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 o...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Hermes Birkin 35cm Togo Handbag Black ShwMint Condition Hermes Birkin Bag 30cm Taupe Epsom Leather Palladium HardwareAuthentic Hermes Birkin Blind Stamp NAuth Hermes Birkin Etoupe Togo Tote Handbag Ghw 30cmAuthentic Hermes Ruby Lindy Bag Taurillon Clemence Calfskin Leather 30mm Hermes Epsom Rose Tyrien Kelly Cut Clutch Hand Bag Palladium Auth Hermes Rose Dragee Pink Swift Leather Lindy 34 Handbag PhwAuthentic Hermes 35 Orange Clemence Leather Palladium Plated Kelly Retourne BagHermes Berloque Olga Silver Palladium Bag Charm Amulette Horse Cadena For BirkinAut Hermes Calf Leather Orange Kelly 32cm Ghw Shoulder HandbagAuth Hermes Intercity Clemence Cosmetic Bag Ey952Authentic Hermes 32cm Rouge Grenate Togo Leather Gold Plated Kelly Retourne BagAuth Hermes Her Bag Pm 2 In 1 Toile H Leather Black 2way HandbagAuth Hermes Silk In Long Wallet Bleu Paradis Epsom Leather Clutch Bag W/ BoxHermes Evelyne Gm Iii 33 Taurillon Clemence Rouge Casque Red Cross Body BagAuth Hermes Bazar Mm Pouch Togo Kelly Leather Clutch Bag W/ BoxAuthentic Hermes 30cm Handbag Black Togo Leather Silver Hardware R59251 Auth Hermes Natural Vache/black Ardennes Leather Evelyne Gm Shoulder BagHermes Birkin 35Authentic Hermes Kelly Black Gold Hardware 32cm Togo Leather Bag HandbagR59311 Auth Hermes Fauve Barenia Leather Evelyne Pm Shoulder Bag D 2000Hermes Souvenir De L'exposition 1998 Clear Orange Vinyl Beach Bag Authentic Hermes Her Bag Mm 2way Bag Shoulder Hand 2 In 1 Black Color U1885zl5D7174 Auth Hermes Natural Sable Clemence Leather Evelyne Gm Shoulder Bag F 2002D7254 Auth Hermes Brown Box Calf Leather Kelly 25 Out-stitch Hand Bag Og 1977Auth Hermes Bastia Coin Purse Bleu Agate Epsom Leather Clutch Bag W/ BoxHermes Mens Brown Calfskin Driving Loafers Size 43 (11 Us) +bag Ex PreownedAuthentic Hermes Hand Bag Her Bag Mm Light Brown Canvas 69347Authentic Hermes Hand Bag Acapulco Pm Dark Brown Nylon 147042Authentic Hermes Hand Bag Black Canvas 147045Authentic-hermes-picotin Lock Pm Handbag Tote Bag Clemence Leather BlueHermes Twilly Scarf Single Tohu Bohu For Birkin SilkVintage Hermes Beige Tan Box Calf Leather Canvas Gold Hardware "trim 31" BagHermes Small Drawstring Pouch Bag Vintage Velvety Fabric BrownAuthentic Hermes Dark Blue Kelly 28cm Leather Hand Bag