The horse lies at the heart of some of the world's biggest luxury brands, entwined with the creation of some of the most exclusive, and expensive, goods on the market today. Equestrian themes appear recurrently on international runways, brands like Hermès and Gucci continually referencing their equine origins in their collections and creating the horse as a symbol for style.
It is not widely known Gucci began as a modest luggage and saddlery store in Florence in 1921 by Guccio Gucci courting custom of the international elite vacationing in Italy and native Italian aristocrats, who shared a passion for equestrian pursuits. His horse inspired collections of bags and trunks became in-demand, and Gucci quickly expanded his range to focus on fashion items such as handbags and shoes, whilst retaining a strong focus on incorporating equestrian elements in their design.
Their famous snaffle horse bit motif was first introduced in 1953, when it was used to decorate men's moccasins, which were subsequently purchased by many of the leading Hollywood celebrities of the day, including Clark Gable, John Wayne and Fred Astaire. The women's version, which appeared in 1968, was similarly popular, cementing the horse bit as one of the signature elements of Gucci collections. Over the decades, the horse bit has been featured on bags, shoes, and accessories, being printed on silk, created in gold, embossed and burnt into leather.
Gucci's trademark green and red web stripe has a similarly equestrian origin, being derived from the canvas girth straps used on traditional saddles. It functions as the centerpiece of numerous of Gucci's most popular items, including the Jackie O handbag. It frequently appears as the strap of other bags, as well as a mounting piece for the hallmark horse bit on shoes and other accessories. Gucci's iconic bamboo bag with its burnished bamboo handle similarly draws its design from horsy origins, the curvy side inspired by the shapes of saddles.
Gucci continues to pay homage to its descent from the horse world by sponsoring horse related events and high profile equestriennes, such as Edwina Alexander-Tops, who competed in the 2012 Olympics with herself and her horse wearing a complete wardrobe designed by Gucci's Creative director Frida Giannini.
Hermès, bastion of elegance and perfection, like Gucci, has equestrian roots which run much deeper than its horse and coach emblem. Founded in 1837 in Paris's bustling grand boulevards quarter, by one Thierry Hermès, the business initially began as a harness workshop serving European nobility. Hermès work was renowned for its quality, being awarded a first class medal at the Paris World Fair in 1867.
A family business, which it remains to this day, Hermès son Charles-Émile inherited the reins at the end of the 19th century, and introduced saddlery at the new location he chose – 24 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore – a site Hermès still retains. With the help of his sons, the company offered over seventy saddle products which were sought after by the wealthy from Europe, Russia, Asia, the Americans and North Africa.
Hermès success in catering to the most discerning tastes continued into the 20th century, with the company providing Russia's czar with saddles. It was only in 1918 Hermès introduced clothing into collections, creating a leather golfing jacket for the Prince of Wales, and 1922 when bags were added, after the wife of the current head of the company and Thierry's grandson, Émile-Maurice, complained of not being able to find a handbag to her liking. A woman's couture collection followed in 1929, drawing inspiration from Hermès heritage as a purveyor of horse tack and accessories.
Hermès offerings only expanded over the decades, extending into jewelry, watches, footwear, silk scarves, stationary, gloves, ties and more. The company insists that every one of its items pay homage to its long tradition of perfection, elegance, and equestrianism.
Utilizing equestrian themes in clothing design is by no means limited to these two brands however. Ralph Lauren, who once commented, "I present a dream" in regards to his namesake brand, commonly includes products recalling hunting jackets, riding boots, and saddlery in his collections, capitalizing on the association remaining between the rich and powerful, and all things equine. His emblem of a polo player and horse is famously emblazoned on his prolific polo tops, which hang in the closets of millions worldwide.
Longchamp is another popular luxury company which utilizes the horse as its logo. The company began when Jean Cassegrain took over his father's tobacco shop, and faced with the declining popularity of the pipes they sold, redesigned them by covering them in fine leathers – the first step for the company into the luxury market. He later followed with a number of leather bags, which rapidly expanded his enterprise and soon surpassed his production of pipes.
Cassegrain wanted to use his own surname as his brand name, however it was already in commercial use, and meaning 'crush grain' in French, it evoked images of grain mills, rather than exclusive products. 'Longchamp', the name of the famous racecourse in Paris, was settled upon instead, as it was conjured far more glamorous associations - and the course was sited near one of the last grain mills in the region. A horse in flight was a natural emblem choice, as it is today stamped into a variety of bags, particularly on the ever popular Les Pliage.
Thus, horses and high fashion remain inextricably interlinked, recurring as fashion brands nod recurrently back to their links to the world of horses. An instantly recognizable emblem of wealth and style, the horse and its ever chic saddlery are set to remain an immovable feature of runways and shopfronts for centuries to come.
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Reebonz, 2011, A History of Longchamp, www.reebonz.com.au/blog/bags/a-history-of-longchamp/
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Tolkein, Tracy, 2000, Vintage: The Art of Dressing Up, Pavilion Books Limited, London.
Fashion Model Directory, 2012, Thierry Hermès, www.fashionmodeldirectory.com/designers/thierry-hermes/