Shouldering On

Mark Heithoff

A self-confessed Hermès addict builds his completely customized dream bag.

Some might call it an obsession, but to me, my manic and multiple Hermès purchases are a kind of hedge fund, albeit one with a crocodile portfolio and an ostrich agenda. Should the going get tough, I’ve always figured, in lieu of liquidating stock I could sell my Hermès and pay the mortgage. And yet, in all my years of collecting vintage Hermès leather trenchcoats, pebbled-leather notebooks, and alligator wallets, I had never made the leap to the top of the luxury heap: couture. That time had come.

My bespoke Hermès journey began at the firm’s headquarters at 24 Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré, in Paris. On a previous visit I had casually discussed my ideas for the ultimate man-bag with my sales associate Gael Valot. With his encouragement, I was now ready to put pen to paper. I designed a bag that is a total hybrid—it can be carried as a tote, a shoulder bag, or, when the top half collapses, a messenger bag. With an approving smile, Gael took me upstairs to the flagship’s fifth floor, which is home to the atelier, where a group of seven of the most highly trained and technically adept craftsmen do nothing but handle special orders for the company’s most de­­manding clientele. We passed through the glass doors into a room where a team of apron-clad petites-mains stood stationed at individual drafting tables intensely laboring over custom orders.

With the additional eye of artisan Jocelyne Zerbib, who has spent nearly 30 years at Hermès, we analyzed my sketch and translated my crayon doodle into measurements and materials. Although I am a croc addict, Gael steered me away from mak­ing my first bag in an exotic skin because during the de­­sign process problems might be hidden by the beauty of the skin’s scale. After leafing through volumes of leather samples, we de­­cided on a grained calfskin in a smart indigo.

The interior had to be ultrafunctional so we chose a goatskin in Hermès orange, making it easy to see deep inside the bag. My torso was measured to ensure that the adjustable shoulder strap would be a sufficient length. Who knew?

During a subsequent fitting, Jocelyne explained that the idea of retractable handles wouldn’t work, but we confirmed a few de­­tails that were, to me, nonnegotiable: a laptop pocket, a removable zippered po­­chette, and slots for business cards and keys. "It’s like ar­­chi­tecture," Gael said as we fine-tuned the side pockets so they would be wide enough to hold a small water bottle or an umbrella. The pockets also worked as a camouflage for the ring that attaches to the removable strap. The bag was turning out to be exactly what I wanted—a portable office and an ideal carry-on.

After three trips to Paris to perfect my creation, the fabled orange box tied with brown grosgrain ribbon arrived in Los An­­geles four months and almost $11,000 later. It’s rather fun when people recognize the house’s familiar grained leather and signature saddle stitching but not the de­­sign. Is that a new Birkin, they ask, the lat­est Kelly? I take probably too much de­­light in telling them that this Hermès bag is known simply as the Cameron.

Just weeks after my new bag arrived in Los Angeles, I visited the new Hermès boutique in New York’s financial district (as I said, I’m a very good customer), across from the Stock Ex­­change. I loved the fact that it had its own sur mesure salon, the first in the States. The intimate room for be­­spoke tailoring envelops you with imported dark cherrywood. In the morning coffee and crois­sants are served elegantly on signature black-and-white Balcons du Guadalquivir china; in the afternoon it’s Champagne or tea. I decided that I simply cannot wear an off-the-rack shirt with a bespoke Hermès bag. The divine Erika Denis helped me edit more than 5,000 fabric op­­tions for my first sur mesure: a very French mini gingham print in 140-thread-count Egyptian cotton, with crocodile tabs and the trademark Hermès 5 pleated cuff. I feel a new Hermès addiction coming on. I am prepared to face the consequences.

Custom bags begin at $11,000. Prices de­­pend­ on the leather and the size of each piece, which takes about six months to complete. Sur mesure shirts begin at $790 and take eight to 12 weeks. At 24 Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré, Paris, 33-1/40-17-47-17, and 15 Broad St., NYC, 212-785-3030.