Friend and eminent French novelist Michel Tournier referred to Leïla Menchari as “The Queen of Enchantment”. The nickname is no exaggeration — the window dresser was known for making magic out of the displays at the Hermès flagship store at 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which mesmerised passers-by as they took in the sights of her fantastical creations.
So beloved was she that even though she retired in 2013, the maison staged the exhibition Hermès à tire-d’aile – Les mondes de Leïla Menchari (“Hermès at a glance – the worlds of Leïla Menchari” in French) at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2017. It featured eight magnificent sets by scenographer Nathalie Crinière, inspired by Leïla’s spectacular windows, each one a paean to Hermès’ distinguished craftsmanship and values. Accompanying the showcase was the book Leila Menchari, Queen of Enchantment chronicling her career through 137 of her window displays. The twin celebration of her poetic, often playful, vision allowed a wider audience to discover and experience her lavish visual feasts, while demystifying her alchemy in transforming audacious tableaux into theatres, where the scene becomes the actor that serve Hermès objects.
“The key is to be able to evoke things that people have liked by expressing them differently,” Leïla explained. “That’s also what we’re doing with this exhibition at the Grand Palais: we’re bringing objects out again but for different images. We’re re-shuffling the cards. The result is a stroll through tableaux that are completely different from the original window displays. It’s a new journey.”
Cinema was the starting point of Leïla’s career. Born in 1927 in Tunis, she was allowed to watch movies as her mother was an early champion of women’s emancipation. She would regale her cousins, who could not enjoy the same freedom, with tales of the films she watched, enriched with many details. “It could keep us up all night,” she recalled. “I have always loved storytelling. And here [in Hermès], that’s all I do.”
She trained as a painter at the Beaux Arts School of fine arts, then the school’s branch in Paris. The brown-haired, green-eyed girl worked for French fashion designer Guy Laroche as his preferred model. But her parents insisted that she find a “proper” profession.
In 1961, she showed her drawings to Annie Beaumel. The director of window displays and pioneer of Hermès’ extraordinary staging enthused: “You are a dreamer, aren’t you!” Leïla was hired with the instruction: “Draw me your dreams!”.
Leïla began to see window display as a way of telling a story. “The big window is a theatre for which I had to find a tableau to fit a story. I had done theatre sets at the Beaux-Arts and had loved it. But this particular theatre set is far more difficult: there’s no text, no movement and no distance. You have to cover everything: you’re a designer, painter, composer, theatre director…”
She scoured flea markets until it became an obsession. “I was constantly watching, jotting things down, sketching. I was like a sponge. I also travelled a lot.” The globetrotter explored different cultures, from traditional Japanese handicraft in 1990, to Indian savoir-faire in 2007. But she often found herself back in her native Tunisia. She rejuvenated herself in a house at Hammamet, where the garden inspired French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s fragrance Un Jardin en Méditerranée for Hermès in 2003. It was just one of Tunisia’s influences — spanning from the warm colours to the precious materials — she brought into the French house.
By the time she joined Annie’s decoration team as an assistant, the windows had earned an international reputation of its own with something to anticipate every season. “Thanks to Annie Beaumel and Leïla Menchari, creating window displays has become a form of artistic expression and it is now recognised as such,” marvelled artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas.
Leïla took over the creative reins in 1978, and raised the bar in the next 35 years with a myriad of unexpected — often wow-inducing — materials and inventive collaborators she would summon to realise her most incredible dreams. “I loved the way her enchanting tales caught me by surprise: a field of wheat from which, to our astonishment, a mouse scurried out; a multi-coloured winged saddle suspended in mid-air; the glistening palace of an absent maharani… Each of her fantastical landscapes was more extraordinary than the former one,” reminisced CEO Axel Dumas.
Leila remembered the time she looked for reindeer antlers. “Giraudon, a chemical engineer I used to work with, sent me to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. I found myself in the basement looking at a mountain of tangled up reindeer antlers recovered from animals that had fought each other to death… It was extraordinary!”
The sets she conjured were extravaganzas, but the most complex to create have been the simplest. “For the Year of the Stars and Mythology, for example, I asked the sculptor Albert Féraud, a friend from the Beaux-Arts who used to work mainly with metal, to make me a meteorite that would rotate in space, in the big window, it was completely crazy… He used a block of metal he had left over from making the Koenig Memorial at Porte Maillot in Paris. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to create a thing that rotated in mid-air, and it was impossible to see how it was done…”
The workshops never said no to her. “Artisans would fight for the chance to make Leïla’s window displays!” Axel revealed. “And yet it was complicated: it would take 50 hours to make a bag instead of 15, they would be behind schedule, stressed…”
“We were all stressed!” Leïla interjected. “When you create a window display you reduce four variations on a theme, without repetition and with very little time; but you also work frantically for months on details, fabrics, embroideries… I’ve tried to amaze myself. It had to be unexpected, unusual and surprising, and it had to engage passers-by.”
Her ability to pique pedestrians’ curiosity and aspirational desires explains why Hermès is the gold standard in window dressing.
“A window display is a reflection of what we are, what we would like to say, and what we are capable of doing,” Axel explained, recounting a couple who would visit the windows whenever they’re in Paris. “It doesn’t rely on any marketing, it presents objects that are not for sale and it lies within the reach of every passer-by of any age. And it’s art of a very Parisian tradition of flânerie, but pushed to the limits and to excess.”
Despite her many elaborate executions, she has pulled off minimalist mise-en-scènes too. “Once I did a very simple one with almost nothing in it: a beach, a reef sculpted from white marble which resembled a wave, and a pair of sunglasses and a swimsuit. And I had Eau D’orange Verte sprayed onto the street. Jean-Louis Dumas’ initial reaction was to say ‘But Leïla, there’s nothing there!’ and then he saw a lady inhale the scent and he said to her ‘Breathe, Madame, breathe’, and with that he attracted more people, passed on my story, and there was soon a crowd.”
That’s Leïla’s secret to success. “When designing a scene, there must always be some mystery, because mystery is a springboard to dreams. Mystery is an invitation to fill in the gaps left by the imagination.”
The maison’s trust in Leïla was so deep that no one has ever asked to check the window displays before the curtain goes up. But that confidence stretches much further than her title of director of window displays tells. Her promotion in 1978 included a seat in the Colours Committee, where the formidable creative force extended her influence to the palettes that would dress the next season’s silk scarves.
“Many of us at Hermès have learned a lot from Leïla. She taught us to look at the world through the prism of colour. She was a storyteller without equal that enchanted the world. We are infinitely grateful to her for all that she has done for us, that she passed on to us”, expressed Pierre-Alexis in his press statement on her passing. The house learnt on 4th April that she had succumbed to Covid-19, aged 93.
“An open, generous, resolutely modern woman, she was a woman of freedom,” he wrote in his tribute. “Her passing leaves to all those who had the joy of knowing and working with her, on both sides of the Mediterranean, the memory of a perpetual quest for beauty, a boundless passion for creation and craftsmanship.”
The next time you come across Hermès windows, or see its scarves, take time to enjoy the escapism Leïla’s legacy offers. It’s just the bit of surreal fantasy to indulge in the midst of everyday reality.
(Main photo: Guillaume de Laubier/Hermès; featured photo: Carole Bellaich/Hermès)
This story first appeared on Prestige Online Singapore, by Jacquie Ang.