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STYLE: DESIGN : To Dye For

October 16, 1994|LESA SAWAHATA

Since 1937, when the then-100-year-old House of Hermes first introduced it, the Hermes scarf has been an object of desire. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore hers like a babushka. Grace Kelly tied hers into a sling when she broke her arm. Queen Elizabeth is depicted wearing one on a British postage stamp. And in the film "Basic Instinct," Sharon Stone's character uses a long white Hermes scarf (a muffler really) to lethally but oh-so-tastefully dump a lover.

What gives? Why do these $225 squares of silk enjoy the same cachet usually reserved for much pricier Chanel suits and Tiffany necklaces? The answer can be found at a nine-day exhibit opening Thursday at the Hermes boutique in Beverly Hills. One hundred scarves created over the past 50 years will be on display, and printers from France will demonstrate how three of the designs are painstakingly silk-screened by hand.

In a world of wear-'em-once-and-wave-goodby accessories, the Hermes scarf represents a level of craftsmanship virtually unknown today--a legacy of the Paris-based company's 19th-Century supremacy as a maker of harnesses and saddles for the crowned heads of Europe. Each scarf requires the skills of hundreds of people and takes up to 18 months to complete. Natural vegetable-based dyes produce the clarity of design and brilliance of color for which Hermes is renowned; colors (up to 45 per scarf) are screened one at a time. When the dyes are set and the silk finished according to an exacting (and secret) method, individual scarves are cut, their edges hand-rolled.

For the devoted, one Hermes scarf is never enough. Cannily, the company (which has expanded to include clothing, luggage, linens, porcelain and crystal) offers twice-yearly scarf collections featuring six new designs and six existing designs in new colors. Allusions to Hermes' horsy beginnings are common, but patterns these days are as varied as the circus, kachina dolls, ancient Greek jewelry and even Columbus' discovery of the Americas.

Oh, and for those who've been wondering about the proper pronunciation of Hermes: It's EHR-mehz , merci beaucoup.

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