As far as materials go, leather is extremely malleable, each kind carrying its own trademark — the pebbled texture of Mysore goatskin, the oval scales of the ring lizard, or the uneven rows of quadrilaterals on crocodile skin. Its ability to absorb a rainbow of rich colors and take on different shapes makes it an ideal ingredient for handbag. Since 1837, leather has served as the center of the Hermès universe, functioning as the base for its luxurious accessories.
Hermès is paying homage to the material through the London exhibition “Leather Forever,” on display at the Royal Academy Galleries through May 27. Sprawled across 12 rooms, the show takes visitors from a library of the various skins used by the fashion house to the artisan’s studio, where handbags are created, and on through an in-depth exploration of leather’s place in the French luxury goods company. It highlights a number of historic pieces, including the two most iconic Hermès bags: the Kelly, named after Princess Grace, and the Birkin, created for Jane Birkin, who wanted a bag big enough to fit all her possessions. Towards the end, the show visits the brand’s origins as a modest saddle workshop intended to elegantly outfit the horses in 19th-century Paris.
The exhibition finishes with a tribute to Great Britain, represented by four specially-designed Passe-Guide Hermès handbags for each British nation — a green bag adorned with a shamrock charm for Ireland, a plaid-patterned design with a kilt pin for Scotland, a forest green piece decorated with a winged dragon for Wales, and a brick-colored purse with a guardsman’s bearskin for England. The bags will be auctioned off online by Christie’s from May 14 to May 31 to benefit the Royal Academy of Arts.
Click on the slide show to see highlights from “Leather Forever,” on view at the Royal Academy Galleries in London through May 27.