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Hermès’ First Client Was a Horse

At its new workshop in Normandy, Hermès demonstrates how a heritage commitment to craftsmanship shapes a future-forward legacy.



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WHEN I MOVED to Normandy two years ago, I wasn’t aware just how horsey it was. I vaguely knew there was a breed, the Percheron, named after my hilly, green region called Le Perche. I finally saw one in the flesh while visiting the Haras national du Pin, France’s national horse-breeding center since the time of Louis XIV, about an hour’s drive northwest of where I live, through a string of national forests. It was summer and lazy hot, and the horse was housed in a corner stall in a warren of Versailles-era brick stables, his massive tail swatting armies of flies. He was double the size of any other horse I’d seen; it was surreal. With a four-story stone château at its heart and over 2,000 acres of pastureland and track, the center has become one of my favorite places to wander away an afternoon.

Haras national du Pin is also a saddle-making pipeline to Hermès. Its in-house apprentices are popular applicants to the company, which provides them with another two years of training before they can apply for a full-time position. The passage has recently become even more fluid with the École Hermès des savoir-faire, a training program with national certification status that has outposts in three Hermès manufactures, including its newest in Louviers, Normandy.

When Axel Dumas became CEO of Hermès in 2014, the company’s equestrian division was underperforming so drastically that he was tempted to cancel it entirely. If Hermès was going to make saddles at all, it wasn’t to adorn them with logos, but to “sell them to Olympians,” he declared. “Either we get there, or it’s not worth it.” The challenge was accepted, and achieved, with the proof being Maroquinerie de Louviers, a 20,000 square-foot super-atelier with a dedicated wing for saddlery, the first time Hermès has expanded saddle production beyond its headquarters.



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Designed by the Paris-based Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh — whose pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery opened this June — it took nearly 500,000 custom-designed, locally made bricks to build. (Bricks are a thing in Normandy.) The building sits in a large industrial park, but manages to feel tranquil, thanks to undulating arcade facades surrounded by just-planted trees. “My uncle, [Hermès’s previous CEO and creative director] Jean-Louis Dumas always said that we make beautiful objects in beautiful surroundings,” says Guillaume de Seynes, Hermès’ director of production. From the spacious workstations you can hear the faint chirping of tiny mallets tapping buckles into leather. The building is the first large-scale one in France to achieve E4C2 certification, meaning it’s energy positive through a network of solar panels and low in carbon emissions.


Construction was temporarily halted upon the discovery of an archeological site dating back to the Magdalenian era, specifically around 12,000 B.C. It was a headache for the construction crews, but an inspiration to Hermès. They found needles made from bone that were used to sew leather hides, evidence of a continuity of mission.

After all, Hermès claims that their first client was a horse. The mid-nineteenth century was a time of blingy tack, but Thierry Hermès kept his work discreet and high-quality. Saddles were designed based on the idea that the less encumbered horses feel, the freer they are to excel. Though the company has evolved since then — your Kelly bag can now be made out of yellow python and diamonds — you won’t see any of that in Louviers’ saddle-making wing.

If other sports chase developments in technology, the same isn’t true for saddlery. Wood, iron, and leather are still the preferred materials. “People try with carbon steel or titanium, and it never works,” says Chloé Nobécourt, head of Hermès’ equestrian universe. “You want to forget a good saddle. You want to feel the horse. And our clients care about the comfort of the horse.”

The leather is usually selected at the tannery by the saddlemaker, with just a monogram for the horse and the rider, and a code documenting its artisan. Today, there are three saddle models, with a fourth about to debut, their silhouettes depending upon how deep the rider likes the seat. If you’re really feeling wild, you could ask for contrast stitching. Each is custom fit to the horse first, and then the rider gets their turn. Among them are now 14 partners, many of them indeed Olympians.

One major shift since the early days: The workforce skews heavily female and young. “When I was a kid visiting the workshops,” says de Seynes, “there were only men.” Hermès doesn’t have quotas for age or gender, he explains. “We ask [applicants] to do a test, and we pick the best ones. The younger generation is more interested in manual work. They look at it differently than their parents.” It helps that the work being done isn’t rote. There is no assembly line. Like Hermès does with its handbags, each saddle is made from start to finish by one craftsperson, who will repair the item through its life span.

It’s old school. Or as Axel Dumas puts it: “We’re the last tribe of Paleolithic artisans, who continue to transform, with human intelligence and the human hand, objects that last.”

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Our Contributors

Alexandra Marshall Writer

Alexandra Marshall is a writer-at-large at Air Mail whose work appears in Vogue, W, WSJ. magazine, the Financial Times, and many others. After a life lived entirely in big cities, a few years ago she went "Green Acres" and now lives in a village of 175 people in Lower Normandy. It’s anything but boring.

Skye Parrott

Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.


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