Hermes silk printing, Lyon: Factory visit

Wednesday, March 20th 2019
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I’ve been buying and wearing Hermes silk scarves for several years. (Indeed, a nice thing about the seasonal collections is, with a little work, you can date them all precisely).

So it was a personal pleasure to visit the silk printing atelier in Lyon, the engraving next door, the archive in Paris, and interview creative head Christophe Goineau.

In fact after three days of Hermes time, it’s quite hard to know where to start.

Perhaps let’s begin where most Permanent Style readers do, with the quality.

Hermes makes, from most angles you could conceive, the finest quality of silk scarves. As the director of one silk mill put it to me recently: ‘They’re just a step-change above everybody else. Where some might use eight or 10 different layers of printing, Hermes uses 20 or 30. And yet other designers are often more expensive.’

I was to discover in Lyon that it’s actually up to 46 layers. The scarf I watched being drawn and printed, ‘Animapolis’, has 38.

This number of layers is important because it increases time and cost proportionately. Twice as many layers means twice the number of hand-drawn frames and twice the number of printing stages.

The method is screen printing - often referred to in France as ‘méthode lyonnaise’ - where a stretched piece of silk is dyed with one colour at a time, each stage only filling in the little bits required for that colour (which might be scattered in irregular shapes around the design).

It’s essentially the same as the screen printing used on silks for ties, whether in Macclesfield in the UK or Como in Italy. The difference is that those are usually simple, repeated patterns, rather than a paintings rendered as a hand-drawn graphic.

Both produce a sharper and more vivid print than the more common inkjet printing.

In the image below, you can see a design going through the printing, with just three layers applied so far: a navy, a light blue and a cream.

However, the most interesting thing about Hermes is while it produces this level of quality, the manufacture is modern and highly mechanised.

People taking you round factories will often comment that they combine the best of new technology and traditional craft. This is usually rubbish. They nearly always have machines they’d rather replace with more modern, more reliable versions.

At Hermes, there is no old machinery. The creation of the printing screens was overhauled five years ago. Three years ago, the screens were all being cleaned by hand after they were used - now it’s done by huge mechanical arms.

I’ve never been to a factory where so many stages of production have been replaced so frequently.  

Hermes can afford to do so, of course. And it’s the only way they can print the volume of scarves they need to, to still produce them all in France.

It can easily seem like mass production. The most modern hall where the silk is printed has two 150m-long tables. It’s huge.

Mechanised print screens move up and down in unison, pressing different colours of dye across each square. Workers move slowly alongside each one, watching for when colour or settings need to change.

But at the same time, this is the highest level of quality. It’s not like a bespoke suit or shoe, where painstaking handwork is necessary to produce a certain quality level.

The handwork on a scarf is kept to the rolling of the edges - and the drawing, which takes place at the engraving facility a short drive away.

Here a team of Hermes artisans turns the designs produced by the artists the company collaborates with, into different silk screens.

We watched one artisan re-drawing sections of the Animapolis design. She carefully sketched each outline, and hatched each shadow, one colour at a time. It was painstaking work, and felt like producing 30 or 40 different levels of art, all on top of each other.

She said each layer can take more than 20 hours to complete, and a whole design might take around 700.

A huge amount of time, which is justified when the mechanised side can produce hundreds of scarves from that one design.

Again, an interesting point was that this artisan used a digital pen to draw on a digital screen. This was a method introduced a few years ago, and the artisan commented that it was nicer, as you could get more precision and turn the piece more easily.

That engraver is one of only two left in the Lyon area - the historic home of textiles in France.

And in fact Hermes owns several other operations that operate under the holding company HTH.

Like Chanel, it often buys French production houses that are being sold off, and HTH actually does most of its work for other companies. The most specialised is an ancient production in Challes, which mostly weaves horsehair for upholstery.

The other area of production I loved was the colouring - another area where peers in the industry say Hermes is the pinnacle. I love studying how colours are put together in scarves like the red/mint combination above.

But I’ll leave that to another post, along with Christophe.

For now I’d like to say thank you to Pauline, Kamel, Christophe and everyone at HTH. It can be hard to connect to a big brand like Hermes, when you’re used to meeting the founders at other craft menswear brands.

So I feel particularly grateful for having met everyone that makes the scarves I love, and collect. And I hope I’ve made readers feel a little closer to them too.

Photography: Hermes, except numbers 4 and 6, Permanent Style. Images of myself, Jamie Ferguson

Want to learn about how Permanent Style is funded? Read 'Is this an advert?' here.

UPDATE

In answer to requests from readers in the comments below, here are another couple of images of me wearing the scarves - all 90x90 silk versions.

This size works best under a popped collar - otherwise it can be a little small, and the 100x100 is better.

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JJKatz

An enjoyable article, as I’ve always been fascinated by the textile industry.

Anonymous

Lovely piece and very informative.

One small point; an atelier this is definitely not. Factory more like.

Did you have time to visit the Musee des Tissus?

Anonymous

Hi Simon,
Hermes sell scarves in a number of sizes. What is your preferred size and why?
Also, with so many colours in a single scarf how do you settle on which one you’d like to go for (ignoring the collector in yourself)?
Thinking about it, the first question may even be good for a future article, maybe?
Thank you.
JB

Chancellor

I notice on Hermés web site, they also have 120 cm and 140 cm scarves. Do you think those would work well too, or would they become too bulky (noting, of course, there’s an element of personal preference here).

Web site here

Ani

Dear Simon

What do you think about the quality & printing of Hermes ties compared to other brands and manufacturers?

Robin

I’m normally not too enthused by your factory visit articles but this one really highlights why a Hermes product is far superior.
It certainly helps you appreciate the price they’re sold at .

Tim

I find it a bit odd you keep referring to the number of printing layers as “quality”. I’ll grant you that more layers is definitely more time consuming, and probably results in a more visually pleasing article. But to me quality refers to the heft of the silk, whether they source the best fibers, whether they take shortcuts in the weaving process, etc.

Would you like to elaborate on the “quality” of Hermes scarves (quality the way I describe it)?

Anonymous

Without wanting to put it too bluntly… you generally are not overly complementary of mainstream fashion houses, including the premium brands, though I realise Hermès is an exception to this. I was therefore mildly curious as to the general reception you receive in terms of defence of their industry -v- agreeing competitors don’t aspire to the same craftmanship?

Anonymous

May have been a poor choice of word, and potentially irrelevant if you’ve an established relationship with them anyway. I guess meant, if you get on to talking about their broader industry, given your known position, if they generally try and differentiate themselves and concur that their competitors and their focus on craftmanship or if they are more defensive of their segment of the industry

Simon

Hi Simon

Do you think a man can wear the 90×90 size. Could you do a feature on how to wear these if so.

Adam Jones

I liked the comment stating they were a step above everyone else. Something I realised for myself recently about Hermes. I was in Brown Thomas in Dublin in Hermes (and a few others) in the market for a new card holder. Despite such a simple item the Hermes one blew me away. how can a few stitched pieces of leather manage to look and feel so different to all the other luxury brands. It was multi colored but subtle, the dark green and navy working so well together you hardly notice its different colours, the stitching is amazing, the feel is incredible and the design in the way it holds cards so much more interesting. Granted it was a small fortune (and twice the price nearly of an equivalent LV) for a simple item but there is just something about many of their items.

Fin

Which style Hermès scarf do you wear? The square or the rectangle (I am sure my terms are incorrect but hope you get my meaning).

Johannes Petersson

On Hermes home page it seems that there are no pure silk scarves for men (100×100)? The ones designed for men (and in size 100×100) seem to all be cashmere/silk blends or am I looking in the wrong place?

Do you feel there is any upside or downside to the pure silk vs cashmere/silk blends? (warmth, durability, etc.)

winston quartey

Great and insightful article Simon!
I’m pursuing a fashion diploma and currently working on a assignment on famous people in the fashion and what they wear.
I wanted to know if you have any idea the suits brand worn by Bernard Arnault?
It seems to have a little brooch on the lapel.

Isaiah Trofimenko

That lapel pin that Bernard Arnault seems to wear all the time, most probably represents his rank in the Légion d’Honneur.

Anonymous

The little brooch you’re referring to is his Légion d’Honneur (Grand Officer rank) which was awarded to him a couple of years ago, not a brand logo ; )

Anonymous

An interesting article that seems incomplete without the other aspects of manufacturing quality that I’m sure applies: weave, quality of silk, process, finish etc. Understand that this is a lot to cover – perhaps a part two? I also like the Drake’s wax jacket…did you do an article on the item?

PL

Hi Simon,

I think muted colors do suit your style given your low contrast complexion/hair. I understand from a previous post that you have some doubts about strictly matching colors with skin/hair tone, but I do think there is some visual truth to that. Take for example my friend who has high contrasting skin and hair (black hair, pale skin), and she just looks stunning with appropriately saturated colors. Muted colors just make her features look washed out. I don’t think there’s much a difference for men.

PL

Sounds like an interesting read! Why is it though that women are able to wear greater variation, whereas something similar in color block would look rakish on men?

Cirill

Dear Simon,
longtime-reader here and as always enjoyed this well written and well put together article. But must say I am quite wondering about your repeated mistyping of “Hermès” as “Hermes”. As you mentioned, Hermès is very proud of its origins and of preserving certain standards (e.g. producing at the highest levels in france). You wouldn’t spell A&S as Anderson & Shepherd? I’m wondering, why you are not as precise as usual? Thanks!

Bobby

It’s an easy fix.
const str = “é”
str.normalize(‘NFD’).replace(/[\u0300-\u036f]/g, “”)

RoSaCe

Hi Simon,

great to know you’ve been visiting my city! Hope you enjoyed your stay in Lyon. The city used to have a great textile, and more especially silk industry, and the success of Hermes should not distract us from the bigger picture: unfortunately, the branch totally collapsed.
Anyway, thanks for highlighting our “savoir faire”, and if you have other opportunities to come here, it would be a pleasure to make you discover another speciality from Lyon, which is our “gastronomie”
Cheers,

Anonymous

Interesting that LMVH’s Arnault is mentioned in comments. Regrettably they have increased their ownership of Hermes to 20% with constant rumours of a long-term takeover (despite protestations to the opposite). It would be a disaster for this fine company, possibly the best of all luxe producers, to become yet another cash till for the LMVH conglomerate.

Daniel C

I have very oily skin, and seeing those lovely pieces around your neck makes me a little envious. I’d destroy them in no time! I have a few pocket squares though, and having so many colours and tones make them incredibly versatile.

Joel

Theres a great series from a few years ago called “Objects Of Desire” presented by Mariella Frostrup. There’s an episode on Hermes scarves and I would highly recommend it to all readers.

David

There was a Bloomberg story a few days ago about how Hermes tie sales are declining so they’re starting to push mens’ scarves a lot more.
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-20/hermes-profit-rises-as-bag-maker-adds-stores-expands-online
(I mentioned it on Instagram, but I only just got round to reading the full article here so adding a comment here too)

Andrea McCarthy

Hi Simon,

I was wondering what type of inks are used in the printing process? Because they don’t seem to have a handle and feel like it’s more of a dyed silk instead of printing on the surface.