Hermès: Interiew, Claire Marie
9 September 2011
Claire Marie is the artisan in the Bond Street branch of Hermès. It is her job to make alterations and repairs to client’s belts, bags and other leather accessories. As reported in a previous post in this series, she is also a proficient bag maker herself. Permanent Style quizzes her on the Hermès training and why she enjoys working in the London store after her Paris workshop experience.
How long have you been at Hermès?
Five and a half years. Before that I was studying bookbinding and book restoration in Paris. I designed book covers for limited editions as well, creating mosaics on leather for example.
Do you miss working with books?
I do a little, yes. I’ve thought about suggesting that Hermès starts making leather book bindings. But this is also a reason I like working as an artisan here in London – it means I get to see old Hermès products rather than just make new ones. You see different models, many of which aren’t produced any more, and take them apart slowly, examining the construction. In that way it’s similar to book restoration.
Do any particular bags stick in your mind?
Yes, there was one bag recently brought in that belonged to the Charlie Chaplin family. A small handbag from the 1930s, it needed a few stitches repairing and a general refurb and repolish, but it was in very good condition.
Why did you decide to come and work for Hermès?
While I was studying I met a guy who used to be a saddle maker there. He gave me the idea, and it appealed because Hermès is the best company to work for as a leather worker, as well as a great preserver of arts and crafts.
It was 13 months in a school in Paris. The training can be longer, up to 18 months, depending on your experience, but everyone needs to have a qualification in working with leather already. At the time there were around 30 people in the school with me; now they have smaller classes. The teachers are known as ‘godfathers’ and we had around four students to each godfather.
Was it tough?
Absolutely. In the first week you do nothing but learn how to manipulate and look after your tools. Then you work on maintaining a good posture when working, before you begin saddle stitching long lines in leather. They deliberately make you start with the most difficult leather – box calf, which is very hard and scratches easily. But it’s the best school to achieve the level of expectation we aim at in this House, no other one gives so much attention to details.
When do you move on to making bags?
When you’re confident working straight lines, you begin trying to make a Kelly handle. Again, it’s deliberately the hardest thing to do, with at least five layers of leather in the middle. You can easily spend two or three months just getting that process right. The next stage is making a full Kelly that is stitched on the outside – some are stitched inside and have to turned inside out once they have been made.
What is most difficult about making these bags?
Part of it is simple organisation. There are so many parts to the bag, that have to be put together in exactly the right way and the right balance for the whole to work perfectly. That first bag can take you 50 or 60 hours to make. Then you move on to different bags and different leathers.
Did you move around in Paris once you had finished training?
Yes. The first year I specialised in men’s bags and travel bags. Then later I moved to a different workshop that did men’s bags and clutches, such as the Constance or Kelly clutch. One particular highlight was being part of the four-person team that made the first Kelly flat. Designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, it was a version of the Kelly in very smooth leather that flattened out and could be worn as a clutch.
And then you applied to move to London?
Yes, I liked the idea of working with older, vintage models and dealing more directly with customers. There are about 15 people working as expats in this way, outside France and I think it’s a great service. I particularly like stamping initials on iconic bags – it’s a rather emotional experience, producing something that will become part of a family story.
Photography: Andy Barnham (who else?)