Horse Powered: The Silk Route

  • William Kissel

After his parents were killed in 1997, during a civil war, a then-14-year-old Sudanese boy named Sefedin found his way to a base camp for Doctors Without Borders, which placed him in a school for orphans. While there, he drew colorful chalk sketches of African landscapes, which eventually landed on the desk of Jean-Louis Dumas, the now-retired chief executive of Hermès, who previously had visited the school and asked the teachers to send him the work of any promising young artists. Dumas hired Sefedin to draw Nuba Mountain, the first of the teenager’s six designs for Hermès. “This boy was born during the war and saw nothing but death around him, but all of his designs are very peaceful,” says Kamel Hamdov, director of the Lyon, France, métier (Hermès prefers to use that term instead of workshop), where the company produces silk scarves and neckties.

Hermès’ practice of enlisting unknown artists, such as Sefedin, to design limited-edition patterns contributes to the collectibility of the brand’s neckwear. “We are storytellers, after all,” explains Pierre-Alexis Dumas, a sixth-generation member of the Hermès family and the company’s co-artistic director. “The silk is merely the white canvas on which our artists project their imaginations, but it is our clients who give life to our products.”

According to company lore, Hermès introduced ties in 1949, after several men who had been barred from a Cannes casino for not wearing neckwear ventured into the nearby Hermès shop to buy some. The company then started manufacturing neckwear made from exclusive patterns printed in the same manner as its scarves.

Hermès currently employs three neckwear designers: Henri d’Origny, who originated the classic house style featuring horse, hunt, and marine motifs; Philippe Mouquet, known for his whimsical animal prints; and Natsuno Hidaka, the most recent addition to the staff, who specializes in abstracts and geometrics. Each of the more than 1,600 neckwear designs has a name that corresponds to a yearly theme (India for 2008) and carries a serial number. Collectors of Hermès ties have been known to compare patterns and serial numbers in much the same way that oenophiles discuss vintages and varietals.

With the exception of a few limited-edition designs, Hermès ties depict small repeat patterns that can include as many as 16 colors on a single necktie. Hermès ties also bear the symbolic carrosse, or “driverless horse and carriage,” a label that third-generation heir Émile-Maurice Hermès adapted from a 19th-century lithograph by French artist Alfred de Dreux. “The carriage,” explains Hamdov, “is meant to imply that you, the client, are the driver.”

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