“This stroller spots the novel in the humdrum, the unseen in the deja vu, the faraway in the local. The flâneur gathers and gleans like a bee among flowers.” Pierre Alexis Dumas in the introduction to the latest S/S 15 issue of the in-house magazine Le Monde D’Hermès
Flâneur. It’s a French word that has no equal or direct translation in English. As a noun it means – “lounger”, “stroller”, “saunterer.” But read deep into the word and it’s more than just a physical action. The act of flânerie is really rooted to 19th century France, and in particular Paris where it caught the imagination of literary figures as it came to describe anyone who’s a man of leisure or idler to an urban explorer and connoisseur of the street. For Honoré de Balzac, flânerie was the “gastronomy of the eye”. In 1863 in an article for Le Figaro, Charles Baudelaire painted a pretty picture of the flâneur: “The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family.” A more concrete modern definition can be attributed to Edmund White who wrote a book dedicated to the flâneur: “A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks – and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.”
Nix out the erotic, and that’s exactly what Hermès had in mind when deciding upon “flânerie” as their theme of the year, which will be feted by an exhibition entitled “Wanderland” that will open at the Saatchi Gallery next week on the 9th April until the 2nd May. You’re all invited to understand the meaning of the act of flânerie as well as being a flâneur in the exhibition, and hopefully beyond.
I, along with Shini of Park and Cube, got the chance to go to the source of this word in Pareeee for the day on Tuesday to learn how to be a “flâneur” for a day. That’s no easy task for someone who is on the go all the time to direct destinations with a strict and set agenda. To meander, wander and just hang out and see where the streets take you is not something I, alas get to do often, and certainly not in Paris. Paris isn’t for having fun in; it’s for shows, appointments and meetings. I doubt flâneur-ing counts when you’re meandering from word to word, stumped by an iMac keyboard.
Therefore it was a real pleasure to have Hermès remind me that Paris is a city to enjoy, not to be burdened by. We started at Palais Royal. Yeah yeah, I supposedly know this place like the back of my hand. There’s Acne. There’s Marc Jacobs. There’s Cafe Kitsune. There’s scary Didier Ludot (the first vintage store I ever walked into in Paris, whose staff pretty much gave me evil eyes the whole entire time I was there). Oh but wait, as the helpful guide told us, look up, and you’ll see the neo-classical motifs on the mouldings are deliberately different from one section to the next. I also never noticed Le Grand Vefour, the restaurant opened in 1784 where the likes of Victor Hugo and Colette have dined.
Palais Royal is the most famous example of a covered walkway, which became fashionable in Paris in the late 18th and early 19th century and so was a a solid starting point to our walking tour through Paris’ remaining galleries and passages which survived Baron Haussmann’s urban revolution in the latter part of the 19th century – the majority of which I hadn’t encountered in person. Next was Galerie Vivienne – another place that I thought I knew as it’s often stuffed full of showrooms during fashion weeks. I hadn’t stopped to see the mosaic work or the nymphs and goddesses which adorn the rotunda nor one of the oldest bookstores in Paris at Libraries Jousseaume.
On and on we went weaving our way from the the 1st to the 2nd to the 9th arrondissements (distance and time become blurry concepts when you’re walking through covered passageways). They oscillate from grand and ornate (Vivienne, Colbert) to utilitarian and run-down (Choiseul). The past met the present at Passage des Paroramas where we stopped to have lunch at Stern Caffè, once the home of the famous engravers Maison Stern et Aumoitte founded in 1836. Closed in 2007, the location came under the hands of restauranteur David Lanher to create a curious bijoux Italian caffè with Venetian cuisine. Nothing about the interior is expected as Philippe Starck applies a surprisingly restrained hand to the pre-Belle Epoque interiors, accentuating the 1800s woodwork and thick gold wallpaper with taxidermy oddities and walls of old photographs.
After lunch as we follow on to Passage Jouffroy and Verdeau, we’re not quite sure how we ended up there as antique shops, stamp collector’s emporiums, bookstores and galleries blur into one. Being a flâneur is in part about forgetting the objectives of the day but rather allowing the time for your senses to absorb your surroundings.
Our walking route: Palais Royal – Galerie Vivienne – Passage Choiseul – Passage des Panoramas (and all its attached galleries) – Passage Jouffroy – Passage Verdeau
We could have gone on but we did have one important appointment to keep to. It was the culmination point of our journey as a flâneur. At Hermès’ 24 famous rue du Faubourg Saint–Honoré address, there’s a floor that isn’t accessible to the public. Look up in the atrium where a horse carriage is suspended and you’ll see glimpses of it. It’s the Hermès “collection Émile Hermès” – consisting not of Hermès archive items, but of historical artefacts, curiosities and objects that relate to horses, carriage and in general, the elegance of movement and mobility. Menehould de Bazelaire is the guardian of this Ali Baba’s cave as her official title is the director of the patrimony of culture at Hermès. She curates and augments this collection and guides Hermès designers from all the different metier to come in and explore to their heart’s content as an internal source of inspiration to pick up the “air of Hermès or the air of time”. What started as a private collection for Émile Hermès, who bought an antique walking stick at the age of 12 in 1870, has grown into a collection over well over 15,000 objects, spanning 3,500 years. “He was able to find the youth and freshness of the past,” said de Bazelaire. “He had a revelation that this collection could become a tool.”
Every inch of floor space, wall and cabinet is stuffed with treasure from the smallest minutiae that you have to seek out and look for to giant saddles and paintings positioned to grab your attention. The objects are not ordered by chronology or theme, nor are there accompanying captions. You’re forced to look at everything with fresh eyes so that the past becomes inspiration for the future. “Memories are like butterflies,” said de Bazelaire. “They can fly anywhere. All these objects are here to stimulate your imagination and dreams to spur the desire to create. We are not looking at the past like a museum. We give a second life to these objects.”
Nothing is too precious or meant to be looked at from afar. De Bazelaire encouraged us to touch, feel and poke around. She’d open up books and scrolls and pick up small curious objects that all reveal something intriguing and surprising. We were flâneur-ing to our heart’s content as we looked at oddities like 18th century pressed leaves mixed with collage, a galloping horse in motion from the Japanese Edo period or a horse whip handle made out of a stick bitten by a rabbit.
De Bazelaire could have carried on unlocking the secrets of these objects but we had a train to catch and one last Hermès spot to see. Away from the hustle bustle of the store (people were queueing up to buy bags downstairs) and the craftsmen of the ateliers (saddles and special custom orders are still made on-site here at rue de Fauborg Saint–Honoré), at the very top of the building is the most beautiful of “jardin sur le toit” (garden on the roof) flanked by old Hermès signage and a the statue of a man on horseback waving Hermès silk scarves, otherwise known as “l’artificier”. It’s a tranquil haven that doesn’t quite correlate to the streets below – perfect for the mind to wander and continue the journey of a flâneur, between the real and the imagined. Dreamlike apparitions didn’t stop at the gardens as our day of flânerie ended with an open fruit-tart prepared by Hermès’ in-house chef, topped with raspberry powder and fragrant pu-er served in Hermès china.
If philosophers and writers took flâneur to be a modern way of engaging with their changing urban environments then today, the act of flânerie could be seen as a luxury in our pace-stricken and digital-dominated lives – hence why Hermès have chosen it as its theme. To be a flâneur, is to be able to afford time, effort and a discerning eye of hidden details and undisclosed pleasures. They’re values that are embedded into Hermès. The exhibition will undoubtedly reveal those values in the context of its product but of course to be a flâneur is something that can be incorporated into our daily lives. De Bazelaire was kind enough to liken bloggers as natural flâneurs. According to her, we document the world around us in ways that are idiosyncratic to our individual selves. That’s a compliment I’ll heartily take and with the word “flâneur” permanently ensconced in my head, every day now presents itself as an opportunity to look, look again and be curious.
Hermès Wanderland exhibition open from the 9th April to 2nd May at Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY. Open 10am-6pm daily. Free entrance.