Over the 180 years since its creation, Hermes has built itself into one of the most prominent and celebrated names in luxury fashion. Founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermes, the company started as a bespoke harness and saddle workshop in rue Basse-du-Rempart. While this is a far departure from the style staples the brand is recognised for, Hermes was already honing its craft producing exceptional leatherwork.
It was Thierry’s grandson, Emile Hermes, who first took the leap into the world of fashion and lifestyle. Inheriting the company during the interwar period, Emile recognised the change in society’s needs by expanding the house to new include several new metiers. In 1925, Hermes produced their ready-to-wear garment, a men’s golf jacket. Two years later, jewellery was introduced to the house, followed shortly by watches and sandals. Now, Hermes has a total of 16 distinct metiers, ranging from men’s and women’s fashion to furniture and tableware – as well as staying true to its roots in equestrian and leather goods.
The following decade saw the creation of one of Hermes’ signature products; as Emile Hermes was joined by his son-in-law, Robert Dumas who would be the figure-head during the creation of house icons like the silk scarf, the Chaîne d’Ancre bracelet, and the Petit Sac à Courroies – more universally known as the Kelly bag.
The Kelly bag owes its iconic name to the Hollywood starlet, Grace Kelly, who was repeatedly photographed with her beloved Petit Sac à Courroies in the 1950s. The actress’ notoriety launched the bag into the famous accessory society knows today. The company officially changed the name of the bag to the Kelly in 1977, which it continues to be recognised as today.
The Kelly stood out amongst competitors due to its sleek and sharp trapezium design with two belt closures and a neat swivel clasp. Its classic shape has been relatively unchanged, save for the addition of a double ring on the top handle to allow a long strap to be easily attached when desired. Hermes has also expanded the size range of the bag, ranging in 8 different sizes from 15cm to 50cm. The classic Kelly design lends itself to the development of special edition releases, some examples include the Kellywood (made using a blend of leather and oak components), the Kelly Picnic (a basket bag) and the Kellygraphie (forming a letter of the alphabet).
The classic Kelly typically costs between $17,000 and $19,000 in-store, while the resale costs are almost double and, understandably, the special release Kelly’s sits in a much higher price range, both in-store and upon resale. This amount reflects the exceptional materials that make up the 36 leather and metal elements that an artisan will use to build a Kelly Bag, which will take them around 15-20 hours to assemble into the infamous handbag.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Jean-Louis Dumas created the next success for Hermes in 1983 – another spectacular handbag named after an actress. A popular purchase of many contemporary celebrities, the Birkin bag was a result of a chance encounter between Jean-Louis and Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London. After the actress remarked on the functional inadequacy of her current bag, Jean-Louis drew up a bag with pockets to comfortably fit all of Birkin’s stationery – this was the first sketch of the Birkin bag.
Making its official debut in 1984, the Birkin was more demure than other popular luxury bags of the decade. Its semi-structured body was paired with rolled handles and adorned with a turn-lock closure with an accompanying padlock and key. Measuring 35cm in width, the bag was a scaled-down version of Hermes’ travel bag, the Haut à Courroies. Currently, the Birkin can be purchased in three additional sizes: 25cm, 30cm and 40cm.
Like its predecessor the Kelly, the rarity of the Birkin added to its appeal with customers. Being sewn by hand, it can take one of Hermes’ master craftsmen 12 to 18 hours to complete one bag, meaning there are limited numbers of stock available to purchase at each boutique. As a result, being able to buy a Birkin directly from a Hermes boutique is a highly exclusive experience. It is possible to purchase a Birkin from the resale market, with classic styles often selling for between $28,000 to $57,000 and more special edition pieces auctioning for around $760,000.
Many high-status individuals and celebrities have made a habit of collecting Birkin bags both as a fashion piece and as a financial investment. The brand chooses to give store managers and sales associates more control over how and to whom its leather goods are sold, as it largely relies on these personal relationships with its clients to distribute its products through word-of-mouth. This intimate relationship with customers makes the popular Hermes bags a valuable asset, as their perceived exclusivity and prestige continue to increase resale prices.
It is the scarcity of Hermes’ iconic bags relative to their demand that has launched the business to become the third-largest luxury fashion brand in the world. In April 2023, the brand’s market capitalisation reached $347 billion, surpassing industry giant, Nike, despite it having four times higher annual sales than Hermes.
Despite the many years of growth and development, the brand prides itself on staying loyal to its heritage with ownership of the company remaining family-based, as the company is currently owned by a sixth-generation descendant of Thierry Hermes. Equally, the majority of production is still based in France, showing their commitment to their traditional practices.
By allowing its classic style to be influenced by creative and contemporary trends, Hermes has built a universally prestigious brand that has withstood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come.