Tunisian artist Leïla Menchari has died Saturday, April 4 at the age of 93. Born in Tunisia in 1927, in 1961 she became the assistant to Annie Beaumel, director of window displays at the Hermès Faubourg Saint-Honoré store. She was appointed director of window displays and of the silk colors committee in 1978. Menchari spent her life traveling across the world in search of exceptional savoir-faire, which she harnessed to invent extraordinary dreamlike window displays. “It’s very difficult to say today what is Hermès and what is Leïla,” said Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès. “Even Leïla’s other life, in Tunisia, is part of Hermès. Whenever I meet an artisan in Tunisa, I know that they work with Leïla.” The French luxury house dedicated an exhibition Hermès à Tire d’Aile, les mondes de Leïla Menchari to the artist at the Grand Palais from November 8 to December 3, 2017. For this occasion, the below interview was published in the November 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
“When designing a scene, there must always be some mystery, because mystery is a springboard to dreams. Mystery is an invitation to fill in the gaps left by the imagination,” said Tunisian Leïla Menchari, describing the theatrical window displays she designs four times a year for Hermès. Menchari joined the quintessentially Parisian house in 1961.
It all began in Tunisia with the cinema: Menchari, whose mother was a pioneer of women’s emancipation, regularly let her daughter watch movies, while her female cousins “never went out.” The young Menchari became a go-between, recounting the films to them. “It could keep us up all night,” she recalled. “I have always loved storytelling. And here, that is all I do.”
VOGUE ARABIA NOVEMBER 2017: Leïla Menchari and Hermès: an inseparable but surprising duo. On what is it based?
For me, Hermès represents family. I felt I had been adopted, brought in from the cold, when I had been very much alone in Paris, left to my own devices. At the same time, I have another country, Tunisia, where I have a life, the land of my childhood. There you go: I feel I have two homelands and two lives. Hermès has given me everything. Annie Beaumel [former Hermès director of window displays], who hired me the day I came to show her my drawings, offered me a springboard, and I then had to carry on. I knew immediately how lucky I was, because I had been told that wishing won’t make dreams come true. It is said that a life is built on reality, but I was the polar opposite of all that. I had studied at the Beaux-Arts, where everyone avoided the material aspects of life. Hermès gave me the opportunity to make my own way while following my dreams.
What are the challenges of a window display?
A window display is a way of telling a story, and there are all sorts of ways of telling them. The big window is a theater for which I had to find a tableau to tell a story. I had done theater sets at the Beaux-Arts and had loved it. But this theater set is far more difficult: there’s no text, no movement, and no distance. You have to cover everything: you’re a designer, painter, composer, theater director… Once I did a simple one with almost nothing in it: a beach, a reef sculpted from white marble which resembled a wave, a pair of sunglasses, and a swimsuit. And I had Eau d’Orange Verte sprayed into the street. Jean-Louis Dumas’ initial reaction was to say “But Leïla, there’s nothing there!” and then he saw a lady inhale the scent and he said to her, “Breathe, Madame, breathe,” and with that he attracted more people, passed on my story, and there was soon a crowd. The key is to be able to evoke things people have liked by expressing them differently. That’s also what we’re doing with this exhibition at the Grand Palais: we’re bringing objects out again, but for different images. We’re shuffling the cards.
Which have been your most extravagant and most memorable window displays?
In my view, all my displays have been extravagant! But essentially, the most complex to create have been the simplest. For the Year of the Stars and Mythology, for example, I asked the sculptor Albert Féraud, a friend from the Beaux-Arts who used to work mainly with metal, to make me a meteorite that would rotate in the space, in the big window. It was completely crazy… He used a block of metal he had left over from making the Koenig Memorial at Porte Maillot in Paris. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to create a thing that rotated in mid-air, and it was impossible to see how it was done. The workshops have never said no to me, always “we’ll see, Leïla, we’ll give it a go.” But it wasn’t easy to get them to understand fully my madness: you can’t explain a dream.
Leïla Menchari and Hermès by the years
1961 Becomes assistant to Annie Beaumel, director of window displays at the Faubourg Saint Honoré store, in Paris.
1978 Appointed director of window displays at 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré, and of the silk colors committee.
1990 Immersion into traditional Japanese handicraft.
1999 Her book The Hermès Shop Windows – Tales of a Wanderer is published.
2003 Jean Claude Ellena creates the perfume Un Jardin en Méditerranée for Hermès, inspired by Menchari’s garden in Tunisia.
2007 Travels through India, from New Delhi to Mumbai, stopping off at Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur, in search of exceptional savoir faire.
2008 The documentary M par M (Menchari by Moreau) by Josée Dayan is released.
2010 The Orient Hermès, voyages de Leïla Menchari exhibition opens at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris.