With the passing of Leïla Menchari, aged 92, on April 4, 2020 in Paris, victim of Covid-19, we look back on the life of this legendary figure who had enchanted us with her exquisite designs for the renowned saddler over the past four decades. She had taken the art of the window display to a new level with an esthetic expression that blended both East and West, while evoking beauty, luxury and sensuality. This diminutive brunette who was a close friend of Azzedine Alaïa had caused hordes of tourists and shoppers to make the seasonal pilgrimage to the fabled Hermès boutique located at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris because of her fantastical and poetic window displays that burst forth with energy, while exalting a multitude of cultures. An invisible innate force drew them in and a knowing hush ensued as, for a moment, they were allowed the possibility of having their dreams come true, stepping into a nomadic modern-day fairy tale where anything was possible. Her imagination knew no bounds, and she brought us face to face with the Orient of her native Tunisian culture and the luxury of the Occident as embodied by Hermès.
The present and the past dialogue in this Carthage shop window where works inspired by the Romans … [+]
Photo courtesy of Hermès
Menchari invited us to lose ourselves in a voyage of discovery, and to enter and experience her intimate, inner world. It was a game that she played, inviting us on a dream-like journey that might take us to a maharajah’s palace decked out with engraved silver elephants, lions and thrones with griffin feet, to the banks of the Niger littered with wild beasts or to the ruins of ancient Carthage decorated with finely-wrought capitals, mosaic artworks inspired by Greek mythology, real sand and a palm tree carved from stone, in combination with precious materials like leather, silk, fur and cashmere. Our gaze jumped from object to object: a leather wall panel depicting a hunting scene with a falconer, majestic fabric palm trees adorned with golden tassels and leaves resembling bird feathers, lace-like marble archways, fine porcelain portraying galloping horses, Ottoman ceramics from Iznik, open-worked arcades embellished with gold leaf, a multicolored stuffed parrot in flight, a panther quenching its thirst, a wooden sculpture by an African artisan, upturned cobblestones that evoke the Paris of barricades and revolution or a horseman’s heavily brocaded silk uniform.
Menchari single-handedly elevated the window display to an art form. Breathing life into diverse immobile elements, she animated the inanimate, and her precious living objects fought for attention within a dazzling yet mysterious jewel-box setting, as if they have been injected with a dose of movement and soul. She mastered the art of turning her dreams into reality, bringing the intangible within one’s grasp. Her ephemeral vitrines were made possible through her knowledge of history, mythology, art and artisanry, and they served as windows to the soul of Hermès. More than just showcases for the latest Hermès bag or scarf, they were a microcosm representing the values that Hermès stands for.
Tunisian designer Leïla Menchari
Photo courtesy of Hermès
However, Menchari’s work was not simply a task of gathering objects together, for she was a master storyteller, a stage director of a lively theatrical piece played out in silence, using the language of objects instead of words. She once noted, “I have actors where the first role is leather, the second role is silk, the third role is fragrance, etc. I have to make people go on a voyage. This is very important to me, therefore I have to seduce with actors who don’t talk and don’t move. That’s why I go the furthest possible and, at the same time, I teach people things that they don’t know but that they may see every day without realizing. My job is to direct, to decipher beauty in the smallest object, to give it a role that places it under the spotlight, like a star. Objects are my vocabulary of a storyteller who doesn’t use words. I solicit the looks of passersby, and I wish to nourish this look with the sensuality of the materials, with the story. We must tell a story because everyone loves stories, and when they’re unexpected, at a street corner, it’s even stronger. If I give them three minutes of oblivion, allowing them to forget all the hardships in their lives, it’s a done deal.”
It was in 1961 that Menchari first knocked on Hermès’ doors and met the window display designer Annie Beaumel, armed with arts degrees from the School of Fine Arts of Tunisia and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris, and experience as a model for couturier Guy Laroche, for despite her studies in painting and engraving, she was passionate about fabrics and accessories. A painter before she knew how to decorate, as fate would have it, she became Beaumel’s assistant and head designer in 1976. Then came the decisive fateful meeting with Hermès’ then CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, in 1978, where he would appoint her as head of the decoration department in charge of the creation of the most captivating window displays, as well as director of the silk coloration committee.
Thus, for over four decades, four times a year, according to the rhythm of the changing seasons, Menchari took on the themes proposed by the artistic directors of Hermès and made them her own. One year it may have been “The Mediterranean” or “The Mighty Rivers”; the next, it may have been “The Great Escape” or “Indian Fantasies”. Extremely demanding, she required nothing short of the very best from her decoration team, as well as the artists and artisans with whom she collaborated. Therefore, she traversed the continents in search of these talented artisans’ rare and unique savoir-faire, and pushed them further than they had ever gone before, encouraging them to craft objects with which they were unfamiliar. Drawing out their full potential, she revealed new possibilities to them. She revealed, “What interests me always in my link with the artisans is to ask them to use their savoir-faire and to put it in the service of objects that are unexpected for them.” Hence, we discover Indian miniaturist painting on leather instead of fabric, created on a large-scale basis rather than in a small size.
The terrace of an Indian palace following in the footsteps of a maharani pays homage to Satyajit Ray
Photo courtesy of Hermès
Harboring an unbridled passion for creativity and curiosity of the other, Menchari’s travels were “essential first of all for the opening of the spirit, for culture, to bring forth each time something that is little known, and we discover in a different way than as a tourist. And that interests me a lot, to go and see the artisans working, even to see how they live. The artisan often works from home. These are very humble people who make masterpieces. All my décors are a marriage of oneirism and artisanship. I dream them up and call upon artisans who know how to read and translate my dreams.” Carefully interpreting all the details from what she saw and experienced to the window displays, nonetheless the perfectionist in her disclosed, “At the moment of raising the curtain, I always have doubts. I’m very afraid because each time it’s a new thing that I’ve never tried before. I always ask myself, ‘Is it going to please?’ These are my fantasies that I’m exhibiting, the important moments of my life. It’s as if I’m nude in a shop window. But I said if it’s done well with beautiful materials, if it’s an orchestration of quality, it will touch in some way.”
The result was a mesmerizing mix of past and present, traditional and modern, portrayed through artworks by artists as famous as César, frescoes made overseas by anonymous artisans and the most luxurious Hermès products – saddles, bags, shoes, hats, silk scarves, jackets, belts, jewelry, watches – imbued with the histories of silk, leather, crystal, porcelain and marble. “The present, the past, memory, the here and elsewhere, dialogue,” she revealed. Colors, light, shadow, textures and fabrics came together in perfect harmony, and links were created between different worlds that must be able to coexist. Thus the most precious materials were juxtaposed with the simplest. “This type of opposition of materials always creates an emotion,” she said. “It’s the illusion that counts, the equilibrium between the objects. The materials call upon the caress of the gaze.” Looking at the décor titillated the senses, awakened an unexpected desire to want to touch and stroke the objects. Nevertheless, Menchari encouraged audiences to play with objects not with their hands but with their eyes.
The nobility of the Oriental horse is celebrated by Hermès through the fine and precious porcelain … [+]
Photo courtesy of Hermès
Her window displays shone a spotlight on artisanal craftsmanship widespread in Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco and Palestine, like mat weaving, using the fibers from palm, reed, rush, esparto grass and osier, copper-smithing, stone-sculpting, mosaic-setting and glassblowing, as well as the ancient Indian savoir-faire of miniature painting and silver chiseling and sculpting, the Chinese technique of cinnabar lacquering, and Hermès’ celebrated expertise in saddlery. Additionally, Menchari had the unique privilege of taking Hermès design classics like the Kelly and Birkin bags and creating her own versions of them, using the most unusual materials without any restrictions, conceiving them out of candy wrappers, fur, straw, feathers, organdie, silk scarves, plastic and glass. Consequently, everything we saw in her shop windows were one-of-a-kind products, not for sale, contributing to the idea of the dream and the unattainable. She explained, “These are unique pieces. Why? Because the fact that it’s a dream should remain a dream – inaccessible but accessible to all gazes, even people who don’t enter the shop. It’s completely free. We can satisfy our eyes without paying the entrance fee to a museum.”
In voyeuristic fashion, the audience was on the outside looking in, stimulated by visual means, obsessively observing and gaining insight into new universes, but blocked by a windowpane. Menchari elaborated, “There must be an unknown somewhere. If we know everything, if we’re familiar with everything, if everything is analyzed, we’d never get there. But the dream is so irrational. Therefore, I plunge into surrealism and esoteric things, things that are a bit like wild dreams. I make mirages because the mirage is elusive but, at the same time, it makes your eyes dream and awakens the senses. We feel like touching although we can’t, but the eye has entirely absorbed the spirit.”
Born in 1927 in Tunis, Menchari drew from her roots, plunging into her memories of childhood and youth to create her window displays. Descending from a family of wealthy landowners of the Menchar, a mountain dominating large wheat fields, her father was a lawyer and her mother a court clerk, who was the granddaughter of the last Sultan of Touggourt and among the first Tunisian women to remove the veil in public and fight for women’s rights in the 1920s. Coming from a lineage of headstrong, progressive women, Menchari pursued her dreams of studying art, thereby confronting the social conventions of the day when woman were expected to marry young.
Homage to Mexican film actress and singer Maria Félix, the muse of famous painters like Diego … [+]
Photo courtesy of Hermès
Deeply attached to Tunisia, influences of her motherland can be seen in her selection of materials to illuminate her window displays, such as incense, leather, gold and silk. “The story that I tell in my décors is always also a bit of my story. My words are in the wood, mother-of-pearl, marble, fabrics,” she elaborated. Tunisia comprises “civilizations that succeeded one another, from the Punics, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Turks, French and all that. It’s these layers left behind that made the Tunisian. That’s why we are a rather flexible people, who adapts quickly to things, who kept a gene from each civilization. I think that Tunisians are the most beautiful example of crossbreeding. And that’s why I use hybridity wherever it exists. Countries no longer have frontiers. Frontiers are scars, but now the world is small, we are everywhere, we know everything. There are certainly incredible civilizations and we must know how to protect these traditions.” Considering herself a citizen of the world, different cultures fed her inspiration, and thus her work was imbued with this meeting of civilizations.
The child at heart divulged, “The fragrance of childhood is inexhaustible. My childhood was a very happy one in an enchanting country, where things were peaceful, surrounded by the Mediterranean in which we used to bathe all the time. I draw everything from my childhood. Firstly, there is the freshness of the soul in childhood. We are not contaminated. We are not yet adults; therefore we have an uncontrolled imagination. A child has no limits in what he invents. An adult has put up barriers and he follows the rules given to him. From time to time, he lets his imagination run wild, an imagination that incites him to dream. The dream is very important. In life, we go towards that which makes us dream. I make window displays because sometimes the people who come to see the shop window can forget their problems for three or four minutes. And this is the best compliment, if I can erase their obstacles in life, their vicissitudes, worries, fears. We live in a world of fear now; therefore my role is to try to soothe, calm, reassure, please, seduce.”