Monday, 6 April 2020

Leïla Menchari, France’s most famous window dresser, dies at 92




Leïla Menchari, the legendary designer of Hermès Paris flagship windows, has died. Known as France’s most famous window dresser, Menchari passed away on Saturday. 

“It is with great emotion and sadness that the House of Hermès learned on the 4th of April 2020 the passing of Leïla Menchari, the Queen of Enchantment, as Michel Tournier called her,” Hermès said in a release.

According to French media reports, Menchari was the latest victim of Covid-19.

Born in 1927 in Tunis, Tunisia, Leïla was trained as a painter at the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts before studying at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (French National School of Fine Arts) in Paris, and being a model for Guy Laroche. She began working at Hermès in 1961, and was part of Annie Beaumel's decoration team. 

Hundreds of thousands of visitors to Paris would grow to know and admire Menchari’s work – since she had been dressing the windows of Hermès' Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré flagship since 1978. 

Over the years, Menchari created fantastical settings for Hermès windows: silver Rajasthan fantasies with princely thrones and silver gilt saddles; Moorish cavalry officer tents; remarkable golden crystal winged horses leaping from giant purple gemstones in a set littered with Kelly bags in matching hues; and Big Game Hunter safari windows replete with giant wooden elephants and Ashanti masks.

"Thanks to Leïla, exoticism found a home, happily and permanently, in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré", said CEO Axel Dumas. 

Until she retired in 2013, Menchari traditionally presided over the unveiling of her new windows four times a year in a near-religious ceremony where staff, Hermès fans and tourists would meet outside. A remarkable series of 137 windows, or as the French call them – vitrines.

In 2017, Hermès à tire-d'aile - les Mondes de Leïla Menchari, an exhibition celebrating her vision at the Grand Palais, allowed a younger audience to discover her rarefied and poetic universe. 

"Many of us at Hermès have learned a lot from Leïla. She taught us to look at the world through the prism of color. 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,” added Hermès Artistic Director Pierre-Alexis Dumas. 

Her aesthetic was a particularly unique meeting of both sides of the Mediterranean, “the memory of a perpetual quest for beauty, a boundless passion for creation and craftsmanship,” noted Hermès.

Inside the Grand Palais, the house chose to build eight massive windows tableaux, with scenographer Nathalie Crinière working in tandem with Menchari. From a remarkable ecru and white Arcimboldo setting of busts, torsos and masks to a marvelous steel and leather stallion with a tooled leather space cowboy saddle, it’s a highly atypical exhibition. A tribute to a métier that in France becomes a work of art – where the sheer zest of the creation and assemblage of artisanal skill makes for images of real emotional power.

Addressing a rapt audience at the opening, the benevolent nonagenarian explained her design philosophy: “Windows are a method of telling a story. Each window is a little theatre, but more difficult than a stage as there is no text or movement. So, one has to become a designer, painter, composer, and director to make a great window. It’s that simple.”

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