Tools of the trade - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle

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Equestrian workshop

Since its founding in 1837, French luxury house Hermès has become one of the world’s greatest makers of leather goods. Whether you are buying a saddle, a pair of sandals or a handbag, there’s a heightened sense of confidence that comes with Hermès’s orange branding – you can trust the provenance of its products and rest assured that their value will continue to increase over time. There are many reasons for the label’s success but a continued commitment to artisanal manufacturing remains key. “We are constantly investing in our leather production as the demand for bags and small leather goods is extremely strong,” Guillaume de Seynes, managing director of Hermès, tells monocle.

As part of this investment, the brand opened a new manufacturing hub called Maroquinerie de Louviers in 2023, which specialises in bags, saddles and bridles. The workshop in Louviers, a commune in Normandy, is the house’s second leather-goods centre in the region. “We generally organise our production facilities into groups of three sites,” says De Seynes. “It allows our craftspeople to move easily between locations and bring their savoir-faire along with them.” The company also operates a fragrance plant close by.

The Maroquinerie de Louviers was designed by Lina Ghotmeh 

Often referred to as terre de cheval (land of the horses), Normandy’s history of horse breeding ties in with the company’s equestrian heritage – Thierry Hermès opened his first harness-making workshop in Paris in 1837. And it’s clear to see how the region got its nickname. As monocle drives up to Louviers, about 100km northwest of Paris, horses graze freely in the open green landscape. On the edge of the town, you catch sight of the imposing, red-brick building that houses the new Hermès workshop, which is designed by Beirut-born architect Lina Ghotmeh. “My uncle Jean-Louis Dumas, former chairman of Hermès, used to speak about the art of creating beautiful objects in beautiful settings,” says De Seynes, explaining his decision to work with Ghotmeh on the project. Together, they designed a space that fosters creativity, focuses on employee wellbeing and respects the building’s original function.

“The site, the local resources and the bricks were my inspiration,” says Ghotmeh. The architect starts every project by considering the accessibility of local materials and the working environment, creating what she calls “archaeology of the future”. Her compact, square-shaped plan for the factory was made with the brand’s brightly printed silk squares in mind. She also used bricks in a palette ranging from red to violet, all of which were produced 70km from Louviers to support the region’s skilled artisans. “Building with bricks is about scaling the idea of architecture down,” she adds.

Seat in the sun

Upon arrival at the new facility, you step into a large entrance hall known as La Place du Village, where team gatherings usually take place to introduce new staff members or share the company’s latest financial results. The business reported double-digit growth and revenues of €3.36bn for the third quarter of 2023, defying the slowdown that has taken hold of the wider luxury sector.

The equestrian workshop, the first to be established by Hermès outside Paris, sits at the front of the building. Further in, there are administrative offices, while the back is reserved for bags and small leather goods. Every workshop has its own adjoining cutting room. “The production methods are different but they complement one another,” says a supervisor, as we walk past a wooden vitrine filled with bobbins.

“The building is unexpectedly quiet, aside from the soft thuds of hammers – a reminder that every item is put together by hand”

Once the leather is cut, it is delivered to one of the craftspeople, who all have their own height-adjustable workstations and tools. Artisans assemble every item from start to finish based on the principle of un homme un sac, meaning one man per bag. Nearby, a canteen serves warm lunches subsidised by Hermès. On the day that monocle visits, a chalkboard lists dishes such as lieu noir à la bordelaise (a type of fish) and crème brûlée.

The Louviers site has attracted workers from the surrounding area who began their careers by learning about leather at the brand’s training centre next door, the Louviers École Hermès des Savoire-Faire, which offers apprenticeships that last up to 18 months. Many retrain from other professions, with staff including former bakers, nurses and hairdressers. “It’s always good news when Hermès decides to invest,” says De Seynes, noting the company’s tight-knit relationship with the mayor of the nearby commune of Le Vaudreuil, Bernard Leroy.

Airy factory interior

When it reaches full capacity, the Louviers site will employ 260 leather workers and saddlers, in addition to staff in management and logistics. Of the company’s 12,400 employees in France, more than half are artisans – a worthwhile investment in helping Hermès to retain its status as a luxury-market leader. “The only way that we can increase our output is to grow the number of artisans,” adds De Seynes. “This is still extremely manual work. It’s not only a matter of investing in equipment but also about hiring more people, training them and identifying the most talented ones – the ones who will become masters of their craft.”

Walking through the building, there is a sense of airiness thanks to its broad corridors, generous apertures and high ceilings. Daylight streams in through the arched side windows, illuminating the artisans’ workstations below. “It’s important for the rooms to have northern light because it is clear and pure,” says De Seynes. A leather worker in the bridle-making team echoes his thoughts. “There is so much natural light here,” he says. “It helps us ‘read’ the leathers and work precisely.”

The building is also unexpectedly quiet, aside from the soft thuds of hammers echoing in the distance – a reminder that every item is put together by hand and that there are no machines to speed up the process. In one workshop, a woman sews straps onto a Kelly bag made from Epsom leather, while her neighbour assembles the same bag in glossy-black Box-calf leather, the oldest version of the material used by Hermès, which is known for acquiring a patina over time. “This is my favourite type of leather to work with,” she says, with a smile. “It requires extra care.”

A bright space filled with smiling employees was part of Ghotmeh’s initial vision for the new Louviers facility. “Architecture has an immediate effect on wellbeing and behaviour,” she says. “I want this building to bring joy and warmth to the artisans, and for them to work in comfortable, naturally lit ateliers.”

Work in progress
Hand-sewn leather

“Daylight streams in through the arched side windows, illuminating the artisans’ workstations below”

Artisan’s tools
Muted rainbow of bobbins

Training the next generation of craftspeople and providing them with the right working conditions is quickly becoming a prerequisite for fashion houses. Hermès is setting an industry benchmark by investing in craft and sustainability. The Louviers workshop is powered by geothermal energy and more than 2,300 sq m of solar panels. It’s also surrounded by three hectares of gardens designed by Belgian landscape architect Erik Dhont, who ensured that most of the site’s original trees were retained. 

Strolling around these idyllic gardens, where employees often gather during their afternoon breaks, offers a peek into what the future of manufacturing could be – one that isn’t purely machine-led but instead centred around human skills and artisan communities, working together in well-designed spaces. “We have been cultivating this know-how for centuries and still believe in it,” says De Seynes. “This means investing in good facilities, hiring staff and passing on our savoir-faire to the next generation.” 

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