshop in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris.

1880: Thierry's son Charles-emile Hermes branched out into saddlery and relocated the shop to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, where it remains today.

1918: Thierry's grandson Emile, noting the advent of the motor car, changed the firm's direction toward the production of luggage.

1935: The company introduced a leather Sac a depeches, later known as 'the Kelly bag' after Grace Kelly held it in front of her in a 1956 photograph, to hide her pregnancy.

1937: Silk scarves were introduced.

1993: Hermes went public on the Paris stock exchange: the 425,000 shares floated were 34 times oversubscribed.

1999: The company acquired a 35% stake in the Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion house.

2012: Hermes is celebrating its 175th year in business with a London exhibition called 'Leather forever'.

View more Champions of Design

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