At Hurel Paris, an independent textile house dating back to 1873, a worker fluffed a length of embroidered white tulle that resembled a mouthwatering pile of freshly whipped cream.
In the embroidery workshop one floor below, seamstresses guided their needles through small squares of fabric stretched in wooden frames; one creating delicate flowers, another glimmering grids of sequins.
And in a small meeting room on level four, where antique silk-screening stamps are displayed under a glass-topped table, Baptiste de Bermingham plucked a length of reddish-brown velvet from a drawer and let it puddle on the glass. It resembled molten lava flecked with gold and diamonds.
De Bermingham and his brother Paul are fifth-generation owners of the family-owned firm and as co-managing directors are crafting a new approach to the business to ensure its longevity.
Last month, Hurel quietly acquired one of its historic suppliers, Lyon-based Tissage des Roziers, consolidating its reputation as a leading source of luxury velvets.
Baptiste de Bermingham noted that Tissage de Rozier’s five looms, which date from the ’30s, can produce only about one meter of jacquard velvet an hour each, underscoring why costs for these intricate, sumptuous fabrics can run as high as 125 to 200 euros a square meter. “It’s very, very specific, very couture and very luxurious,” he said.
In a rare and exclusive interview last Friday, the brothers spoke frankly about the challenges of the textile trade in France, where the number of independent, specialist makers is dwindling.
Some have been snapped up by the luxury behemoths, including Chanel, Hermès and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, while others have disappeared amid heightened competition from mills in Italy and lower-cost countries like Turkey and China.
Selective acquisitions, including the 2018 purchase of historic Lyon print specialist Atelier Guinet, are allowing Hurel to gain control of the downstream chain and transition from being mainly a design house and couture embroiderer to a full-fledged purveyor of exceptional fabrics, many of them custom-made for a client roster that includes Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Fendi, Valentino, Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and others.
Paul de Bermingham explained that when their mother retired from the business five years ago, he and Baptiste, both business-school graduates, wished to bring a new touch to the enterprise.
“We decided to change the business model of Hurel a bit. We wanted to produce ourselves, to keep the know-how in France and to master the process of making luxury fabrics,” he said.
They’ve also rapidly ramped up Hurel’s sustainability credentials, using FCS-certified viscose yarns for velvets and developing biodegradable glitter prints by using a special form of cellulose from eucalyptus wood instead of polyester film, for example.
Hurel Paris is now a GOTS-certified facility, complying with the Global Organic Textile Standard. Printed fabrics from Guinet start at about 20 euros a meter.
Baptiste de Bermingham argued that its specialized, luxurious fabrics are arguably inherently sustainable, given the small quantities and their high quality, ensuring longevity.
“There is a balance between being sustainable and having high quality,” he said, noting, for example, “sometimes when you use recycled polyester or recycled nylon, the quality isn’t the same. There is a higher risk of defects.”
The brothers acknowledge that business was tough during the coronavirus pandemic, especially since their fabrics are mostly destined for eveningwear that’s worlds away from comfy work-from-home attire.
But they found a lifeline by sticking to the luxury sector, noting that its marquee clients are more than ever in search of rare and exceptional materials, validating their strategy of preserving rare savoir-faire via the two strategic acquisitions.
Paul de Bermingham noted that Hurel’s in-house designers create fabric collections each season, but then clients may ask to incorporate their branding, alter the design motifs, or make custom colorways. Uniqueness and differentiation are what fashion houses are after, he stressed.
All three firms are small, with Hurel Paris housing 28 employees, and Tissage des Roziers and Atelier Guinet each about seven or eight.
To be sure, they all boast rich histories and archives. Paul de Bermingham pulled out two thick books of swatches dating back to the ’30s and ’50s, which exalt how colorful and whimsical fabrics were at the time, from large-scale florals and blurred paisleys to hand-drawn scenes of forests or Paris monuments.
He noted that its designers take inspiration from the archive, but also strive to innovate and offer newness.
“We are very open to new ideas and new designs. As we produce fabrics for so many different clients all over the world, the inspirations are very wide,” he explained.
Baptiste de Bermingham pointed to midcentury black-and-white advertisements for Nina Ricci and Hermès that flagged their use of Hurel fabrics.
Going back further in time, Hurel Paris can credit its shift from embroideries to fabrics to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who turned to Pierre Hurel in 1934 for help when she got into a dispute with her principal fabric producer, Rodier, leaving her fabric-less one season. The great-grandfather of Paul and Baptiste agreed to produce wools and velvet for the legendary couturier, expanding its activities in the textile field.
In 2008, the French government named Hurel an Enterprise of Living Heritage, recognizing its unique heritage and savoir-faire.