A Short Talk of Modern French Leather Goods - The Brief History of Hermes

We have briefly talked about the top luxury French brand - Hermes in our articles: What You Know and don't Know about Hermes and Hermes is More than Birkin and KellyThe story behind a top luxury brand is always absorbing for people. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, let's have a short talk of Hermes history and see how modern French leatherware get this far.

Classic French leatherware was much similar with classic British leatherware except the decorative patterns. The French style leather goods we talked today actually is French modern exquisite handmade leather goods. Today modern French leatherware can be well-known to the public, in fact, thanks to great contributions of Hermes. Though luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Channel have successively left handmade leather goods behind, Hermes still insisted on complete handmade their leather goods. It can be said that the development history of French leatherware in a modern sense basically coincides with the development history of Hermes.

Hermes was founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermes. At first it was only Thierry Hermes', the famous leather harness craftsman, personal workshop. After his death, his son continued to run the family business. His son expanded the workshop and start make all kinds of bags. At that time, the upper class loved to travel around, and there was a great demand for traveling case. The workshop was at the right time and their business grew very fast. In 1990, the Hermes brand was created, crafting all kinds of traveling cases.

This is a poster of the brand in 1900. It could tell the brand did not have its own style at that time. It was one of the travel leather goods brands in the market, which designs were quite conventional, but the quality was a top notch. 

Vintage Old Hermes Poster

For next two decades, Hermes maintained market share and gradually gained a reputation among travelers due to its great quality, though it still had not has its own style. The picture below is a poster in 1920.

 Vintage Old Hermes Poster

At the same time, the brand still kept making leather harness. It's 1920s Hermes leather harness in the picture. We can see that Hermes used soft, thick vegetable tanned leather to make their harnesses in that time.


In 1922, Hermes applied some of the harness designs to travel bags, giving birth to the Birkin bag. However, the original Birkin actually was a variation of saddle bag, with no resemblance to modern Birkin's proportions and the name was not Birkin. But both have the iconic lock in the center. But Hermes wasn't the only one who used this design, LV and Gucci both have similar design at that time.

Hermes earliest Birkin in 1922:


A Gucci bag of the same period:


A LV bag of the same period:


Additionally, the origin stories about Birkin and Kelly bag that known by people in modern days are all commercial propaganda. The Birkin bag design could be dated back to 1922 while the Kelly bag design originated in 1935.

By 1930, since the aftermath of the first world war was over, French economy was booming. At the same time, French government and United State established stable trade relations, consumer demand was at an all-time high. At that point, Hermes made a name for itself by retreating from the highly competitive cowhide travel bag market and moving into exotic leather goods market. Laid the foundation for it became a world-famous brand.

In 1930, they mostly used crocodile leather for bags making and began to massively make small suitcases to cater to the needs of air travel. While other brands still kept making the large travel cases for train travel.

A small travel suitcase made in 1930 by Hermes:


This is a trending large suitcase in 1920s. Hermes's abandonment of the market for train travel case was a vital turning point, as brands like Louis Vuitton and GUCCI did not adjust their strategy quickly so they had to turn to the commercial product line in later. Since then, Hermes has had no rival for handmade leather goods.

Vintage Old Suitcase

In 1930, Hermes almost used crocodile leather for all products. Here's a woman's bag made in crocodile by Hermes in 1930:


A crocodile wallet in 1930


The crocodiles weren't easy to get as they are today. At that time, they only provided fully customer design service for rich customers, which support the brand to make non-customized luxury bags later.

A poster of Hermes in 1937, where you can see the Kelly bag already appearing.

 Vintage Old Hermes Poster

At the same time, the brand branded out into producing jewelries, watches and scarfs.

A Hermes poster from 1940

Vintage Old Hermes Poster 

In 1940, World War II had begun. Fewer clients would pay for crocodile leather bags, so the brand turned back to work with cowhide. During this period, they set higher standards to ensure that the quality would not deteriorate during the war.

The original Hermes logo, which appeared in 1940, had a curved composition without the iconic carriage symbol. Below the logo is the address of the shop at that time.

After WWII, its business was stroked, and it came under great pressure due to their expensive products. They started to make lots of ordinary style bags, making it looked like a throwback to 1900. 

A poster in 1948:

Vintage Old Hermes Poster 

In 1950s, Christian Dior's "New Look" inspired every luxury brands. Hermes started making its luxury leather bags as well. But it has since valued the cow leather goods market, making market volume as important as to keep customers hungry. It's a Kelly bag in 1950, but Kelly wasn't its name at that time.

This is a Kelly bag poster in 1957. During this period, Hermes refined its bag making process and improved hardware. At the same time, the logo that they still used today was settled in 1950 (the logo has appeared earlier, here means it was used on the box officially), which symbolized the establishment of Hermes brand. It took 120 years from 1837 to 1955 to create a top luxury brand.

Vintage Old Hermes Poster 

In 1960s, it was choosing suitable leather and determining how to use them. Today, most of the leather materials used by Hermes were decided at that time. It's Hermes original chrome tanned leather bag in 1960.

A poster in 1970. It could tell that chrome tanned leather was very popular at that time.

Vintage Old Hermes Poster 

The iconic H logo was official created in 1980. Then all Hermes features we can see today so far completed.

A poster from 1980:

Vintage Old Hermes Poster

The most important feature of French leather goods (cowhide) has been settled since then, that is, leather goods are made from the part of back and shoulder cowhide can be called top handmade leather goods.

Since 1995, it began to explicitly design around its brand logo and brand features. 

Since 2005, it has made its bags smaller and smaller to reach the young. This trend can be seen in the folding Kelly bag in 2007.

A Kelly cut bag in 2010:

A super mini Birkin bag in 2013:

French style leather goods, unlike other styles of handmade leather goods, is not with strong cultural characteristics. In fact, it has a set of very strict data and specifications, including a certain number of needle holes in a certain distance, the weight of bags (or the thickness of leather material). Top quality leather and thread also are necessary. Becoming a French leather goods crafter requires a long term of practice, which cannot be achieved quickly.


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