We got a backstage pass to the chicest show jumping event in the world, the Saut Hermès in Paris, along with an invitation to a private view of Hermès museum collection and legendary saddlery. Take an exclusive tour of the inner sanctum of the fashion house built on horsepower.
Photography KOTO BOLOFO Text SUSANNE MADSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
If there is a show jumping heaven, it must surely look something like the Saut Hermès. When the Hermès-shop in Copenhagen sent us an invitation to visit the third instalment of the five-star three-day CSI event hosted by the immortal French fashion house, it was met by a fair bit of teen squealing. Featuring the world’s top riders competing under the historic glass roof of the Grand Palais in Paris, the Saut Hermès hasn’t just become one of the hottest tickets on the show jumping circuit – it has also come to embody the eternally elegant spirit of Hermès, a house built upon the dignified values and traditions of the equestrian world. At Hermès, the bustling saddlery at the top of the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré flagship store in Paris still forms the cornerstone of the company revered for its impeccable leather goods. Every flawless Birkin bag can be traced back to the saddle atelier and its 1900 predecessor, a travel bag designed for transporting a saddle. And every vividly printed silk scarf still whispers of the racing silks that inspired the very first one.
When you walk into the nave of the Grand Palais, those silk scarves and Birkin bags are dotted everywhere among the spectators. Previously, Hermès sponsored the prestigious French Prix de Diane flat race, but with the birth of the Saut Hermès the link to the company’s equestrian heritage has been strengthened tenfold. When the Les Talents Hermès class kicks off in the beginning of March at 3pm on the first day of the event, the sweeping tribunes have filled up with a crowd clad in camel cashmere jumpers, brown Jodhpur boots and bouclé jackets dressed down with jeans. Kids are lining up around French show jumping legend Michel Robert to get an autograph, while staff in sand-coloured Hermès Sellier waistcoats and orange shirts are on hand to offer start lists. The space reverberates with the sound of hooves hitting the sand, thanks to clever microphones installed at every fence. Horse-shaped topiaries adorn the sunlit space, and in a pop-up saddlery, artisans from Hermès work with skilful hands. There is even a children’s pony paddock with colour-coordinated dun Shetlands that ferry kids around with great patience. Note to self: In the world of Hermès, even horse droppings somehow manage to look chic.
As for the arena, its walls are trailed by an image of that iconic hallmark of promise and delight: The brown Hermès ribbon. There is an instant Kodak moment every time an equipage sails over the orange and white Hermès H oxer, and clear rounds are followed by a blast of the chorus of “I Feel Good”. At Hermès, the horse is clearly thought of as a superstar. It as also the company’s very first customer when Thierry Hermès founded the company in 1837 as a purveyor of horse harnesses for carriages – a witty observation that several members of the extended Hermès family point out with knowing smiles during a cake-fuelled brunch between Saturday’s classes. Thierry’s son, Émile-Charles, set up the saddlery in 1880 when the company moved to number 24 on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. From the beginning, Hermès saddles and bridles have elevated the natural beauty of the horse and underscored its raw power. The famous, striking Hermès saddle-stitch – a technique executed by hand which involves two needles locking a thread by working in opposite directions – is still used on an array of non-horse products, and the past and the present continue to be wonderfully intertwined: At the Saut, some winners leave with a miniature Hermès saddle trophy in the vein of those made in the 1910s as easy-to-send samples for customers around the world.
Everything at the Saut is so beautifully orchestrated, yet nothing seems the slightest bit staged. And that is the beauty of Hermès. In an age where the quest for corporate branding often produces overly packaged and contrived universes, Hermès has that perfect all-encompassing atmosphere right there within its legacy without even trying. It also has something very rare for a fashion house of its calibre: It is humble. At Hermès, the word luxury, with its current-day connotations of ostentatious wealth, is somewhat frowned upon. Perhaps it is the deep-rooted connection with the wholesome horse that lends an understated air to the family-owned and family-run establishment. Or perhaps it is the products: Streamlined, sporty and pure, made by people who know and understand the purpose of lasting a lifetime rather than a season. “The world is divided into two: Those who know how to use tools, and those who do not,” the late Jean-Louis Dumas, great-great-grandson of Thierry Hermès, once aptly noted.
During Jean-Louis Dumas’ time at the helm of the house, he would arrive at 9am and shake hands with every single one of the 300 employees who were based at the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré headquarters. By the time he reached his office on the top floor, it was almost quarter to ten. But in return for the time he invested, he got to know all his people really well, which created an incredible sense of team spirit, Patrick Thomas, current CEO at Hermès, has commented. Thomas is equally hands-on: Along with the rest of his team, he is right there at the Saut Hermès to meet guests and clients during the three-day event, which has an almost Shakespearean quality to it. The arena – with its challenging courses built to perfection by the legendary Frank Rothenberger – takes on the role of the old-world theatre as the four thousand spectators follow every jump and turn. On the final day, the jump-off in the Grand Prix Hermès has people standing up and screaming in their seats as luminaries such as Edwina Tops-Alexander, Rolf-Göran Bengtsson and Ludger Beerbaum keep bettering each other’s times before Katharina Offel beats them all.
In many ways, speed and travel have always been at the heart of Hermès. It is no coincidence that the Hermès insignia – a horse-drawn calèche inspired by a 19th-century lithograph by Alfred de Dreux – hints at the thrills of the journey ahead. When cars began to replace horses, Hermès were quick to adapt with the times, but the family’s love of horses endured. At the beginning of the 1900s, the second and third generation of the Hermès family – Thierry’s son Charles-Émile Hermès and his sons Adolphe and Émile-Maurice – begin to expand the business by adding travel bags to the offerings, spurred on by a trip to America by Émile-Maurice who brought the zip back to Europe to produce the first ever leather jacket with a zip for the very modern and fashion-forward Duke of Windsor. Then the 1920s and 1930s saw the birth of a flourish of handbags, accessories, ashtrays and rugs, among them the piece that was to become known as the Kelly bag – named after the impossibly chic Grace Kelly, who hid the first signs of her pregnancy behind the elegant bag in 1959.
The horse and all its countryside trappings were never far behind: When the studded Collier de Chien leather belt (forerunner to the iconic cuff) was first introduced in 1927, it took its point of departure in the heavy collars which fox-hunting hounds would wear when their owners went blazing across the fields. Along the way, during the watch of Émile Hermès’ son-in-law, Robert Dumas, and later during the fifth generation headed up by Jean-Louis Dumas, the house introduced new classics, not least the Birkin, made in 1984 in collaboration with Jane Birkin, who had complained about her lack of a decent bag to Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight. The Hermès saddle even made heated and controversial headlines when photographer Helmut Newton featured it in a 1976 series titled Saddle I, strapped to the back of a model posing on a bed in riding breeches and a bra.
No place symbolises the past, present and future of Hermès quite like the mothership on rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which is also home to what is surely the most fabled private collection of equestrian artefacts. It’s a sunny Monday in March after the Saut Hermès when we arrive, and a quick peep into the store reveals a flurry of customers buying belts and ordering bags. We, however, are going somewhere even more sacred: The office and antechambers of Charles-Émile Hermès, secreted away above the shop. As the glass doors open you enter into a quiet wood-panelled haven with mossy green curtains. The walls are lined with glass cabinets, filled with exotic horse curiosities amassed over a lifetime by his son, Émile-Maurice. Horse bits from 800 BC mingle with ancient wheel spurs from South America, and on the floor sits the very rocking horse that Émile-Maurice’s four daughters used to play on. It’s somewhat unfair to call these hallowed rooms a museum, partly because they are sadly not open to the public, but mainly because the objects found here are not dusty relics. Rather, the collection is very much alive: This is where the Hermès team come to be inspired and, in turn, propel the house towards the future.
As a horse lover, it is incredibly hard not to act like an over-enthused One Direction fan girl at the sight of the objects on display. One cabinet holds a pair of odd-looking hoof-shaped leather booties designed around 1860. We’re invited to join in on what has become a time-honoured guessing game for guests. Re-enforced shoes for sore feet, we offer? Try socks for horses with part-time jobs as lawnmowers that couldn’t leave behind unsightly hoof prints. You really couldn’t make it up. Another cabinet reveals a set of silver stirrups, shaped like ladies’ slippers. The saddles are, of course, astonishing: There is a Victorian side-saddle with a pocket for one’s dainty lace handkerchief, a saddle covered in leopard skin for an officer of the Emperor Franz Joseph’s horse squad, and a Chinese specimen lavished with enamel and gold dragons. They may be worlds away from the streamlined style of Hermès saddles as we know them, but you needn’t look far to find the colours, incredible craftsmanship and the beauty of foreign cultures in the Hermès collections.
That being said, the Hermès saddlery presiding at the top floor of rue Faubourg has produced some out-of-this-world saddles. Would you like a red lacquered crocodile saddle? Or perhaps one in zebra print? Why, certainly. From their workspaces in the bright rooms overlooking the Parisian rooftops, a team of 12 expertly trained artisans in leather aprons make around five hundred saddles a year from the faultless Hermès leathers, mainly crafted from cowhide, calf leather and buffalo. Each saddle is made from start to finish by one craftsman and takes around 25 hours to complete. You won’t find any staples inside an Hermès saddle – it’s proper nails all the way, as our visit reveals. The artisans proceed to bring out books to show pictures of saddles done in collaboration with the French master embroider Lesage, as well as a one-of-a-kind embossed metal-plated saddle crafted with the help of Tunisian artists. We all decide a picture of a black futuristic saddle with pointy angles could be for Darth Vader’s imaginary horse.
But showpiece saddles aside, classic jump seats and dressage styles form the core of Hermès saddle production. Since 1900, every saddle has been engraved with a serial number that enables the owner to trace its origins. Glass-fronted shelves in the workshop hold another piece of interesting history: The legendary saddle journals. The leather-bound books contain every single saddle order placed with Hermès since 1909 – just don’t ask who the clients were. Discretion is everything at the house of Hermès. And while century-old techniques are still being used to produce the refined saddles with their hand-stretched seats and hand-stitched girths, Hermès are not resting on their laurels, but galloping into the future with the newest addition to the family, the Talaris. The saddletree on the ultra-light jump seat is constructed from carbon fibre and thermoplastic rather than traditional wood, making it a revolutionary high-tech ride for both horse and rider with all the beauty and chic you would expect from an Hermès saddle. Indeed, what The New York Times noted in 1940 still rings true: “It has been said of Hermès that it is perhaps the only establishment in the world in which one cannot buy a single article that is not in perfect taste.” •