Inside Hermès’ Dream Lab
The special-orders division brings innovation to the world of one-offs, be they autos, yachts, furnishings or pool tables.
Good taste, however it’s discovered, can become an addiction. When one client first approached Axel de Beaufort, design and engineering director of Hermès’s special-orders division, Hermès Sur-Mesure, with a car proposal, he wanted it to “shout out loud with Hermès,” recalls Beaufort. “I told him he came to us for the wrong reason, then.” Hermès, in its exquisitely Parisian way, does not shout. One hundred and eighty-four years of heritage does not allow it. “Go discreet but strong,” Beaufort counselled. “Don’t overdo it.” The customer listened. An American automotive collector, he has since been entirely won over to the Hermès way of doing things and has returned with other cars, the most recent being a McLaren Speedtail that Beaufort and his team finished this past winter.
By “shout out loud,” what the client initially desired was to cover the vehicle in the brand’s signature orange. The car wasn’t yet ready from the manufacture in England, so Beaufort travelled to the factory to see it in person. “It’s a monster,” he says with a touch of glee. But orange for a McLaren didn’t feel right. Beaufort knew the client was searching for something unique, and seeing the brand’s blue paint sparked an idea. “We have a blue leather we could play with that could inspire a new shade for the car,” he told him. The client was game. Months later, the perfect shade was achieved. Beaufort also suggested a transformation of the cabin, so it felt cozier, less mechanical. He cut back on stitching on the creamy leather, leaving it supple and smooth and adding white canvas touches where it made sense. Now the car, already a collector’s fantasy, is a rare object: one of one.
That transformation from an acorn of an idea into a beautiful, unique but still functional item is at the heart of the Sur-Mesure program. “The métier,” as Beaufort calls it, is where clients come for unusual, one-off projects such as boxing gloves, a jukebox or even—why not?—a rickshaw. But larger projects are also considered: A parade of vehicles passes through the workshop each year, and interiors for private jets and yachts are undertaken. For Beaufort, who trained as a naval architect, each chance to work on these objects is both a pleasure and a puzzle. And as such, the métier also serves as something of a design engineering lab for the company. “We try to innovate with each new project,” he says. “We don’t try to gain time, just knowledge.”
Commissions typically take one year from inception to completion, although yachts and jets can take up to three. Months of research can go into the process—digging into the history of a car, say, as in the case of a Voisin that the métier worked on last year—but also mining Hermès’s own archive collection, which is stored underground and spans the years since the company’s genesis in 1837 crafting bespoke harnesses and saddles. On one such excavation, Beaufort was in pursuit of lightweight fabrics, much desired for plane and boat designs. “I discovered that Hermès was into lightness 100 years ago,” he says, his surprise still audible. “There’s a big pressure today to do the same thing. They were ingenious. It humbles me to go there. All this has been done before.”
Much of that innovation was—and is—possible because made-to-measure was integral to the brand’s origins, long before mass production was an option. While custom programs have remained part of the Hermès DNA—the famed Birkin bag began as a commission—Beaufort says it became more formalized about 10 years ago in 2010, when Hermès expanded the scope to include larger projects. Other developments that have come out of the métier include fire-resistant leathers necessary to meet modern safety standards in cars and jets. “We do burn tests,” Beaufort says. “Initially the leather was really dry. Now you can’t tell it’s any different from other fine leathers.”
For the Voisin, from the 1920s, he had a few challenges. First, it was open-air, so he needed leather that was weatherproof. The hide they decided on has become a signature for the brand, and its hue comes from the natural tanning process rather than adding coloured dyes. “Whether we’re working on a car, plane or industrial object, to make it perfect we try to find the best skin that will also last,” Beaufort explains. With some dyed leathers, the tints get damaged or “crushed” by time. “Good leather is like a good guitar: You play it one day, and it’s better a hundred years later.”
But he was also looking to add other, special details. “We know how to do replicas, but we try to find the extra touches. Like with an Hermès coat, you’ll find a leather-lined pocket.” And, in fact, one of the design team suggested adding a stitched side pocket into the leg well of the Voisin. Beaufort and his team conjured and executed another unusual touch for the car: a leather strap inspired by a harness to close the trunk. “We’d never made anything like this before,” he says, which is itself something of a triumph within the brand.
While each feat of originality requires research, it also demands a degree of engineering that’s sometimes surprisingly tricky. “Take a simple metallic clasp for a bag,” Beaufort says. “The mechanical engineering must be precise. That’s the most precise stuff I make at Hermès. The function of it is essential.”
While the Voisin captured Beaufort’s imagination during much of 2020, one of the projects that he’s most passionate about at the moment is a snooker table. “It’s a game with rules, so we need to honor that and still make a table to the highest standard. I’ve learned the thickness of the felt matters.” The métier worked with a supplier to make the basic structure and consulted with snooker professionals. Then Hermès took over, redesigning the felt, creating special drawers for the balls, handcrafting wooden cue sticks and even redesigning the ends of the cues. “The feelings we have for these projects are important to me, that passion. We are here for only a little bit. Hermès—and each exceptional object—is here for much longer than we are.”
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