Hermès unveiled its latest annual theme, which for 2020 is Innovation in the Making, with a series of events spread across Manhattan on Thursday – a morning symposium on an island in New York Bay with a series of proper brains and, in the evening, a poetic display – a live film performance of special effects inside the latest, future super-boutique of Hermès, the equestrian brand par excellence, on Madison Avenue.
The day began with a school bus ride down the East River and a windy ferry crossing to Governor’s Island, where the house’s artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and art apparatchik Lili Chopra conducted a series of debates and lectures. From a philosophical discourse by France’s most-read living philosopher François Jullien; a lecture on space travel by a real astronaut; a learned lesson on paleoanthropology; a dance performance by Okwui Okpokwasili; and an interview with Apple design master Jony Ive.
Landing on the island to be greeted by a local brass band playing before a sign that read, Welcome to Hermès University. Inside the exhibition space, the morning’s participants’ names were written on chalk on a series of blackboards.
“Hello, I’m the Dean of Creative Studies, and you are the class of 2020,” joked Pierre-Alexis in his opening remarks, as 150 guests sat on small metal high school desks. He promised the morning would go from the origin of man to the ends of the universe. It did. Beginning with hunter gatherers who rode the first horses and already knew one of Hermès mottos: “If you fall off the horse you get right back on again.”
Astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, explained that space travel was all about looking at things from different angles, as she showed some remarkable photos of earth from the Space Station. And a series of images of her team in outer space mending a gigantic solar panel which had ripped, basically sewing it back together with steel ropes.
“Growing up on a farm, my dad used to always say that you could fix pretty much anything with a pair of pliers and a roll of Number 9 wire, which is pretty much what we did!” she smiled. A key element in innovation for Hermès is of course craftsmanship, and the meeting of a pair of dexterous hands with a fertile imagination.
Looking way back in history, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, showed the development of the hand, and the gradual articulation of the thumb with images of ancient remains. Before explaining that about 100,000 years ago humans began to make symbolic images. Starting with the discovery in the Blombos cave in South Africa of the earliest art – geometric patterns on rock art, dating from 77,000 years ago and passing through pre-historic paintings in Paleolithic art of horses. The house of Hermès was founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermès, as a harness workshop for horses in central Paris.
The morning ended with Ives and Dumas recalling their collaboration with the first Apple Watch, a debut partnership for the firm with a luxury brand. Made with the famed double-tour Barenia leather strap, which immediately ran into a glitch, explained Ive. Apple engineers had complained that the double strap meant the watch could not touch the wrist, preventing it from measuring the pulse – a key element in the design. Whereupon, a lady craftsman in the Hermès Paris workshop added, on her on initiative, some thin interior padding which meant the strap sat ever so slightly to one side, allowing the pulse to be taken.
“Objects shape us, just as we shape objects,” concluded Dumas, before hosting a great lunch, cooked by Daniela Soto-Innes, the award-winning Mexican chef. Innovation was the leitmotif of this meal – from duck carnitas to crab and corn ceviche to sea buckthorn aguachile.
That evening, Dumas also hosted a fête inside the new four-story site of the brand’s future flagship, in a red-brick Federal style building. Located on the south-west corner of Madison and 63rd street, it was previously The Bank of New York.
The highlight was an astonishing display by a team of a dozen skilled film artisans of a life action special effects movie. Using a dozen tiny sets on wheels, they projected a surrealist short film on the screen, a trip that included visits to the snowy Rockies; the elegiac South West; dreamlike Poppy fields; storm cast moors and Upper East Side apartments, all through which pirouetted several pairs of hands. The skill of the artisan ever present.
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