A gifted young leather worker, Thierry Hermès opened his shop in Paris in 1837, where he specialized in exquisite, finely crafted horse harnesses for carriages. Hence, he built his company on the durable “saddle stitch,” which can only be executed by hand and requires two needles to manipulate the waxed linen thread.
When his son, Charles-Emile, took over after his death in 1878, the company expanded to custom-fit saddles—their work, favored by Europe’s most elite circles, was considered so elegant and refined that royal coronations were actually delayed to wait for Hermès carriage fittings. Once Charles-Emile retired, his sons Adolphe and Emile-Maurice took charge. Emile-Maurice became famous as the man who brought the zipper to France, where he had exclusive rights to use the device in leather clothing and accessories.
In the early 20th century, Hermès was just one of many companies specializing in fine leather goods—Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci, who made things like saddles, harnesses, and luggage. Hermès trunks and suitcases were always exceedingly fine, made out of exotic leathers like ostrich, alligator, and crocodile...
The company produced its first handbags in 1922, and by 1929 it had also delved into the world of haute-couture women’s clothing. The 1930s were especially significant in the company’s history; it was the decade Hermès first introduced its coveted silk scarves and the bag now known as the Kelly Bag.
Initially called a Sac à dépêches, the bag became an icon in 1956, when actress Grace Kelly, also the princess of Monaco, was seen in “Life” magazine, using the bag to hide her pregnancy. A Kelly Bag is still made by the hand of one craftsman, who sometimes irons the leather. When the bags are made out of alligator, the belly is used for the body and the neck for the sides. The whole process takes 18 hours. The identifying features include the straps on the clasp and the padlock with a semi-hidden key. Other glamorous Hollywood stars, like Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman, favored this purse, the very definition of a “good” bag that telegraphed one’s status among the elite.
The Kelly Bag was finally succeeded in the '80s, after French actress Jane Birkin happened to be on the same airplane as Hermès chief Jean Louis Dumas-Hermès in 1981. The story goes that she accidentally spilled the contents of her Kelly, and complained that it just wasn’t big enough for her. Dumas-Hermès invited her to help him invent her vision of the perfect Hermès purse. In 1984, the Birkin bag was born.
This large wedge-shaped, flat-bottomed bag is also made by a single craftsman, who spends 18 to 25 hours on it from start to finish. That’s why the Hermès artisans in Paris can only make about five Birkins a week. Even now, the wait list for these brightly colored bags, traditionally made out of brown crocodile, can be as long as five years. While highly sought-after by celebrities and socialites alike, this newer It Bag is considered a less-formal than the Kelly, with its pair of handles and metal hardware plated in gold or palladium.
The Evelyne Bag was designed for an even more casual look, for weekend walks. Based on the bag stable boys would carry when grooming horses, it's got a comfortable shoulder strap. It's identified by the "H" in a circle, made out of holes punched into the leather. Stable bags originally had similar holes to allow horse-grooming equipment to dry.
Of course, this elegant bag, made out of patent leather, suede, or canvas, would not actually be used for animal grooming, just as the Hermès Picotin, an open-top bucket purse inspired by horse feed bags, would never be used to feed a horse.
Interviews & Articles
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