There’s nothing like visiting a factory to help one truly understand and value a product. Beautiful shops are one thing, but seeing the work that goes into something creates a much deeper and longer-lasting affection for it.
I've always loved and worn Hermès scarves – men’s or women’s, small or big – but visiting Lyon, where they’re produced, took my affection to another level. All production remains in France, from the drawing of the designs right down to the hand-rolled edges.
Hermès makes, from most angles you could conceive, the finest-quality silk scarves. As the director of one silk mill put it to me: “They’re just a step-change above everybody else. Where some might use eight or 10 different layers of printing, Hermès uses 20 or 30.”
I was to discover in Lyon that as many as 46 layers of printing can be used. The scarf I watched being drawn and printed, Kawa Ora (£340, 90 x 90cm), has 38. This number is relevant because it increases the 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 used is screen printing – often referred to in France as la 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 process 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 painting rendered as a hand-drawn graphic. Both produce a sharper and more vivid print than the more common inkjet printing.
However, the most interesting thing about Hermès is that 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 often rubbish: they nearly always have machines they’d rather replace with more modern, more reliable versions.
I’ve never been to a factory where so many stages of production have been replaced so frequently – and I’ve visited almost 100 factories and ateliers around the world, from Tokyo to Texas. It just shows how far ahead Hermès is.
Simon Crompton is an author and journalist, and the founder of a leading website on luxury and bespoke menswear, PermanentStyle.com, which receives over a million visitors every year. He is the author of several books, including The Finest Menswear in the World (Thames & Hudson). @permanentstylelondon