Looking at her work, reconstructed in an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, Leïla Menchari can see her life unfold. Here are the trellis arcades; the intense fretwork; and the mimosa, jasmine, and eucalyptus of her childhood in Tunisia.
Here, too, the majestic stonework – carving mythical creatures into elbow rests for stone benches – suggests places of sun and shade. From grotto to sandy shore, the designer weaves an ethereal web of wonder, and all to create a backdrop for the Hermès Paris boutique.
“Leïla Menchari, the Queen of Enchantment” (Hermès À Tire-d’Aile – Les Mondes de Leïla Menchari), which runs until the 3rd December, is a tribute to the creative stage-maker of the famed French house, which galloped from making horse saddles to creating handbags. A fixture at Hermès since she joined as a junior in the art department in 1961, the designer became essential to the business under the late chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas, until she created her final fantasy in 2013.
It was Axel Dumas, who lived with what he calls the designer’s “flamboyant” window displays long before he took over Hermès from his uncle Jean-Louis, who decided to pay this public homage to the woman who became “part of the family” as she offered her magic from the corner window on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
“When designing a scene, there must always be some mystery, because mystery is a springboard to dreams; an invitation to fill the gaps left by the imagination,” the executive said, escorting Leïla Menchari around the exhibition opening as though she were the mother of the family.
“For me, Hermès represents family: I felt I had been adopted, brought in from the cold,” said the designer, who, after an upbringing with a feisty, feminist mother in Tunisia, had felt alone in Paris while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Calling a window display “a way of telling a story” and describing the big window as a theatre, she used her knowledge of set design to make “every display, however complex or minimalist”, a tableau.
An accompanying book by award-winning French writer Michèle Gazier, tells the Leila Menchari story in poetic detail.
Related Read: The Great Tunisian storyteller
Whatever surprises and memories are in store for visitors to the exhibition, they should know from the start that none of the incredible handbag creations that feature in the displays were ever sold. Instead, they acted as props in the life history that the Tunisian artist wove through her work for Hermès. Yet, at the same time, these flights of fantasy, shown as museum pieces, are peopled by handbags that had their roots in Leïla’s life – and then flowered in Paris.
Leïla remembers the reaction of “There’s nothing there!” when she showed Jean-Louis Dumas the now-iconic window of a solitary sandy beach; a reef sculpted from white marble in the shape of a wave, with just a pair of sunglasses and a swimsuit. But a tart orange-scented fragrance sprayed into the street lured in the clients.
The museum’s recreated window displays are rarely minimalist, and much is woven into those Maghreb references to palm trees and brimming bowls of spices. They are served up on wooden platters with a painted panther-skin handbag on top. Behind it are more bags, slippers and even a saddle in the animal pattern, set against a sun-gold floor.
The designer’s artistic mind never moves far from Tunisia, where a heavy, carved silver chair is replicated in the surface of a Kelly bag, or the famous, classic handbag rests on sunshine-yellow fur below purple crystals and a winged horse.
It is easy to grasp the delicacy of handwork that creates a link between a bag marked with the pattern of the trellis behind it, but other inspirations are almost too airy to accept, such as a spider’s web of threads from which tiny pastel-coloured purses appear to dangle.
And then there is the horse: the symbol of how it all began at Hermès, originally a supplier of saddles. But Leila’s “animal” is made as if from its own hide, from flat pieces of orange or black leather riveted together and shown with a silver sandal and bags in a similar texture.
Are these Hermès displays art? Or craft? I would say both – with a brush of exuberant and inventive magic.
Related Read: Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakesh: A Life in Color