In memory of Leila Menchari, who transformed window displays into works of art

'A storyteller without equal': a look back at the Tunisian artist's most enchanting creations for Hermes

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Leila Menchari, the Tunisian artist responsible for transforming Hermes window displays into works of elaborate escapism, passed away aged 93 at the weekend, the luxury fashion house announced on Sunday, April 5. The cause of death was not specified.

Called “the queen of enchantment” by French writer Michel Tournier, Menchari was born in Tunis in 1927 and initially trained as a painter at the Beaux Arts Institute in the Tunisian capital. She transferred to the Beaux Arts school in Paris and modelled for designer Guy Laroche for a period, before joining Annie Beaumel's decoration team at Hermes in 1961.

An admirer of Dali and the Surrealists, and a close friend of couturier Azzedine Alaia, Menchari rose to become artistic director of the windows at 24 Faubourg, Hermes's famed Parisian flagship boutique. There she took the artistry of window display to a new level, creating fantastical scenes intended to enchant and delight and breathed life into inanimate objects. She was also a driving force behind the house's Colours Committee.

Leila Menchari was dubbed 'the queen of enchantment' by French writer Michel Tournier. Courtesy Carole Bellaiche

A nuanced storyteller, she rendered Kelly bags in metal; set Hermes luggage amid grandiose scenes from Ancient Egypt; had winged horses emerge from oversized blocks of crystal; recreated a throne room fit for a maharaja; and crafted giant waves from marble.

“An open, generous, resolutely modern woman, she was a woman of freedom,” Hermes said. "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.”

Deeply connected to Tunisia, Menchari often drew on the country's multi-layered cultural heritage in her work, utilising mother of pearl and marble. Her displays also shone a spotlight on craftsmanship from Jordan, Morocco and Palestine, in the form of palm frond weaving, copper-smithing, mosaic-setting and glassblowing, as well as extending much further afield, to the crafts of ancient India and China.

In 2017, Hermes a tire-d'aile, les Mondes de Leila Menchari, an exhibition at Paris' Grand Palais that celebrated her vision, invited a wider audience to discover her unique universe. 
"Many of us at Hermes have learnt a lot from Leila," Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermes, said. "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."

Axel Dumas, the maison's chief executive, also paid tribute to Menchari. "Thanks to Leila, exoticism found a home, happily and permanently, in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore," he said.