When the luxury equestrian leather company Hermès decided to screen-print a silk scarf in 1937, few could have predicted that it would go on to become one of the world’s most iconic accessories. Loved by Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis, Catherine Deneuve and Grace Kelly – who once fashioned hers into a sling when she broke her arm – these squares of silk are both a coveted status symbol and wearable work of art. Today it can be seen slung over the shoulders of the most elegant women in the world, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Victoria Beckham and of course – the UK’s Queen Elizabeth, who had the floral ‘Regina’ scarf created for her in 1972.
Since that very first ‘carré’, Hermès has produced over 2,000 different designs, with each scarf taking 18 months to craft at its factory near Lyon, France. A single scarf is made from the silk of 250 mulberry moths and then hand-silk-screened, with each hem rolled and stitched by a seamstress.
But despite its devotion to tradition, the French fashion house isn’t afraid to modernise. Hermès invites artists from all over the world to unleash their creativity within that 16-inch square, and there’s now an app that teaches customers how to tie their scarf just so. The launch of the launderette-themed ‘Hermès-matic’ pop-up store in Dubai, allowing customers to dye their scarves new colours, is a fun, dynamic way to bring the carré to a whole new set of customers. Because whether it’s wrapped into a stylish shayla, knotted as a neckerchief, strung on a handbag, or even made into a pillow or framed and hung on the wall – the next generation of Emirati women are giving the Hermès scarf a new twist (and tie, and tuck, and fold...).
Mariam Abdulla Al Hendi, 28, Emirati
Mariam wears: Ring, Dhs745; Scarves: Twilly, Dhs685; Max Twilly, Dhs1,315; Scarf (90x90) starting from Dhs1,680; Scarf (140x140) starting from Dhs3,335, all Hermès.
She might not need a telephone box, but Mariam Al Hendi is a fashion superhero. When she clocks off from her day job as a senior mechanical engineer for GASCO, Mariam trades the hard hat and blue overalls for a plain abaya and a pink Hermès scarf. “I think of it as two sides to my personality,” she says. “Simply putting on a bright pop of a patterned Hermès scarf gives me back my femininity. In my industry the few women that there are think they have to act like a man to be heard, but I don’t want to lose my feminine side – I think that’s really important.”
Although stereotypes in engineering are slowly changing, Mariam admits that people are still surprised when she reveals her occupation. “People assume I’m in fashion or art because I like to get dressed up,” she says. “Even out in the field I have my pink nails, even though it gets dirty and I’m climbing monkey ladders and equipment I like to be myself.”
Mariam always drapes her Hermès scarves over her shoulders, but says that the styling on our shoot has inspired her to think outside the (orange) box. “I’m now re-evaluating how I wear mine and I want to be more creative,” she says. “This scarf can be incredible as a dress, as a headband, as a bracelet – there’s so many wears to wear it.”
“It’s not just a scarf, it’s the feeling you get when you wear it,” she explains. “Firstly there’s the weight of the silk, then there are the patterns which are so intricate and unusual, and then there’s the history. It’s totally unique how much work goes into this one item. And they’re so unmistakable that when I wear one I get so many compliments. You wouldn’t get that with any other scarf.”
As a result, the Hermès scarf is the ultimate investment piece. “You can pass it on to your daughters,” says Mariam. “You put one on and you are an Hermès woman. It’s not just an outfit you’re putting on, it’s a character. When I wear an Hermès scarf it’s like a role play for me – for in an instant I’m Grace Kelly, I’m Audrey Hepburn. What could be more elegant than that?”
Fatima Abdulla Al Hendi, 31, Emirati
Fatima wears scarves: Twilly, Dhs685; Maxi Twilly, Dhs1,315; Scarf (90x90) starting from Dhs1,680; Scarf (140x140) starting from Dhs3,335, all Hermès.
Whichever way she wears it – and there are many – for Fatima Abdulla Al Hendi the Hermès scarf isn’t just a square of silk. It’s a form of female expression. “When you wear veils as we do, a bright Hermès scarf is a way to show the world who you are,” she explains. “Black abayas and shaylas can be boring, so by adding this one touch of glamour and colour and personality it can make you feel empowered. It’s almost like wearing make-up in that way.”
The television presenter owns four Hermès scarves, her favourite being a green, yellow and orange 36-inch carré that was an engagement present from her now-husband three years ago. “Right after he gave it to me I kind of wrapped it around my head so it was loose at the back and he told me ‘Wow that looks amazing I love how you’ve tied that’,” she recalls. “I felt really stylish and special.”
Fatima now styles up her scarves in a multitude of ways, often referring to the menu of fastening and folding instructions which comes in the box. “The Hermès scarf is just so versatile – it can be in your hair, on your bag, as a belt, as a bracelet, and it looks just as good with an abaya as it does with jeans and a plain white T-shirt,” she says. Although Fatima describes her colour choice as conservative, she says she’s naturally drawn to the “funky new patterns,” especially animal symbols. “I find nature, particularly flowers and animals very inspiring,” she says. “At the Hermès-matic pop-up store they had one scarf with panthers on it and against the silk they just seemed so alive and beautiful.”
Like her sister, Fatima loves the way an Hermès scarf can add instant elegance. “I have this image in my mind of pulling up in a vintage convertible car with an Hermès scarf wrapped around your hair – so chic.” She’s also a fan of that other Hermès must-have – the Birkin bag. “Like the scarf they can elevate any look,” she explains.
Fatima says that she is meticulous about steaming her scarves and keeping them in their boxes. There’s just one problem – her sister. “Me and Mariam share clothes and we like to borrow scarves from each other but then we fight when she doesn’t return them,” she says. “Actually she has had one pink Hermès scarf of mine for ages now.” Mariam, if you’re reading this, we think you might be in trouble.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photography: Mazen Abusrour at Things by People
Hair: AnneSophie Begtrup at The AgenC
Make-up: Toni Malt at Things by People