It was a cool and quiet Saturday in Paris for most – but a red-letter day for Bali Barret, Creative Director of Hermès’ Women’s Universe. The Maison was due to show its Spring/Summer 2019 collection that evening. Exactly seven hours prior to the big moment, Barret was scheduled to sit down with us for an exclusive interview at Paris’ famed La Closerie des Lilas – a café and restaurant known for the literary greats that wrote and drank there – Ernest Hemingway included.
The topic of discussion: the house’s biggest event of the year, Carré Club, which is dedicated wholly to its iconic square silks. Barret, who was previously Artistic Director of Feminine Silk, had just returned to Paris from New York, where the first in a series of Carré Club events had already been held, prior to it hitting Singapore. Engaged in preparations for the Spring/Summer 2019 show together with Hermès’ Artistic Director Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, it was completely fathomable that Barret was slightly delayed for the interview. And when the designer arrived effusing about the Carré and Club event, the little wait was well worth it.
The New York experience she said, was “great, beyond expectations”. “It was so interesting for people to know what’s behind-the-scenes, to know how we work – the inspiration, drawing, transferring of print. We don’t just print the drawings, so it’s important for people to understand the silk scarf that belongs to the Hermès world. The scarf represents fantasy. At Carré Club, we combine aspects of fun, party and celebration. We unveil the artwork through amusement. Guests get to see the artists – they are entertaining and have a non-conservative spirit,” she added.
The fun, party and celebration that is referred to come in the form of several playful concepts revolving around the silk square (“and what’s not so square”, revealed Barret) –there is a Carré-oke room, as well as Carré cut, where one can get a blonde, square-shaped haircut with prints on it. A beauty salon provides square Carré nail manicures, while the Carré café is decorated with square tables.
The room that’s closest to Barret’s heart though is home to the true talent behind the silks – the artists. “I really love the studio with the artists. They are special people and diverse characters. It was almost like having a full class at art school. Most of them are young. Some of them have tattoos. They are fun, and we have all sorts of people designing the Carré. When people saw this, they were wowed. In a way, Carré Club has updated the image of the scarf,” she concludes.
On a similarly serious note, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, a member of the founding family that has run the company for six generations, famously referred to the Carré as “an object”, and not an accessory. But Barret has her own opinion on the matter: “The Carré has become a cult object, but in reality, it is an accessory. You could put it on the wall if you wanted to – because it is so beautiful, and people do that. But for me, it is something you need to wear. It’s a nice combination – art and accessory. For me, you need to wear it, you need to wash it. It’s not a sacred object,” she explained.
Certainly, the square silk has gained a loyal following over the years – and Barret acknowledges that one reason why the Club was conceived was that the Maison wanted to gather its fans and collectors in one place, at first hand. “Instead of them chatting about it on the web, we thought we should organise something to allow people to meet and talk about the Carré in real life, enter the creation studio, and see the designers in action.”
It’s an open club too, according to Barret – one where anyone can be a member. “For some, walking into a Hermès store’s scarf department can be intimidating. It can be a little scary, perhaps. In New York, a young generation came to experience Carré Club. It’s fun, it’s exciting. Plus, the Carré is one of our most affordable products,” she chimed.
One thing that the Club is not, is a pure Instagram opportunity. “I don’t think about this at all. We are not organising Carré Club or creating the Carré for that purpose. If we were, we wouldn’t need to transport Carré Club all around the world, physically. It’s wonderful that our efforts are being amplified [on digital platforms], but that’s not the core idea. We want people to really experience the moment, not just take pictures.”
There’s no way that the Creative Director would have reductive ideas about the Carré – not with the astonishing amount of skill and precision that lies behind each design. Barret details that it takes an illustrator two months to a year to work on a design for a 90 by 90 cm scarf. Engraving, the next step, can then take six to nine months. Coloration, a step that Barret is directly involved in, requires eight to twelve colours, and for her team to meet once a week for up to seven months per collection. All in all, the entire process for a collection takes about two and a half years. “Right now, we’re selecting designs for spring 2020, so we work very much in advance. It’s such a long process, that you’re guaranteed your scarf will last a very long time,” says Barret.
When asked for her Fall/Winter 2018 highlights, she asks for a moment to recollect before she continues: “There is a new Polish designer called Jan Bajtlik we are working with. He created an Animapolis – a science fiction city that belongs to animals. It’s full of colours and you can spend hours watching it. It’s very contemporary. I really loved the designs. It shows we’re not just about carriages and harnesses – I like the mix of young hands and designers, re-editing, and contemporary creations. We’re not a traditional, classic profile, but always tapping into young and unexpected talent. It’s never about redoing what’s been done before.”
And with that, Barret was off again – whizzed back to perfecting that Spring/Summer 2019 show.
Out of Square
Much like the Maison she designs for, Bali Barret shows off her fun side
On her first Carré
When I was a kid, my mother had carrés, but didn’t wear them. She considered scarves too conservative. As every girl would, I watched my mother and what I could borrow or take from her. When I was 12, I took one called Les Clés and I painted the trunk in my room like it – with key motifs in white, black and gold. I basically drew the scarf onto the trunk.
On her personal collection
It is vast. The one thing I can say is that I’m losing scarves a lot. It’s a good idea to follow me. Once I was crossing the street, and my scarf flew away. By the time I realised, it was too late.
On what she loves most about working at Hermès
The freedom of creation. I’m not saying there is no freedom at other companies, but I don’t know if one can experience it so much. We have the mentality that, if the creation is strong, everything will turn out fine. It’s always about what we want to do, how we see things, and what we want to create – and those are the basics of creation. I believe that to be the secret of our success. Creatives can be scary for executives, but we are able to feel and imagine, so we are very lucky. When you are creative, and are asked “why?”, the answer is just “because”. You can’t really justify creativity. It is the opposite of rationality.