Hermes' bold ambitions in Kyoto

Hermes' bold ambitions in Kyoto
A Japanese porcelain artist for Hermes takes part in a Tokyo exhibition in March.
PHOTO: The Japan News/Asia News Network

I never fail to spot someone carrying an overtly branded or iconic luxury handbag in the street.

Every time, I'm amazed not only that they are just like a walking advertisement, but also that they've been bewitched by the sales strategies of high-end brands.

I wonder who first devised the system whereby a fashion house earns money by first presenting beautiful pret-a-porter clothes at shows in Paris or Milan to establish its image, then selling handbags rather than clothes that entail delicate size adjustments.

If handbags are left unsold during a particular season, no problem: They can stay on the shelves next season, or longer.

A Japanese porcelain artist for Hermes takes part in a Tokyo exhibition in March.Photo: The Japan News/Asia News Network

This business model has proved to be successful, having helped establish many major high-end brands.

As a fashion industry watcher for many years, I find myself looking a little bit cynically at the luxury handbags some women carry.

However, Hermes is different - I can't help but admire the French brand.

They follow the same sales strategy, more or less, but their corporate culture is very unique.

The most remarkable element is that the brand gives immense freedom to its artisans who make their products by hand - an approach that makes them extremely proud.

Hermes bags are not manufactured on an assembly line: The production of each bag is undertaken by a single artisan at the company's atelier in France.

I've heard each artisan can make only three or so regular-sized handbags a week.

The initial of the artisan who made the bag is inscribed somewhere on the item, not visible on the exterior.

Such bags are works of art, rather than mere products. It's only natural that the artisans are proud of their products.

Hermes bags are three to four times more expensive than those from other luxury brands, but there are ample reasons that support the inflated price.

An exhibition was held last month at Omotesando Hills in Tokyo offering visitors a chance to see the work of their artisans.

The free event featured 10 types of Hermes products, and 10 artisans from France, who were at the event to demonstrate their expertise.

The exhibition attracted 64,400 people, and visitors had to wait in long lines to enter the venue.

Luxury brands are beyond the reach of most people. While some high-end brands offer some products at affordable prices to attract new customers, Hermes avoids this approach, preferring to sell only to customers who appreciate the value of their products.

Nevertheless, all brands have to continue attracting young customers to survive, which might help explain why Hermes held the exhibition.

Another extraordinary Hermes promotional event held in Japan is the Gion pop-up store in Kyoto.

Housed in a traditional machiya-style building in the nation's ancient capital, the store opened on Nov. 3 last year, and will operate through July 31.

The project appears to be a testing ground for Hermes as it explores new retail possibilities.

For example, in its first month the store offered a novel service in which customers could bring their old Hermes silk scarfs to be re-dyed.

The top brass at Hermes recognises that consumers in Japan perhaps appreciate its products more than consumers from any other part of the world.

In fact, Japan and the company have much in common, such as maintaining a respect for cultural traditions and the delicate work of artisans.

The brand has chosen Kyoto as the best location to represent these values in Japan.

Hermes is hoping the pop-up store will produce unexpected fruits borne from an interaction between the two cultures.

The logo-emblazoned noren shop curtain hanging in the doorway of the store's entrance seems appropriate for the classic machiya building.

It brings to mind the period of Japonism in European art, when the French were influenced by the Japanese aesthetics of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and ceramics.

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