Sitting atop the luxury chain, Hermès has used recognisable signatures to woo their clientele for generations. The brand’s success is founded on just a handful of iconic products: the Birkin, the Kelly, their fragrance Terre d’Hermès, their signature orange colour and of course, their Carré scarf.
The Carré (literally: square) embodies modern day luxury, and has helped make Hermés the go-to brand for luxury silks, with beautiful and collectable screen printed graphics. Beneath the silk lies a fascinating history and design philosophy germane to screen-printed scarves. While every luxury house nowadays makes silk scarves, Hermès was a trailblazer, and remains the most unique and sophisticated in their execution.
Hermès was founded in Paris in 1837 by Thierry Hermès, a harness-maker who would use only two needles to hand-stitch his works of leather, resulting in high quality craftsmanship that won him best in class awards during the Exposition Universelle in Paris in both 1855 and ‘67. His clientele consisted of noblemen, Paris high society and even Napoleon the Third.
In 1880 his son Charles Hermès took over and with his sons, Emile & Adolphe, moved the company to St. Honoré, where Hermès remains. There, he would expand into saddlery. The brand became a favourite among the rich, allowing further expansion into horse riding accessories and bags.
When Charles retired and Adolphe due to not seeing a bright future in the company, Emile took the helm just as the automobile's rise was challenging the saddlery industry. On a trip to the United States, Emile was impressed by a zipper, a clever innovation that had not been seen in Europe yet. He patented the zipper for two years in 1923, known as the Hermès Fastener, and would pivot into luxury bags and goods. This is where the story behind the Carré begins.
Emile Hermès worked with Robert Dumas, son in law and skilled illustrator, to create the Hermès Carré. With Dumas as artistic director, the Carré became a collaborative product.
Dumas believed in working together with professionals from various fields, like taxidermists, curators and artists to create unique stories through the prints of the Carré.
Hermes had started creating printed scarves in the early 20’s, but it would not be until the 40’s, when they met a new printmaker with a revolutionary printing technique that their scarves had their breakthrough.
His name was Auguste Arnaud, owner of a small engraving workshop in Bourgoin-Jallieu, during the second world war. Together with Marcel Gandit, he obsessed over pushing the technical limitations of printing.
Their ‘Lyonnaise’ screen, or, as we know it today, ‘silkscreen’ process, was a game changer, and is still implemented today. With silkscreen, printing could be more accurate and colourful and Hermès took full advantage, creating detailed prints and articulating stories through gorgeous illustrations.
The use and mastery of silkscreens still defines the aesthetics and craftsmanship of Hermès Carrés today. Instead of working digitally, like most modern brands, Hermès continues to work with small-batch artisans. Designs are hand drawn and then carefully engraved on screens, one per colour. 39 engraved screens were used to create the impressive 2019 carré “Animapolis,” and 46 for the “Indian Princess Wa ‘Ko-Ni'' Carré, which is currently their record.
Hermès upscaled their production in the 60’s to keep up with demand, moving production to a dedicated printing house, not far from where the originals were made. While they were able to upscale due to the new space they had, they chose to use the labour intensive and traditional Lyonnaise way of printing, keeping in touch with their artisanal roots.
Part of what keeps the Carré relevant and desirable is Hermès’ choice to collaborate with not only artists, but also museum curators, taxidermists, and other unique fields to create products that remain instantly collectable while venturing beyond the heritage of the brand and the world of conventional fashion.
The “Le Reve de Gloria” Carré, designed by Australian aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre, comes to mind immediately. It features artwork from her Bush Medicine Dreaming series, celebrating plants with medicinal healing properties. The storytelling found within this Carré never fails to inspire and mystify.
The topics and stories of the scarves are vast and varied. They range from the popular modern day graffiti scarf, a collaboration with Kongo, to their very first scarf; “Jeu des omnibus et dame blanche,” a direct contradiction through the references of heritage, time period and theme.
In a way, Hermès was ahead of its time, laying the groundwork for the many fashion collaborations we have today. Think of the Supreme skateboard decks for example, or the Tom Sachs Nikes. It is no longer uncommon to have diverse artists work their creativity on a commercial product that serves as a canvas.
Collaborations and exclusivity come hand in hand, and with the Carré it's no different. The original Thomas Dumas works are highly collectable, as are the more non-traditional designs like Kongo’s Graffiti scarf, which is a clash between the rebellious culture and lifestyle of graffiti artists and the commercial opulence of high end fashion brands.
What makes Hermès both timeless and contemporary is a playful relation between understanding the roots and history of the brand and not shying away from modern-day artistry and talent. There is a Carré for everyone. In today's streetwear and resell driven culture, the lack of demand is somewhat surprising. One thing is sure: the legacy of the Carré, coupled with it’s inventive contemporary iterations, make it too important in the luxury fashion canon to fade away anytime soon.