From Cannes to Cannon Street, the Hermès tie became a byword for status and good taste. In its Nineties heyday more than a million were sold each year. But does the era of informality mean it’s on the way out, asks Joseph Bullmore
A good tie is like a bulletproof vest – a silken breastplate against the slings and arrows of modern life. Graydon Carter, the long-time editor of Vanity Fair, once said that a decent bow tie was the ultimate hangover cure: ‘You feel better when you look natty – and people will notice your tie instead of your wan expression.’
My father has told me, on several disconcerting occasions: ‘If you’re going to break bad news, do it in a silk tie.’ Manoli Olympitis, merchant banker extraordinaire and Eighties jet-setter, said: ‘A tie can hide a multitude of sins, so to speak. When you get to a certain age, a tie just holds everything together better.’
And then there’s that old maxim, borne out from the trading floor to the royal enclosure: the better you dress, the worse you can behave. A well-tied tie is a get-out-of-jail-free card, if so inclined. A diversionary tactic. A free pass.
In that case, the Hermès tie – the tie ne plus ultra, the tie all other ties want to be when they grow up – is an intergalactic forcefield. It is a naturally occurring source of confidence.
When I asked people what they thought of the ultimate silken, printed number, it was striking how many invoked the way it made them feel: brighter, sharper, jollier, better at their job. Some of this is aesthetic – there’s an understated playfulness to most Hermès patterns, and a worldly, Gallic sophistication in the cut and feel (an Hermès tie, you suspect, could give a hilarious, touching best man’s speech in three languages in one afternoon).
But mostly it’s tribal, mythical – found in the unseen vapours of status and significance that the tie has absorbed. ‘It’s like a Rolex,’ a 30-year-old analyst at Schroders explains. ‘You feel that you haven’t made it in finance till you’ve bought your first Hermès tie.’
Peter York, the outspoken doyen of men’s taste, describes how the Hermès tie ‘became the absolute kitemark for serious bankers’ in the mid-Eighties. ‘It was the thing,’ he says.
Tom Chamberlain, the perma-elegant editor of The Rake magazine, said he bought his first one at the age of 23: ‘I had started my first job in the luxury industry and I felt this was a talisman of kinds to carry me over the threshold and into this new world – like a nicely made lanyard.’
Stefan Allesch-Taylor, the Square Mile stalwart, says: ‘I bought it the day I passed the Registered Representative of the International Stock Exchange Exam. Up till then, I wasn’t really considered entitled to wear one at the office.’
Olympitis remembers how, in his early career, ‘An Hermès tie was a rite of passage – very much the thing for successful people in the city to wear.’ For so many, it seems, the item has become a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy – an initiation, a marker, a gold-plated security pass that comes with executive bathroom access.
Was it ever thus? Back in the late Forties, the Hermès tie promised access of a different kind entirely.
The story goes that punters down in Cannes, on entering the casino on La Croisette, were often turned away sniffily at the door for not meeting the required dress code. So they’d trot over to the nearest boutique they could find – which happened, at that time, to belong to the Hermès clan – and ask for a necktie to sharpen them up.
The manager soon realised he was on to a good thing, and in 1949 the company – which until that point had been largely known for saddle-making, leather goods and a few bags – began to make silk neckties in earnest.
Patrick Guerrand, one of founder Thierry Hermès’s great-great-grandsons, soon took the task and ran with it. He was helped, in no small part, by a designer named Henri d’Origny. To understand d’Origny is to begin to understand the ties themselves – whimsical but refined, flecked with sporting heritage and the obsessions of the Parisian beau monde. When he was a child, d’Origny’s grand patrician family were long-time clients of Hermès.
‘My grandfather, who loved shooting, bought an estate just before the First War,’ he told Newsweek in 2015. ‘And I lived there practically all my childhood. My grandfather was a very compulsive rider. He had beautiful horses, and all his saddlery was Hermès.’ (Silk and equestrianism have long been intertwined – most early-20th-century jockey jerseys and caps were constructed in the material.)
In the early Fifties, d’Origny was living handsomely off his inheritance and amusing himself with designing and drawing. But by 1958 he was intrigued enough by the Hermès story (‘my madeleine is the magnificent, special aroma of nice old saddles’) to start working at the brand’s boutique on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.
The shop was quiet, and the customers were old. ‘So I bored myself… for six months, and I made my doodles on my desk because there were so few clients,’ he explained. ‘Patrick Guerrand saw me making those little doodles and said, “Well, that’s a good idea. We could use them as a print for the ties.”’
The formula was simple but ingenious. D’Origny took the standard repeated tie patterns of the day – dots, stripes, simple shapes – and injected them with flair, colour, and nods to the hobbies of the jet set: stirrups, bits, sails, horse shoes. ‘And it was an immediate success.’ (D’Origny, now in his eighties, still works with Hermès as an external creative artist. The company runs in his blood, or possibly vice versa.)
At the height of ‘greed is good’ deregulation in 1985 – and amid red braces, bricks for phones and Concordes before lunch – a tie depicting a miniature elephant taking a shower from its own trunk was released by the French couture house. It was a new high-water mark in rakish whimsy, and the Wall Streeters – who never saw a tastefully showy status symbol they didn’t like – took to it like ducks, or indeed elephants, to water.
Designer Philippe Mouquet, who joined the company in 1989, became the chief architect of these flights of fancy, adding the much-drooled-over whale motif to the ark of animals.
Until that point, Hermès-daubed bankers had preferred things a little more inanimate and oblique: York remembers that ‘serious bankers in London would only wear the pale blue spirography one’, while Olympitis recalls: ‘The ones with the elephants, I always thought, were more celebratory than for everyday business.’
But as the economy began to falter and splutter after Black Monday (in 1987) and again after Black Wednesday (1992), upbeat became the order of the day.
In 1995 Suzy Menkes, the leading fashion authority, noted in the New York Times: ‘Whales surfaced at the chest as financiers drowned in debt. Insurance brokers offered clients the best possible cover with ties splattered with vivid umbrellas and raindrops.’
Two years later, in the same paper, Joseph Fitchett wrote: ‘Ties must be serious in times of prosperity and lighthearted in times of crisis.’ (‘I think that is a brilliant credo for ties and also for personality,’ adds Chamberlain.)
‘It is hard not to see sociological symbolism in the tie,’ Menkes wrote. ‘Jokes as black humor for tough times.’
But others just saw a sprinkling of wit among the drab environs of the commuter train – or perhaps a handy lever for one-upmanship. With a finite number of new patterns released each year – and a distinctive, prettily designed serial code on the back of each blade – Hermès ties could now be coveted and codified like other male-oriented collectibles: watches, sports cars, wines, antiques.
‘There are two types of men that wear Hermès ties,’ Allesch-Taylor tells me. ‘The first is very specific about the animal print on the tie and gets extremely excited about getting the latest version, so they have something to talk about that isn’t bond yields. And the second is those, well, who do not.’
Put like that, the Hermès tie becomes a tightrope act.
It could very easily, in the pompy days of the Nineties, have fallen into a pit of faddy naffness – become a novelty item like a Daffy Duck Christmas tie, or a gawky, geeky collectible like a Royal Doulton tea set.
But it has achieved a unique balancing act, for more than 30 years now, of wit without wackiness; a subtle smile rather than a toothy grin.
‘The genius of Hermès was that they had whimsical effects and funny animals, but that they struck just the right tone between playful and elegant,’ Menkes tells me. ‘It never looked silly or novelty or foolish, and I think that comes down to the quality. When you print on beautiful silk, the effect is different to printing on anything else.’
Chamberlain agrees: ‘My father often speaks about something that “wouldn’t be allowed in the officers’ mess”, which means it’s too flashy. But to Hermès’s credit, if anyone asks about the tie, saying it is Hermès does add legitimacy where no other brand would.’
Nevertheless, away from the officers’ mess, sartorial standards are on the slide. In 2017 John Bercow (whose own lurid taste in neckwear should have been something of an alarm bell) announced the official relaxation of the age-old dress code of jackets and ties in the Commons chamber. It was, he decreed, ‘a custom, and not a rule’. (Backbench droner Peter Bone said: ‘It does, sort of, slice by slice, make our parliament more like a county council or a devolved assembly.’)
Then, in 2019, Goldman Sachs – once a byword for oil-slick dress sense – decided to relax its sartorial rules to better reflect ‘the changing nature of workplaces generally in favour of a more casual environment’ (and possibly to ensnare the Patagonia-clad tech bros of Silicon Valley, too).
Even Thomas Pink, the British shirtmaker-in-chief to any yuppie worth his salt in the Eighties or Nineties, started making shirts that looked better without a tie. My pal at Schroders says: ‘No one in finance wears ties any more. And when they do, they’re pretty naff.’
Another at Goldman says: ‘It seems to me that only the very smart Europeans in the office can pull them off.’ Menkes, meanwhile, revises her 1995 judgement – ‘black jokes for tough times’ – in the Covid era: ‘Somehow, I think it’s not a moment for witty jokes.’
But these are middle-market problems, surely. And Hermès has long operated in a rarefied atmosphere of its own. (The ties cost £170 a pop.) Certainly, the company’s earnings report from 2019 boasts ‘exceptional sales and results growth’ as its headline thought, explaining that the group’s ‘consolidated revenue’ was €6.8 billion in 2019, up 15 per cent on the previous year.
Silk and textiles – which encompasses ties – made up 9 per cent of that, at €592 million – up from €537 million the year before.
‘The woven and knitted ties collections, sober and elegant, forge ahead with creativity and impertinence,’ claims the report.
But Hermès won’t say how many ties it actually sells these days. It seems likely that the figure is less than the million or more a year that it sold in the Nineties. Christophe Goineau has been the creative director of men’s silks at Hermès since 2011.
Speaking to The Week last March, he explained how ties have moved from a duty to a treat, from a must-wear to a must-have. ‘Now, in Hermès stores, we see more and more young guys buying ties for pleasure. When I was 20, wearing a tie was seen as an obligation more than a personal choice and pleasure.’
Chamberlain views this as an opportunity rather than a threat. ‘Less demand is not necessarily a problem for luxury tie makers, as those who are still wearing ties will have the means to spend and want to spend well,’ he explains. ‘The market is full of awful ties, so if artisan tie makers have been hoping to assert themselves, now is the time.’
The ties themselves, of course, undergo the same exacting craftsmanship as ever. Up to 14 designers might oversee a single pattern before stencilling on to the finest lightweight silk twill – sourced in secrecy, to deter copycats. This is then dyed using a combination of Hermès’s 40 proprietary ‘mother hue’ inks, blended from more than 75,000 pigments.
Most mass-market ties are made from three panels, but Hermès’s ties have only two, and each of them is handcut. These are then sewn together, also by hand, using a single piece of thread, before being pointed into the signature triangular dovetailed with five origami-grade folds. The special interlining laid between the silk layers, meanwhile, is what gives an Hermès tie its beloved hand-feel and springiness, puckering and falling in just the right way.
Goineau also notes a generational quirk: ‘Now we have a younger generation buying ties because the older generation is not wearing them any more,’ he told Forbes India. ‘They are trying to be different and are looking for something specific, as compared to their bosses or fathers who bought ties because they had to.’
York agrees: ‘It’s funny, because I notice these young people who like to wear them almost ironically now to various events. There’s a certain charm to that.’ Charm is the word. The Hermès tie casts a spell on its owner.
York, who owns about 30, speaks of his favourite model like a priceless heirloom or the family dog: ‘It’s pale blue with these wonderful black commas on it – I really, really love it. I would rescue it from a burning house without a moment’s thought.’
Steve Varsano, a private jet magnate, has one with ‘little airplanes on it’ with which he’s particularly enamoured. Chamberlain talks in almost broken tones about a horsebit-flavoured model he bought some years ago. ‘It is more iconic even than the Gucci bit loafer,’ he says, which in this world is praise so high as to be almost sacrilegious. Olympitis, finally, tells a story that could only have happened, one feels, with an Hermès tie at the centre.
‘I was at a dinner in New York in the Seventies with Drue Heinz [of the food empire], and I happened to be at the same table as Alec Guinness. He was in the city to promote a new series – Smiley’s People – and I was starstruck. Guinness was absolutely charming and incredibly nice.
Suddenly, he said, “You know dear boy, I’ve been admiring your tie.” And so I did the most embarrassing thing possible – I took it off and presented it to him, with the absolutely awful line: “I only hope this tie gives you as much pleasure as your performances have given me.”
‘A few months later, I was watching the first episode of the show. And in the opening scene I spotted Alec Guinness – and he was wearing my tie. I’m certain he put it on because he thought I might see it. And I was over the moon.’
Friends in high places and an elegant inside joke – the Hermès tie will ride again.