London Fashion Umbrella: Hermès Leather Forever

This week is the inauguration of my weekly column’s new title – London Fashion Umbrella. Inspired in part by my post from last week, and the fact that the reviews, events and essays I contribute all belong under the “umbrella,” of fashion in and around London. So, from now onwards, no matter what the weather wherever you are, Wednesday is the day to get under a brollie in the Big Smoke and look at fashion with me!

The Library of Skins and Artist's Studio rooms at Leather Forever

When describing my work as a fashion curator to curious parties, some of whom are still shockingly unfamiliar with the developments in the field and form of fashion exhibitions, I nearly always highlight the distinction between scholarly and museum exhibitions, and those which are brand-supported displays of a company’s products, history and philosophy.  While it has been my privilege to work on fashion exhibitions in both spheres, it is difficult for me to make value judgments about the validity, merits or shortcomings of either type of exhibition although there is healthy debate about fashion museology growing in tenor.  Considering the motivations and forms of fashion exhibitions is an academic preoccupation of mine – but by extension, as a practitioner, keeping abreast of exhibitions objectively as a visitor is equally vital to my work.

With particularly heightened curiosity, I visited the current Hermès Leather Forever Exhibition at 6 Burlington Gardens in London.  The Leather Forever Exhibition is a travelling brand-sponsored display that presents the story, methodologies and philosophies of Hermès’ highly crafted luxury leather goods.  It is of the second type of fashion exhibition – brand-sponsored “adver-exhibition.” This exhibition operates to introduce or emphasize visitor familiarity to a company well-recognised for its dedication to quality workmanship and iconic, exclusive products.

Installation view of the interactive studio with live demonstrations

This exhibition benefits from a wonderful location and ample space and clever and innovative scenographic elements, designed by Alexandra Plat.  Whether or not you are inspired to put your name on a waiting list for an Hermès bag or fantasy commission, the exhibition design certainly works to inform and engage the viewer.  Each thematic room created an environment and served to tell a part of the Hermès story via a variety of display formats, including digital animations, kinetic elements and evocative props and lighting.

Display of Kelly and Birkin bag variations

The most effective and popular room with visitors was the “artist’s studio,” where two Hermès artists were on-hand making a selection of leather goods live while answering questions and demonstrating the techniques used to produce the bags.  Conversing with visitors in English and French, the artists showed knowledge, pride and dedication to their workmanship and the brand’s ethos.  Preceding the studio display, the exhibition’s first room, Library of Skins, offered visitors the chance to see and feel a large variety of different type sof leather used by the company, and featured an interactive video console that allowed viewers to superimpose the patterns for specific bags onto a sample hide.  Again, even for those who may never desire or own an Hermès product, this exhibition device provided an intimacy and insight into the work behind the mystique.

The exhibition’s non-interactive elements were also mostly engaging – perhaps moreso for those interested in the varieties of Hermès current ranges and more recent designer collaborations.  A display of varieties of Birkin and Kelly bags were set within a large Birkin shaped frame; and a fully enclosed room entered by walking through leather fringes housed a display of special commissions executed by Hermés.  Among the creative and unusual commissioned pieces were a leather wheelbarrow made for the Duchess of Windsor, a rocking horse bag and a playful variation on the classic saddle.

Installation view of the saddlery display

The exhibition makes many references that stress Hermès origins as a producer of equestrian accessories – one room feels like you are in a stable yard, and refers to the horse as ‘the first client.’  The brand’s history is also variously represented by a display of items from their archive collection, an inevitable company timeline, and a series of items belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Despite the fantastic scenography and range of content however, Leather Forever did have some weak points.  The didactic panels were occasionally didactic, but usually filled with rather insipid PR copy which seemed like an attempt at poetic captioning that sounded more like text for an advertising voice over.

The ordering in which the displays were laid out was slightly confusing and it seemed to me that perhaps the exhibition had been revised from its original design to fit into the space.  Each room offered a new experience, but the effect was not cumulative, although the exhibition had a clear path from beginning to end.

Display of the Star Bags, commissioned and auctioned in conjunction with the London exhibition

At its close, Leather Forever fortunately does not have a gift shop (more than we can say for most museum-sponsored fashion exhibitions!) but there is a promise of acquisition for four lucky people.  To coincide with the UK exhibition, Hermés commissioned the creation of four one-of-a-kind bags represented the nations of the British Isles which are to be auctioned off.  Each bag has elements of national symbolism in their design and were charmingly displayed in a toy theatre with moving elements and a selection of patriotic music.

As a fashion curator working both sides of the museum and commerce divide, I applaud Leather Forever exhibition for its scope, design and vision, and for its potential to inspire other brands to use the exhibition format as an elegant and entertaining, if somewhat un-subtle, means of advertising.

Hermès: Leather Forever closed in London on May 27, 2012

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