Laurent Goblet – A Flair for Horses at Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré

 

 

For almost 150 years, the French luxury goods manufacturer Hermès has been making saddles that delight both horse and rider. Now the Parisian saddlery is bringing out two new models – innovative products proving that even the brand’s most venerable department is keeping pace with the times.

At just half-past nine, a small group of Japanese tourists is already waiting in front of the Hermès flagship store in the Parisian Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. They will have to be patient for another hour, before the shopping temple opens its doors. Just a few meters farther, in the side street Rue Boissy-d’Anglas, a couple of young men in black suits smoke their first cigarette of the day. The old sign above their head reveals where they are employed: Hermès Atelier & Services. Services in this case refer to the offices – and the atelier is a saddlery.

Hermès’s original line of business has been located at this noble address for 150 years – and it doesn’t look like this will be changing any time soon.

A glance into the entrance hall is all it takes to see the significance retained by the old craft that company founder Thierry Hermès used as the cornerstone of today’s global luxury goods empire. Just beyond the entrance doors, ornamental horse heads and horse collars hang on the walls. Next to the reception desk, yellowed lithographs of historical advertisements promoting bridles and saddles – along with a few suitcases and bags – are on display. Once inside the building, a warren of corridors leading to different levels and floors opens up. “It would be easy to get lost here, but the first elevator you come across leads straight to us,” Laurent Goblet, Saddlery Atelier Manager, tells us with evident pride and a wink. It is no surprise that the most direct path leads to the saddlery on the 5th floor. After all they were here before anybody else.

The wiry saddler smiles briefly and then turns to his work again. “Just a quick moment, and I’ll be done. This saddle has to go out today. The preparations for the upcoming Olympic games are starting and the rider needs the saddle for the preliminary competitions.” Taking a step back, poised in concentration, Laurent Goblet vigorously plies the large black dressage saddle in front of him with a thin artisan’s mallet. Another atelier worker holds the saddle steady with all his might to counter the impact of the precise blows. Once finished, Laurent Goblet scrutinizes the newly worked part critically, then nods slowly. “Done,” he says with audible satisfaction and sends both colleague and saddle out of the crowded little office where saddle parts, leather cuttings, and unfinished test products are piled up to the ceiling.

To have a rider on a Hermès saddle participate in the Olympic Games and possibly even win gold would be a dream come true. Even for Laurent Goblet, who has worked at the saddlery for 38 years. The last gold medal was won on the model “Steinkraus” at the Olympic games in Mexico in 1968; and before that in 1952. For the 2016 games, the cards have been reshuffled and the master saddler and his atelier workers have done everything possible to set the stage for a victory. At the annual Parisian show jumping competition Saut Hermès in March 2016, the atelier from Faubourg Saint-Honoré presented two new saddle models: Hermès Allegro for show jumping and Hermès Arpège for dressage.

The new products are the result of two-and-a-half years of hard work, multiple prototypes, and a lot of innovation to improve the contact between horse and rider.

Laurent Goblet: “It’s about balance: horse and rider should become one. A good saddle requires a lot of know-how and a vast amount of technical expertise from the professional riders we work with closely. We have identified a lot of problems and realized a lot of wishes, but our goal remains to deliver something even better tomorrow than we did today.” His latest model, the new Hermès Arpège, was developed together with the German dressage rider Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, and is a sophisticated construction. It is made up of 65 individual parts and from 27 different materials. The atelier manager proudly shows us the list that, not unlike a cooking recipe, itemizes everything needed to make the saddle, starting with the nails on to the leather uppers, in all the sizes and quantities. “This here is the magic bag,” Goblet jokes and shows us a transparent plastic bag filled with paper patterns that unite all measurements and preliminary studies.

Each Hermès saddle is a custommade product that starts with the naked back of a horse. In painstaking work using an Equiscan – a kind of moveable plastic skeleton – the saddle makers measure the curve and the width of the horse’s back at 90 different points. From this data, a model is created which, like a shoemaker’s last, is used to build up the saddle.

“Everything we do is geared to satisfying two customers: the horse and its rider,” the master saddler explains.

There should always be space for three fingers between saddle and horse, both when galloping and standing still. Which is why the frame of the saddle is made from sturdy wood and steel. Using the frame as a starting point, five to seven layers are applied, depending on the model. The first layer is cotton, then straps are spanned to secure the bottom part. A first padded layer is subsequently placed on these. Latex is frequently used for this because it retains its shape so well. After this first soft layer, an initial layer of leather is added. From here onward, extreme precision is required: the hide has to be stretched and pulled with a special pair of pliers to ensure that no unwanted wrinkles can develop. Likewise, the seams shouldn’t protrude anywhere because they could injure horse and rider at a later date. To ensure their resilience, the seams are sewn with an especially strong,
tear-resistant, waxed thread.

This delicate crafting demonstrates the professional prowess of the ten atelier workers. Just tugging a little too hard could tear the leather. “This is not about strength. This is about technique,” Goblet explains amid careful hammering and shaping done with fierce concentration. Each saddle is crafted by the same employee from A to Z, from the wood-and-steel frame to the final oiling, meaning that each person working in this light-flooded atelier on the fifth floor must, without exception, be able to perform every single work step independently. As there is no longer a school that teaches the trade, Hermès trains its own workforce. In the next few months the atelier workforce will be joined by four more employees. Further proof that, even in this modern day and age, the traditional craft of the luxury brand continues to be developed and still attracts new customers.

An average Hermès saddle costs about 5,000 euros. For special productions, prices increase dramatically. The saddles, all manufactured in the center of Paris, are about 50 % more expensive than competing brands. Why? Laurent Goblet explains: “Our house’s specialty is leather. For saddles, we use cow, calf, buffalo, and pig leather, but only the very best. Just a small percentage of leather on the market meets our standards. We work with the best tanneries and also have the know-how to transform leather into high-quality leather.” 25 hours of workmanship go into one Hermès saddle. Three months after placing an order, the customer can ride off on it. Should changes be necessary months later – no problem. And if a customer returns years or even decades later with a broken saddle, it will be fixed. At Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, great value is placed on service.

Of course, saddle making is only a tiny department at Hermès. Nevertheless, this atelier has always been the heartbeat in the history of our house.

“Horses are still the largest source of inspiration for all the products of our brand,” the 56-year-old atelier manager tells us with pride. And he’s absolutely right: Silk scarves, bags, jewelry, clothes, furniture or tableware – time and again all of them bear decorative elements from the equestrian world: bridles, stirrups, or halters. Once a year, the international show jumping competition Saut Hermès is held in the center of Paris, at the Grand Palais below a historic Belle Époque glass dome. Here, the world’s best riders participate, and the competition serves to underline the significance the saddle-making business has for the company – and for the equestrian sport itself. As Laurent Goblet says, “Wherever in the world you enter a Hermès shop, no matter how small, you will always find a section with saddles.” A proud proclamation of the continued importance of the department for Hermès.

Meanwhile, the traditional flagship store at the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré has opened its portals and the small Japanese group that has been waiting for over an hour streams in. Maybe in search of a Kelly bag – or even a Steinkraus saddle. Both are namesakes of famous personalities who were honored by Hermès with a masterpiece, but only one of the house’s classics was manufactured on the 5th floor of the venerable headquarters.

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