Hermès Kelly bags: What makes them unique?

Like in any other cult, during almost 60 years of its existence the Hermès bag has been shrouded in mystery and ritual.


Some time ago I had a chance to witness a Hermès family gathering: the three families that now stand behind Hermès to be precise: Dumas, Puech and Guerrand. These are the families of three daughters of Émile-Maurice Hermès, the grandson the company's founder, Thierry Hermès. The gathering took place in Basel in late April on the first day of the renowned Baselworld watch exhibition. The new La Montre Hermès showroom was being opened, which was built by Toyo Ito, a remarkable Japanese conceptual architect and winner of the Pritzker Prize. So, there I was, watching from a distance how Hermès art director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and the soon-to-be Hermès CEO Axel Dumas were greeting their numerous relatives: uncles, aunts and cousins, paying attention to the graceful silver-haired matrons, chatting breezily with stunning 30-40 years old ladies and shaking hands with the honourable monsieurs.

Emile Hermès' daughters (from left to right): Jacqueline, Simone, Yvonne and baby Aline (in the saddle). Paris, 1912.

The whole get-together looked more like a Christmas family dinner than an official event. Needless to say each of these women; ranging from 20 to 80 years-old, carried Hermès handbags, predominantly the Kelly bag. It was a true parade of colours and sizes: small, big, very small, and very big; single-colour and the famous tri-colour, standard and special order. None of the bags were new; they all had that "lived-in" look and had obviously belonged to their owners for years, probably even to their mothers and grandmothers. These are the noble attributes of the "old money" that "new money" can imitate only through wearing vintage. The handbags contributed to that "cool" flair of Hermès-women, which is so sought after by many. And to top it off, their Kelly bags were mainly made of that special thick, rather rigid, glamorous and glowing leather.

Hermès accessories ad, 1939.

Like any other cult, during almost 60 years of its existence the Hermès bag has been shrouded in mystery and ritual. Many of those rituals are associated with Birkin and Kelly, the most famous Hermès bags, with their sizes, variations, accessories, colours and above all their type of leather. Unlike the colour, the bag's texture is the key because a Kelly made of Box leather and a Kelly made of Togo leather will look quite different from each other; they are worn differently and they age differently. Hermès uses a wide range of various leather types. Leather can be granulated or smooth, natural-grain or embossed (produced using a special press;) the cow hide can be used, as well calf, bull, goat and buffalo, not to mention crocodile, alligator, ostrich and lizard. All fans of the brand delve into their classifications; they know exactly which leathers are used in a modern bag and which leathers were used in the past and when they were discontinued. Veau Box is a classic, it is one of the most beautiful and long-lasting leathers. In Basel, most women from the Hermès family wore bags made of Veau Box; and my dear friend who has worked for Hermès quite a while now, orders her Kelly in exactly same leather. Veau Box is the quintessence of Hermès style.9e763032498691e8b632fc591690ef91.jpg
Hermès Tri Colour Kelly 32 in Veau Box 

This leather type has been around since the very beginning of Hermès, namely the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Julie Hermès, the wife of Émile-Maurice, asked him to design a convenient zipper bag for her. Only the hides of male calves are used; the leather is treated in a special way to become glossy and without grain. The leather is chromium-tanned and coloured with natural or artificial dyes, and then processed and buffed using special oil- and wax-based compounds to achieve the very glossy and smooth exterior. This is one of the most lightweight Hermès leathers: a 35-centimeter Kelly bag made of Veau Box weighs just about a kilo. The major advantage of this leather, and my guess the reason  the owners of Hermès prefer it for their own handbags is its incredibly noble aging and remarkable durability. Once, in a small Versailles tanning workshop, I saw someone bring in a rather old and well-worn dark-blue Kelly; the shop master drew out a special leather polish and in a few quick moves he made the bag shine like it new. Moreover, Veau Box is one of the toughest Hermès leathers, which is why it holds the shape of the bag, something that is crucially important in case of a Kelly. By the way, Princess Grace is said to have been a true admirer of the Veau Box leather; a considerable part of the handbags in her personal collection were made from this leather.

Hermès Kelly 28 in black Box leather 

If we speak of rough skins with a smooth glossy surface, Hermès offers several alternatives related to Veau Box, most notably Veau Barenia. Veau Barenia is also a calf leather, though it is processed through a series of more sophisticated methods then Veau Box. The leather is tanned using several oils and then coloured with natural dyes (which is why it's only available in a few colours), resulting in a much sought-after effect as they age. Veau Barenia pieces gradually darken as you wear them, developing a darker tone resembling a tan, similar to an old leather club chair. It is a bit softer than Veau Box and slightly heavier. This leather is rare and is used not only for accessories, but also for horse harnesses and saddles. Another leather type with properties similar to Box is Veau Chamonix, made from the skin of calves grown in alpine meadows in the Chamonix area. It is as durable as Veau Box, has a smooth surface, but is more velvety to the touch and has a matte finish. It also ages well; scratches are almost unnoticeable, and accessories made from this leather look even better after you wear them for a while.

Close-up of Veau Box

Barenia and Chamonix are very beautiful and elegant-looking leathers, but for a collector Veau Box might be the best starting point; its unmistakable one-of-a-kind rough glaze is recognized at first sight and has something to which the French refer to as très très chic. Nowadays you would have to wait a very long time to get a Kelly in Veau Box from the boutique, and thus the vintage handbags give you the chance to own one right now together with that special "old money" vibe.71a80124c708e8b038dc7808d1b74add.jpg

Clock-wise: Rachel Bilson, Naomi Yang, Chiara Ferragni with vintage Hermès Kelly handbags.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva


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Hermès Kelly bags: What makes them unique?


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