Hermès Unzipped, With Koto Bolofo
During the seven years that photographer Koto Bolofo spent documenting the sacred inner workings at the Hermès headquarters, hardly anyone (even Hermès insiders) knew what he was up to. Like a fly on the wall, he spent his days and nights trailing the craftsmen as they made the Kelly bag and the silk scarves that have come to be synonymous with the historic French brand. At last, in July, he unveiled his epic 11-volume tome La Maison (Steidl). The books, which individually break down the 11 different departments, are an ode to the incredible skill that goes into making every single item. On Wednesday, 33 of the photos will be on display for an exhibit running through September 30 at the Hermès flagship store on Madison Avenue. Here, the passionate lensman talks to Style.com about photographing the craft of Hermès.
You gained unparalleled access to the inner workings of Hermès. How did you manage to do that?
It really is the magic question. I arranged a meeting with Jean-Louis Dumas (the chairman of Hermès at the time)—he had never met me. The work I showed him had nothing to do with craft. They were my personal pictures of flowers, sand, wave motions, and such and he said he liked my work. Then, I told him that Hermès is going nowhere. You have to let the ordinary person know—what is Hermès? How do you make a bag or a shoe? I was really giving it deep to him. I told him, “You have come to the end of the line. You can’t just hide the secret of these elaborately well-made bags. It’s about time to show somebody.”
Wow, that was bold. How did he respond to that?
He stopped me and said, “Excuse me, Koto, where exactly are you from?” It felt like an immigration question. I said, “South Africa.” He was very stunned. It was then that we figured out that my tribe in Lesotho had protected his great, great grandfather from the Zulu attacks. “Therefore, you, Koto, are cousin of mine and you are the only person in this company who can call me Jean-Louis,” he said to me. “Plus, you have carte blanche to do anything you want.” It was like winning the photographic lottery. Immediately, I knew I wanted to start with shoes. I told him, “With the shoe, we can walk together, and then we can do the saddle, and we will ride together.”
What prompted you to want to document the craftsmanship at Hermès in such painstaking detail?
Basically, I had been working for Hermès as a freelance photographer for about ten years. I was doing Le Monde d’Hermès—a nice elegant brochure, and I got bored. I was more interested to find out who made these things. Within Hermès, I felt something was not going forward but rather, around the same thing, and there was a complacency. When you have these luxurious brands, they take it for granted that things will always stay this way. I am a person who sees things need to move on.
During the many years you shot this, it was important to you to keep it as secret as possible. Why and how did you manage to do that?
It was a general honorable man’s agreement I made with Jean-Louis. He held the people of Hermès under his wing and wanted to keep it that way. I was going into a world people had never seen. The motto was “less is more.” Coming from the fashion background, where you use a lot of equipment and assistants, that was not easy. The secret was intense observation. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even take pictures so the cameras were of no interest to the craftsmen. The bees are caught in this hive, working and making beautiful things, and then they stop noticing you. It was like walking a tight rope, and if you lose that balance, everything closes up quickly. You have to break people first. I feel I did that.
You photographed them using a film camera. Why did you choose to do that instead of using digital?
I am not a technical man. I am totally useless when it comes to digital stuff. I still don’t know where this language came from. Mega this and download that, it’s another language to me. Using film—it’s a craft. With film I have 15 frames to be calculated. That spontaneousness—that is the art of photography. I still do all my book projects in film today. The whole project I did by myself. Tripod, cable release, no lights, camera, no assistants, and that’s it.
What about the intricate Hermès processes particularly intrigued you?
That’s a hard question. The surprising department is the specialty department. That department has well-pocketed clients who say exactly what they want and Hermès will make it. There was a guy from Africa who wanted a bag; he actually shot the crocodile himself and brought it in. The stink of the crocodile was so bad but he insisted the bag be made. Brigitte Bardot had a teddy bear made for herself there once. One lady had a bull and it had died and she wanted a bag made from the bull. If you have any a need, they will make it for you.
That is wild. What item is the most painstaking to create?
The saddle. I don’t know if you have ever seen a saddle being made, but it’s very physical. You have to be very strong. I was quite surprised. It looks very elegant, but the making of a saddle, the force you have to put into it is tremendous. Those saddles are there to last. It’s like you are wrestling with the leather.
The saddle was the first accessory Hermès ever made. How was photographing that section?
That was the hardest department. Dumas said, “This is Hermès and those men are proud—this is where it begins.” Lots of macho-ism in there. That was the third department I photographed. Every time I came with my camera, they would hunch their backs so I wouldn’t see what they were doing. Once I broke through, I became one of the family and were would all go out to eat at the local café.
What department were you most fascinated by and why?
I think the most fascinating one was Jeane-Claude Ellena, the perfume composer. He is a fox, I’m a fox, and in the end, we met each other’s match. In my vision, I was going to picnic with him in the lavender fields—it was all so fairy-tale. This man was very closed, though. He said, “There’s absolutely nothing to see here.” I asked to see the lavender fields. He said, “What are you talking about? Excuse me, they disappeared in the 1960′s.” So, I put myself in submission and asked him to teach me. “I write the formulas in my head,” he said.
What comes after an epic 11-volume book?
If you work with a gentleman named Gerhard Steidl, you have a hell of a lot of projects. As we talk, my next book on Lord Snowdon is being printed. I spent nearly two years photo-documenting Lord Snowdon, who was married to Princess Margaret. Also, I am working with Stephen Jones, the hat milliner. We are great chums now and he’s an absolutely fascinating man. I am in the process of doing a book all about him and that’s due out next year.