When Leïla Menchari was but an art student, freshly transplanted to Paris from her native Tunisia, the decorator then in charge of Hermès’ windows, Annie Beaumel, asked her to “draw me your dreams.” Little did Menchari realize on that particular day, in 1961, that she had stumbled onto her life’s work. Today, the stories she tells in her windows for Hermès remain the standard by which all other displays are measured.
This month, the publishing house Actes Sud will unveil Leïla Menchari, Queen of Enchantment, a tribute to Menchari’s remarkable career, and illustrated through 137 of her window displays. To accompany the tome, Hermès mounted a companion exhibition at the Grand Palais, in collaboration with the scenographer Nathalie Crinière. “Hermès à Tire d’Aile — The worlds of Lëila Menchari” features eight sets inspired by those windows so famously populated by Birkins, Kellys and other iconic pieces in animal print, hot pink or sea green realized by Hermès craftsman exclusively for Menchari (virtually none were ever available for purchase). Art— a horse sculpture by Christian Renonciat, a yellow Pegasus rearing up in a pink geode, a weeping willow sculpture by Benoit Luyckx, and Archimbaldo-esque faces composed of shells— lend the scenes an otherworldly aura.
“When I was a child, the windows were magic to me,” said Alex Dumas, the luxury house’s CEO. “I used to come down with my grandfather and my father and daydream over them. It seemed to me that people had a really good time working at Hermès.” Added Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the house’s artistic director, “Leïla’s work was a lesson in color and savoir faire; her generosity was like a gift to the world.”
Said the evening’s grande dame, “When I first came to the house, luxury seemed slightly suspect to me. I was very independent. What I see [now was that it was the] most beautiful trap of my life.”
Likening every window to a little theater in which every role should be played well, she said that “Things that are made well never leave you indifferent. Beauty is what makes me grow.” Even 55 years after auspicious beginnings, she said she still feels like she’s just getting started. “It’s like unspooling a bobbin,” she told Vogue. “I never think about the past. The important thing is to keep learning.”
“Hermès à Tire d’Aile — The worlds of Lëila Menchari” runs through December 3rd at the Grand Palais– Galerie Sud, Paris 8th. Open from 10am – 8pm, and until 10pm on Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesdays.