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“Disruptive” is the buzzword of our times. Disruptive technology, disruptive innovation and disruptive design, systems and thinking — everyone is busy disrupting. In most cases, the disruptee is long overdue for a modern makeover. We need to break down the old to make way for the new.
How, then, to disrupt an icon that is not only beloved but is also arguably increasing in value? It’s a question Pierre Hardy, the creative director for Hermès shoes and jewellery, asked himself when reimagining the brand’s iconic Kelly bag for his high jewellery collection Kellymorphose.
The Kelly bag, with its distinctive trapezoidal silhouette, was first realised in the 1930s by Robert Dumas, a son-in- law of Émile Hermès, the early maison head who introduced ready-to-wear, watches, shoes and jewellery. The bag was immortalised in the 1950s by Grace Kelly, who would hold the sizeable carrier over her stomach to conceal the early signs of her pregnancy (the design was subsequently named in her honour). Each Kelly bag is handcrafted over many hours and waitlists can be years long. The most expensive iteration sold in 2021 for some $US510,000 (about $AU685,000), the most ever paid for a bag sold at auction.
So, how to disrupt the world’s most valuable handbag? Enter Pierre Hardy. Upon meeting the warm, unassuming designer at the Hermès headquarters in Paris’s Eighth Arrondissement, “disruptive” seems like the wrong choice of words. “Disarming” is much more fitting. With his candour, generous use of sarcastic air quotes and boyish excitement when talking about his current favourite TV series, “Euphoria”, it’s easy to forget that Hardy has been in the business — specifically the business of Hermès — since 1990.
He was onboarded as the creative director for women’s shoes, then men’s shoes was added to his portfolio and, in 2001, he was appointed the creative director for the fine jewellery division. In his three-decade-long tenure he’s produced everything from bags and shoes to nail polish bottles. His designs range from the artfully iconic, such as the Hermès spring 2019 Sputnik heel, to the innovative (his Quick trainers from 1998 made Hermès the first luxury brand to design a sneaker made of leather) and the enduring (Hardy’s Oran sandals, designed in 1997, remain a bestseller).
“There is this collective image that everybody has of what [Hermès] is,” he says of the brand known for its clean, classically French aesthetic. “My biggest pleasure is to play with this preconceived idea and to twist it and show it in different ways. It’s one of my mottos in the creation for Hermès.
“The Kelly is the climax of [that],” he continues. “It’s the perfect image that everyone has in mind when you talk about Hermès. It’s the strongest image, too. The shape makes it easy to work with because it’s so strong — you can’t destroy it. So Kellymorphose was about exploring this object that is built with pieces — the handle, the body, the flap, the belt — and playing with it and transforming it into something more precious than it already is. It was like a game, finding a new balance. I wanted to glorify different details people might not have noticed before.”
The bag has been deconstructed and reimagined in a Lewis Carroll-esque play on proportion. The clasp: dismantled, covered with diamonds and fashioned into a choker, a five-row white-gold bracelet and a dawn-hued rose-gold ring with 28 midnight-black spinels. There’s the strap, rendered as both a white- gold Gavroche necklace (studded with 1,771 diamonds) and as the Précieux Kelly sautoir, with a shrunken bag pendant dangling from a crisscross chain. An asymmetrical pair of Kelly Clochette earrings features the iconic lock and key with “clochette” covering — festooned with diamonds, naturally. The result is an exaltation of detail and a homage to the precision engineering of the Kelly. Yet, as luminous as his creations are, it’s Hardy’s approach to life that is most inspiring. He tells me that he seeks artistry every day, adding: “It’s also maybe the reason I’m doing my job — to transform the average day into something better, if you see what I mean?” Then he collapses into giggles. “Into something more sophisticated, simpler or something more. It’s a quest, almost, that is never-ending.”
Like so many first-generation Americans, the jewellery designer Monica Rich Kosann has always felt deeply connected to the past. Raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side by an Austrian mother and a Hungarian father, she spent her childhood days wandering through museums and art galleries with her family. As a student at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, Kosann would head downtown after class to rummage through antiques stores. At 16, the gift of a Rollei film camera from her father changed her life. Inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, she spent the next two decades taking portraits of friends and acquaintances. Her love of old, beautiful things never faded, and she amassed in that time “about a gazillion” Art Deco cigarette cases, powder compacts, Victorian lockets and minaudières from the early 1900s, which she acquired at the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen in Paris, along Portobello Road in London and down Vienna’s cobblestone side streets. Kosann would insert her photos into what she called “image cases,” and give them as presents to friends, and by 2003, she launched her namesake line of sterling silver photo boxes. She eventually expanded into jewellery, offering oval filigree lockets, enamel vermeil zodiac charms and stackable gold bands that riff on 15th-century poesy rings.
Nearly 20 years later, Kosann is still drawn to the stories our objects tell, or the ones she imagines they might. A new update on one of her creations started with a mysterious silver necklace that she picked up at the flea market in Paris in the early 2000s. She was so taken by its hand-engraved scrolling motif that she sat down to sketch a gold locket with a similar pattern. Both the antique and the design it inspired have been reborn as a faceted snow quartz teardrop pendant bordered in pavé diamonds that hangs from a 75cm yellow-gold chain. When opened, the intricately etched locket reveals space for two photographs. “Heirlooms,” she says, “within heirlooms.”