The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 27, 2011

How Luxury is Made – A Visit to the Hermès Festival des Métiers

Filed under: shopping — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:14 am

Although I’ve never been particularly good at dressing the part, it seems that I live in a rather fashionable neighborhood these days.  With next-door neighbors with names like Louis Vutton, Jimmy Choo and Salvatore Ferragmo, I figured from day one when I moved into this place that I’ve never had much chance of keeping up, and an offhand trip to Neiman-Marcus while killing some time one day pretty much confirmed that I’ve got a long way to go before I can afford any of this stuff.  Actually that’s not true;  I can probably find a few things at some of these shops that I could afford if I was to eliminate some unnecessary expenses like food and electricity.  Sure I’d starve in the dark, but at least I’d look really snappy while I was doing it, right?

Although I’m (currently) not part of the intended audience for the really high-end stuff you’ll find around here, it’s clear that someone is, as the Bravern hosts a number of high-end stures you won’t find anywhere else in the Seattle area, one of which is the only Hermès boutique in the Pacific Northwest.  Normally, I wouldn’t have any particular reason to go anywhere near the place, but during the past week they have been hosting an event in an unoccupied store space at the Bravern called the Festival des Métiers (which translates to “Festival of Crafts.”  In essence, this event (for which Seattle is the first stop on what is expected to be a worldwide tour, with stops in Chicago and Washington DC to follow this one) is a chance for them to bring some of their master craftsmen (and women) out of the workshops in France to their customers to demonstrate their skills, and show how some of their most popular items are handmade.  Even though I seriously doubt I’ll ever buy any of these items, I’ve always had a keen interest in seeing how things are made (a marathon of the Science Channel’s How It’s Made show can easily cause me to spend a whole weekend on the couch without even noticing,) so yesterday I made the short trip over to the Bravern to check this out. 

There were a number of different craftspeople on hand demonstrating the making of shirts, ties, leather goods, watches, jewelry, and even saddles (which is where  Hermès got its start.)  Even with all the demonstrations on hand, the big attention-grabber seemed to be the demonstration of how Hermès famous silk scarves are screenprinted, aided no doubt by the two charming French men performing the printing and providing an interesting commentary on the process.  After the jump, you will find a number of additional photos of this process, along with some facts that I picked up along the way.  I don’t think I’m going to be rushing out and buying any of this stuff anytime soon, but I will say that this might be the first time that I’ve ever found myself thinking that such high-end luxury goods might not entirely be a waste of money.  If nothing else, I can certainly see where the high prices come from, and can appreciate the effort that goes into making such goods by hand. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the process, screen printing (also commonly known as silkscreening, named after the fact that the screens used to be made of silk, although synthetic materials are far more common now) is a process of using “screens” (essentially giant stencils with a mesh material holding them together in the shape of the items to be printed) to cover and uncover specific areas of a design to be printed) to print each color of ink separately onto the silk fabric.  Here, we see a large squeegee being used to push the ink evenly across the screen and to force it into the holes of the screen, ensuring that the designs are printed clearly.  It’s a lot more difficult to do than it looks, and we were informed that it can take more than 10 years of apprenticeship to be able to truly master the art of screen printing on silk.  And cashmere takes even longer than that.

After the first pass establishes the outlines, you can get an idea of how clear the lines are.  Of particular note here is the fact that the copyright (seen near the center of the picture) is printed by its own screen, separate from the screen that establishes the rest of the outline.  Given the ongoing problem of counterfeiting that luxury goods manufacturers face, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that they’d want to be as clear as possible with this.

The design of this scarf is printed in an additive process using ten separate screens with ten different colors of ink.  Some of the most complex scarf designs made by Hermès can have more than 40 different colors in them.

With each additional screen and ink color, further detail is added to the design.  In this particular demonstration two copies of the print were being made, but in the actual workshops they make as many as 40 at a time using the same manual process. 

 

When more distinct colors start getting added to the design , the design begins to stand out more.

At this point there are still several more colors to be added, but to be honest I kind of prefer the way it looks at this stage to the finished design.

As the printing nears completion, you see the sheer complexity of the design.  The shine you see on this comes from the most recently applied layer of ink, which has not yet dried at this point.

Finally, the last two colors are applied, completing the printing on what would become a $385 silk scarf, if not for the fact that the conditions at this event cannot be controlled carefully enough to make what would be considered saleable merchandise.  Even without a crowd of onlookers that could do any number of things to throw the whole process off, the whole entire process can be completely ruined by a single mote of dust in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If these scarves were to be deemed acceptable after printing was completed, a process of steam treatment and careful washing would be used to fix the dyes in place and prevent the scarf from being ruined by water, and the scarf would be completed by hand-stitching of the edges.

Also being demonstrated was the making of ties, which are printed in a similar fashion.

The process of sewing the ties was also demonstrated, although the language barrier did present some difficulties with following this process (some of the crafters speak little to no English, but translators were provided.)  As with just about everything else being shown, all of these are hand-stitched, and it’s a lot more complicated process than you might think from just watching it.

All in all, even if it’s unlikely that I’ll be shopping for any of these high-end products anytime soon, it was still fascinating to see how these were made, and to see just how much effort goes into handmaking products that I suspect most other people are churning out by the thousands in Chinese factories.  If nothing else, I have learned that even in today’s increasingly mechanized and automated society, it takes a lot more than a fancy label to make things truly luxurious.

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