Before there was Birkin, there was Kelly- Grace Kelly that is. Apparently, Grace Kelly first encountered the ‘Sac à Dépêches’ on the set of To Catch a Thief, when the costume designer decided to dress Kelly in a few items from Hermès - it was love at first sight. After leaving Hollywood for the life of a princess, Grace Kelly stepped out in 1956 carrying a crocodile Hermès bag cleverly positioned to hide her pregnancy from the paparazzi. That exact moment was captured on film and solidified the name of the bag, officially renamed the ‘Kelly’ in 1977. But before we explore what many consider the Holy Grail handbag of their dreams, lets take a moment and step into the luxurious time machine of the House of Hermès.
Rewinding 140 years, it all started in 1837 when Thierry Hermès founded Maison Hermès after mastering the leather craft in Pont Audemer, near Paris. Originally a harness and bridle workshop, Hermès provided equestrian riding supplies to European aristocrats. And so their reputation as one of the finest saddlery makers in the world grew just as quick as their business when they supplied a Russian Tsar with a large quantity of saddles. Amusingly, it’s also said that Hermès’ first client was the horse.
The house then started producing the Haut à Courroies, a bag especially created for riders to carry saddles and other riding accessories, and even created the first leather garment with their patented zipper; a golf jacket for the Prince of Wales. Later in the 1930’s, Robert Dumas converted the original Haut à Courroies into a roomy travel bag and gave it the name Sac à Dépêches- the Kelly bag as we know it.
The more discreet sibling of the two, the design of the Kelly is more formal and demure than the Birkin’s. It is characterized by a boxy trapezoid shape with a top handle with a detachable leather shoulder strap. The interior contains one large zip compartment and two open pockets to store away smaller items like a phone and lipstick.
Les Ateliers Hermès
As a brand of great magnitude, the quality and workmanship at Hermès is unparalleled. To give you a little clue: a leatherworker receives two years of training at the Hermès atelier supervised by an artisan before they are allowed to produce handbags. As one of the exceptions in the handbag industry, Hermès does not use any assembly lines. From start to finish, a single craftsman takes 18 to 24 hours to create a Kelly bag. Their attention to detail is equally astonishing: the hides that arrive at the atelier are symmetrically arranged and readied for the artisans to cut the leather and hand-stitch the pieces together. The goatskin lining of the Kelly is the first part to be sewn where after the double stitch technique is employed to stitch the base of the handbag with a wax linen thread. The double stitch method ensures that if one stitch loosens, the second will still hold.
The handle consists out of 5 different pieces and is the most difficult part to construct. Due to the many internal compartments, it requires about 4 hours to complete. Once put together, it is then shaped by hand and covered with hot wax to protect the leather from soaking up moisture. After adding the front flap, each of the 4 metal feet is hand riveted to the bag body. Fun fact: Hermès actually irons their calfskin bags to smooth over any visible wrinkles on the surface. Then, as a finishing touch, the hardware and the signature gold stamp is placed onto the bag. All that’s left is to meticulously inspect the handbag for any faults- if an error is detected during this stage, Hermès makes sure the bag will never reach its shop shelves.
The production process of a Kelly bag involves many more stages subject to a particular leather and we could probably dedicate a book to all their techniques. So let’s have a closer look at the two styles of the Kelly instead: the Sellier and the Retourne. The Sellier has a more formal appearance due to the rigid and structured look of its leather while the Retourne has a slouchier construction with softer leather, giving it a casual air. The most common sizes of the Kelly are the K28, K32 and K35; there are in total 8 different sizes available for purchase.
Mighty in all things leather, Hermès uses a vast amount of exceptional hides for their bags- varying from classic calfskin to more exotic varieties of alligator and lizard. The oldest leather type, and Grace Kelly’s personal favourite, is the Veau Box. A large part of her private collection was made out of this specific leather. The Veau Box leather is made from the hides of male calves and uniquely treated to give a glossy and grain-less look. The skin is processed and buffed with a special oil and beeswax that gives it a luminous lustre. The Kelly Sellier is usually made out of this leather and comes with many advantages such as being lightweight; retaining shape and aging beautifully, though there are also certain drawbacks. Due to its smooth exterior, the leather is more vulnerable to scratches and scuffs. Blisters may also appear on the surface of the leather if it comes into contact with water. But never fear, effects from outside elements and general wear can be minimized by reconditioning- just leave your bag in the capable hands of The Restory team.
Another popular leather type is the Barenia, which is smooth calfskin tanned with several oils and natural dyes. This leather type has a special way of aging as the leather darkens over time, creating a unique patina. It’s softer and heavier than the Veau Box and still used to create harnesses and saddles.
Chèvre de Coromandel
One of the most sought after Hermès leathers is the Chèvre de Coromandel; made from the skin of male mountain goats. Because of its robustness and textured grain, the leather remains unaffected by scratches and other blemishes. Soft to the touch, it has a lustrous shine and is lightweight to carry. All this goodness comes at a price, as this beautiful hide is also used on the more expensive spectrum of Hermès Kelly’s.
Just like their extensive techniques, the House of Hermès does not skimp on the quality and variety of hides used for their highly coveted handbags. There are many online guidelines dedicated to the specific leather types used by Hermès, such as this edit by the Purseblog. Apart from scarcity, it is one of the many reasons why the demand for Hermès bags never wanes. The fact that Hermès bags retain value and even appreciate over time is a phenomenon in the fashion industry that only a select few brands are able to enjoy.
If there is one thing we appreciate more than anything, it’s the art of the leather craft. At The Restory we frequently provide solutions for covering up scratches, stains and as well as re-edging. And if you are feeling particularly creative, we could also completely re-colour your Hermès bag- as shown above. Additionally, we are able to offer advice on general use and storage. Even if you don’t plan on reselling, it is vital to care for your Hermès bag in the best possible way so it can remain in great condition for generations to come. Your Kelly is an heirloom piece after all. Get in touch with our team at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on Hermès aftercare.