Hermès: La Maison

Photographer Koto Bolofo is Given Access All Areas to the Luxury Brand

Rather than being pinned down to a specific category within the medium—photojournalism, documentary, fashion, art—South African photographer Koto Bolofo resists classification by pursuing the places where they overlap. A former political refugee (who was raised in the UK), Bolofo lays claim to a résumé whose highlights include whimsical fashion spreads (for the likes of Vogue and Tatler) as well as his own lush publications; a love letter to early British motorcar racing titled Racing Style, and Venus, an intimate collection of portraits of tennis superstar Venus Williams. We spoke to Bolofo about his latest publication, La Maison, for which he was granted unrivalled access to the notoriously private luxury house Hermès.

When did you first become associated with the Hermès brand?

About 15 years ago. I used to do assignments for Le Monde de L’Hermès, but felt as though my work for the publication was not progressing. I was photographing the end product of this beautiful luxury brand, but wanting to know who made that handbag, that saddle—how that scarf was done. So about eight years ago, when [the late] Jean-Louis Dumas was the president of Hermès, I made an appointment with him. We had never met, but he knew my work. I put my neck on the line—I told him that I thought Le Monde was rotating in circles with no forward trajectory. His hair stood on end. 

But he did ultimately give you unprecedented access to the workshops at Hermès. What convinced him?

Mr. Dumas sat there staring at me for a minute, and the first thing he said was, “Where do you come from?” I told him South Africa, and he asked me, “Exactly what part?” It was a very stern way of asking, and I said, “You may not have heard of it, but it’s a little place in the middle of South Africa called Lesotho.” “No,” he said, “Lesotho? You come from the Bosutu tribe? My great, great, grandfather was a missionary in Lesotho, and the Zulus used to attack the missionaries, and your tribe protected him. That makes you my cousin!” He declared at that moment that I could have carte blanche to come and photograph anything at any time. “A cousin of mine,” he said, “is so, so welcome.”

You spent the next seven years documenting every facet of the craftsmanship of Hermès—a daunting task. Where did you begin?

Jean-Louis asked me what department I wanted to start with, and I said, “The shoe; let’s begin to walk together.”

The body of work is divided up into 11 volumes, boxed as a set. How did that come about?

My intention was always to do one book, but Gerhard Steidl, who published the project, had heard through the grapevine that there was a man who had photographed all of the secrets of Hermès. One day, he showed up in his private plane—which I’d only seen in rap videos—to my tiny village on the Atlantic coast of France. Over two days he looked, one by one, at over 2,000 photographs, and then he got out a piece of paper and drew 11 oblong boxes, naming each volume after the ateliers that I had documented—HorsesSaddlesKelly BagClothesPerfumeBugattiGardensSpecialtiesScarves/SilkJohn Lob, and La Collection.

Grace had her Kelly bag, Jane had her Birkin; if Hermès was to create something specifically for you, what would it be?

My cameras are all Bronicas, and sadly, five years ago, the company folded and the Bronica ceased production. These cameras—I have had them since day one—are my little babies. I would like Hermès to do a camera casing for these: the Bolofo Bronica bag.

To read about Hermès' new salvage collection, click here.

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