In a suburb outside Paris, past a locked metal gate, two security guards, and a pair of key-card doors, there is a large, simple white room. Inside, more than a dozen elite artisans work quietly at messy desks covered with swatches of pebbled leather. Their skills are so highly sought-after that photographs of their faces aren’t allowed, and publicizing their names is strictly forbidden.
This is the Sur-mesure atelier at Hermès, where the wildest luxury fantasy can become an exquisite reality. Here, car interiors and motorcycles are decked out in Hermès calfskin. Fishing poles are made to order, plus boxing gloves and polo bags, all with the signature subtle handiwork of the French fashion house. A nearby showroom has a foosball table, a surfboard, and a range of door handles, should a client desire to clutch Hermès leather at every turn. Don’t look for heavy branding, though; a $2,975 Sur-mesure skateboard is splashed with seemingly every color but the company’s trademark orange.
Women around the world might dream of owning an Hermès bag; Sur-mesure (literally, “made to measure”) is for people who dream bigger than what a retail store can offer. When that happens, the client is referred by their local store manager to the atelier. “First we analyze the requirements,” says Axel de Beaufort, the atelier’s design director.
Outfitting the interior of a private jet can take much longer than, say, making a pingpong paddle, but the process remains the same. The workshop provides a financial estimate after a month and an artistic proposal about two months later. When Hermès quotes a price, de Beaufort says, there’s no wiggle room. “We don’t negotiate.”
The boxing gloves, for instance, cost $44,100. But Hermès emphasizes that the workshop, despite all evidence to the contrary, is not about ostentation. “Here, you’re in a house of craftsmanship,” de Beaufort says, walking through the space on a recent Monday morning. “So of course the brand is a part of what you will get, but it’s not just to show that you have an Hermès product. You come here because you want something made by hand in France and made to measure for you.” These objects, he says, “aren’t more expensive, they’re more costly.”
That distinction might sound like a mere semantic difference to an outsider, but it’s critically important inside Hermès. The world’s rich will pay spectacular sums for the company’s imprimatur, but for that imprimatur to stay relevant, it has to signify quality. Expensive, in other words, refers only to an object’s price; “costly,” de Beaufort says, describes the number of people and the amount of time and planning involved. “A one-of-a-kind project needs to have a designer working on it, development teams, craftsmen. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ ”
The company is so determined to underscore craftsmanship over price that it will turn down a project that might reflect poorly on the division. “People can come for the wrong reason,” de Beaufort says. “With branding—people want to show off.” When that happens, he continues, “and people come and say, ‘I want whatever it is to have a big H,’ usually we’ll say, ‘OK, we can do something for you, but it won’t be that.’ ”