Cover of Shopping Centre News, from 30th November, 2014

by Michelle Cramer
Shopping Centre News
30 Nov 2014
pp. 33-35

Place consumption is emerging across the retail landscape, challenging preconceived methods of retailing and stretching its tentacles to public and event spaces. In my last two articles I have challenged that new economic models will need to emerge to value and add value to new-style bricks and mortar retail environments. These articles also provided examples of where this shift to a new place economy has commenced.

This article looks at an example of place consumption that takes things to the extreme. In this example, direct consumption is removed entirely from the equation. Daring to remove exchange from the retail experience, Hermès Australia has delivered a retail spectacle to Sydney.

For a brief period of time last month, the luxury French brand Hermès occupied Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation Hall and wandered the foreshore of Circular Quay. From the 2nd to the 6th of October, Hermès Australia, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, hosted the ‘Festival des Métiers’ (Festival of Crafts), an interactive exhibition that gave visitors the opportunity to observe, interact with and, in some cases, assist either master craftspeople execute their work firsthand.

Hermès was founded by Thierry Hermès in Paris in 1837, as a house of master harness-making and later saddle-making. Since that time, six generations of enterprising artisans have explored new markets and new skills. Now international in scope, Hermès has continued to grow while remaining a family company, with a uniquely creative spirit that blends precision manufacturing with traditional craftsmanship. The ‘Festival des Métiers’ was originally conceived for the 175th anniversary of the brand.

The Hermès show has now been on the road since 2011. With a focus on how luxury is made, the first exhibition was held in Seattle, USA. It has since travelled from San Francisco to Singapore, Shenyang, Beijing and London before Sydney. In London, the acclaimed exhibit was held at the Saatchi Gallery where, according to Hermès, more than 40,000 people passed through the exhibition in a week. Does this evidence support the notion that consumers are interested in seeing ‘behind’ the production of the end products?

It appears that, in a world where everything is increasingly mass-manufactured, including some luxury products, there is a real value and interest in handmade products with authenticity. What could be more authentic than seeing the artisans produce the product? For a brand like Hermès, this approach plays to their strengths.

On the day I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Foundation Hall had been transformed into a temporary production space. Greeted harbourside by Hermès hosts in horses heads, their well-heeled partners escorted visitors to the space of production. The space itself was transformed by acclaimed Milanese industrial designer Paola Navone who created fine orange ‘string’ settings to enable discrete areas for the artisans to work and which conjured references to the brand’s trademark orange stitching.

Around the hall were eight areas of work. These are the temporary work spaces of the craftspeople from the Hermès headquarters in France, each paired with an interpreter in order to best describe their creative processes and techniques. The exhibition featured a leather worker (maroquinier in French), a gemsetter, a porcelain painter, a watchmaker, a silk printer, a saddler, a tie-maker and a silk engraver. I watch and asked questions as leather was carved and stretched, silk was hand-screenprinted with colour, diamonds were set, porcelain was intricately pained, silk ties were stitched with signature orange thread and Swiss watches were tuned live.

The crowd was enthralled, engaged and vocal as they erupted with cheers as the freshly made silk was revealed to the audience. As I visited on the last day, the final leather was being applied to a bespoke saddle that had been created from scratch by the artisan Jerome only four days earlier and was now complete.

Engaging further with process on social media was promoted, with photography and videoing of the experience encouraged, hashtag naming clarified and, working with Australia Post, a post box provided to send postcards to friends to tell them about the show, and what they were missing out on.

The experience was nothing short of a spectacle of the type that Guy Debord conjured up and wrote about in the late 1960s, and again in the late 1980s. His The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Ahead of his time, Debord worried that cultural homogenisation, now understood as the globalisation of products, would detract from the authenticity of a product and experience, and life would be reduced to an interface with images in advertising, in magazines and, unforeseen by him, through devices such as the iPad. When Debord says that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”, he is referring to the central importance of the image in contemporary society. Debord, and his Situationist friends, would breathe a sigh of relief if they knew about the Hermès show which, upon observation, has the single intent to make the process of production and the value of the product tangible, physical and grounded in place.

In recent years, and in response to the global financial crisis, it is well documented that many luxury goods companies have traded lavish campaigns and celebrities for communication with an emphasis on heritage, craftsmanship and the work that occurs in their mysterious ateliers.

Hermès travelling tour of skilled craftspeople has taken this approach literally and delivered the process of making to the consumer in a form of public and accessible art. Instead of making a polished marketing spectacle of their artisans, it has joyfully enabled people to see up close how everything is made. The ‘Festival des Métiers’ show in Sydney unlocked the poetic and inimitable crafts that have been the spirit of the house of Hermès, and their craftspeople have revealed the mastery of their ‘petites mains’ that have been part of the company since its inception.

As a form of public art, the environment was intentionally open, welcoming and playful. In a twist to expectation, there were no bells, no whistles and, ironically, no attempts to sell anything. Indeed, questions on the price or purchase of items were unanswerable by those displaying their craft, with staff available to direct potential customers to the local store if necessary.

The focus of the show was on the value of the process of production and presented as performance-based public art. As a form of place consumption, the pop-up experience has been entirely funded by the design house. The value proposition is therefore entirely focused on the consumption of the experience, to the eyes and ears – even noses – of the observer.

In a fast-paced world of robotics, evolving technologies and, dare I say it, copies, the transparency of the production provides another layer to the value of a purchasable object.

For Guillaume de Seynes, Executive Vice-President of Hermès, “people are really keen to rediscover this beautiful craftsmanship. For them it gives another spirit to an object. Behind your (Hermès product) there is the one person who has made it from the beginning to the end.”

For place consumption, this provides another layer of engagement and interaction with the retail product in concert with a physical place. The two together reinforce the value of the retail experience which, in this case, is despite the lack of direct transaction.

See Michelle Cramer‘s next article, ‘The Britomart Effect: what is the value of a postcard image?’

See Michelle Cramer’s previous article, ‘Building place consumption: More on the new place economy’