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The first time I walked into an Hermès store was after my freshman year of college, when I was studying abroad in Italy for the summer. We were in Florence for the day, and a classmate suggested we visit the local Hermès shop; her mother had just texted to ask if she could stop by and see if it had any Birkin bags in stock, as though a rare handbag priced upward of $12,000 was the most casual purchase in the world.
As I remember it, I awkwardly looked at the home goods on display without touching anything, my friend inquired about the Birkin with an unfathomable level of nonchalance, and the saleswoman politely answered her questions before delivering us, empty-handed, back onto the sidewalk.
I’d done enough research about the luxury fashion world at that point to feel acutely intimidated by the prospect of so much as standing in an Hermès store. Even today, the brand’s delightfully janky website explains that customers must visit a boutique if they want to inquire about the availability and purchase of a Birkin or Kelly bag. There’s no quenching your curiosity from afar. If you’re interested, you have to gather every shred of entitlement you have and march right in to that store.
This week, though, Hermès is making a concerted effort to broaden its accessibility with the opening of a colorfully-designed space in Nordstrom’s Seattle flagship. The boutique, open Tuesday, October 18th, will sell jewelry and scarves, categories that include its most entry-level pieces — a slim “Twilly” scarf goes for about $160. The hope is to draw in new Hermès customers, from regular Nordstrom shoppers in their 40s and 50s to the very young and fashion-obsessed.
The boutique, created by the spacial designer Robert Storey, reads as an upscale playground, with little archways, nooks, and a hanging installation built from scraps of Hermès scarves sewn into long, spaghetti-like strands.
“Once you’re inside it, it’s almost like a car wash,” says Olivia Kim, Nordstrom’s VP of creative projects, with a laugh.
That highly Instagrammable piece of décor is a metaphor for the boutique’s overall goal: to recast precious goods as something touchable and lighthearted. Rather than sitting under glass, product will be displayed out in the open — dangling from moveable hooks on magnetized walls, for instance.
“We wanted the customer to be able to engage and have fun and try things on without the intimidation of it having to be unlocked or completely serviced,” Kim says.
It’s something of a coup for Nordstrom to land an accessories account with Hermès in the first place, since the French brand only sells dishware at Barneys and perfume at Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. Kim says she first reached out to Hermès when she landed at Nordstrom from Opening Ceremony in 2013 to ask if it would like to participate in a Paris-themed Pop-In, Nordstrom’s version of a monthly pop-up shop. Hermès declined but stayed in touch, and in May the two parties started talking about how they could change the conversation around the meaning of a luxury item.
It’s a discussion that doesn’t seem unrelated to Hermès’s decision to partner with Apple on a variety of leather smartwatch bands last fall. Starting at $1,149, the Apple Watch Hermès opened up a wide new world of customers that might not have known about or been interested in Hermès previously.
The Nordstrom boutique will remain open through the end of 2017, and Kim says she hopes that first-time Hermès shoppers will return during that span of time as the product offering changes seasonally. Maybe they’ll even move up a price bracket, from a Twilly to a 36” square version priced at nearly $400.
I wouldn’t have made that sort of purchase when I was a college kid equally fascinated and terrified by upscale fashion brands. But there’s a good chance I would have been a lot more comfortable walking in the door.