Edouard Ambelouis, an Hermès leatherworker, stands squinting at a tiny seam along the top handle of the leather handbag occupying his work station. He then re-stitches it with a precision gained from 16 years spent returning worn and well-loved pieces to their just-purchased glory. On most days, Ambelouis restores Hermès leather goods from the seclusion of a private workshop. Today, he and his fellow artisans are pulling back the curtain for me and other visitors to the latest Hermès exhibition.
“Hermès in the Making,” a traveling experience currently open in the Detroit suburb Troy, is the closest one can get to the 52 Hermès workshops scattered across France without actually setting foot inside one of them. Four interactive sections highlight the generations of artisans behind every silk scarf and Kelly bag, allowing clients old and new to see what makes Hermès, Hermès, up close. It’s a limited engagement that runs through June 15, with a rarity mirroring the house’s own legendary pieces. The exhibition will travel to Austin in October, and also make stops in Kyoto and Singapore later this year.
Taking up one cavernous space, the show includes winding open-concept displays along a pathway resembling a workbench, decked out in Hermès’s brightest pigments. In addition to broadcast snippets of Footsteps Across the World, a series produced by documentary filmmaker Frédéric Laffont, and sculptural displays of Hermès’s most iconic products, scheduled demonstrations take visitors inside the construction of saddles, timepieces, and more. (And for little ones, there’s the world’s chicest coloring station with paper prints of Hermès scarves.)
“Time” defines a section spotlighting watches and repair work, but the theme is threaded throughout the placards, videos, and glass-encased Birkins throughout the installation. More than once, copy in the exhibition tells you that Hermès respects time and treats it as an ally. This approach comes to life in the cutting and measuring of lambskin for a perfectly fitting glove; in a lineup of porcelain plates in various stages of completion, each decorated in gentle brushstrokes; in the length of the tenures on-site demonstrators have spent working at Hermès itself. In an era when most of fashion wants to hit the accelerator to its own detriment, some commotion for taking it slow feels borderline revolutionary.
Visitors can interact with “Hermès in the Making” at their own pace, but the patient route is the one most aligned with the Hermès pace of craftsmanship—and more than worth the time.
Take a section of “Hermès in the Making” dedicated to the art of silk printing. For an hour, I am hypnotized by an artisan painstakingly pouring and spreading dye onto mesh frames to illustrate an Hermès silk scarf, layer by layer. The end result is worth the wait (and the standing): a vibrant printed silk scarf, transformed from what had been a bare white canvas 60 minutes before.
Before I take a second lap around the exhibition—some things deserve an extra glance—Ambelouis tells me about one of his most memorable projects. An Hermès client had somewhat recently brought a bag in need of touch-ups to the Manhattan workshop: production year, 1920. It was a true heirloom, used and handed down through just more than a century. With careful attention and all the technical expertise from years of training, he tells me, it was restored to be passed down once again.
There’s a magic to taking things slowly and deliberately. This is the essence of Hermès, now on display.