La Vie Sauvage
By Emma Comery
By: Emma Comery Photos by: Lillian Reitz
With summer temps soaring over 100 and humidity that hits you like a blast from a hairdryer, South Texans are more likely to be rocking tank tops and fishing shirts than high fashion French scarves. And yet, the luxury manufacturer Hermès has earned a place in our closets and our history.
Several years ago, King Ranch family member and conservation advocate Janell Kleberg was seeking a way to get South Texas’ uniquely rich wildlife ecosystem into the international spotlight, when she had an unconventional idea. Well-connected in both the conservation and arts communities, Kleberg invited several Hermès execs for a visit to King Ranch and took them out to tour the Laguna Madre on airboats. It was during that visit she convinced them to not only design and manufacture a scarf inspired by South Texas wildlife, but to donate a portion of the scarf’s profits back to the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M Kingsville – one of the nation’s leading applied science wildlife research graduate programs, led by 18 of the world’s foremost scientists. Kleberg, no doubt, is a force to be reckoned with.
It was an unlikely yet ingenious pairing. Isn’t fashion, after all, a statement of identity? Isn’t what we wear, how we dress, a representation of our values and lifestyle? Anne Thurwalker (pictured above) who was the Development Director for the Institute at the time, says, “Hermès was a tool, a way of showing the world what a unique area we have, how deep our love of wildlife and conservation runs in South Texas.”
To design the scarf, Hermès turned to artist Kermit Oliver, the only American artist ever engaged by the fashion house. Oliver, who was born in Refugio, was known for his “symbolic realism” and incorporation of Texan heritage into his art. Though he had previously retired from working for Hermès, Oliver agreed to take on the project. The result? A stunning silk scarf featuring 122 native Texas species from the longhorn to the armadillo. A banner along the bottom panel of the scarf revealed the design’s name: “Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute.”
It’s an unwritten rule at Hermès that the company will never produce more than 1,000 scarves of any given print, said Thurwalker. But in 2014, they produced 2,000 of the “Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute” scarves in four different color schemes. And good thing. “The scarves were in such demand that the Hermès store in Dallas had to cancel its launch because nearly all their scarves were presold,” she says. The store in Houston just barely had enough for its formal launch party.
The following spring, Hermès reissued 2,000 more scarves under a new title. This time the banner read, “La Vie Sauvage du Texas.”
In all, Hermès sold 4,000 scarves and donated a staggering $90,000 to the Waterfowl and Wetlands Birds Department at the Institute. Department Chair Bart Ballard, a leading research scientist who studies bird migratory patterns and who does most of his research right here in the Laguna Madre, used the donation to fund radar equipment for researching migratory patterns along the Texas coastline.
“Corpus sometimes gets forgotten in the conservation world,” says Thurwalker. “But there are people here doing really good things that have wide reaches and wider implications.” The Texas coastline, after all, is one of the largest bird migratory paths in the world.
Linguistically minded (or French) readers might notice the curious use of the phrase la vie sauvage (which means “the wild life”) in the new title, in place of the actual French word for wildlife, faune. It begs the question, was Hermès enjoying un petite jeu de mots, or did the new title intentionally imply a wilder way of life in Texas?
It’s hard to say.
For Thurwalker, who grew up on a ranch outside of Laredo, the scarf is about “pride and gratitude. It’s a piece of who I am, who my family is, and the things we have loved.”
She’s worn it once or twice, but today her scarf stays framed and showcased on a wall in her home. “It’s an educational tool for my children – so I can pass down that love for conservation and land stewardship, pass it on to people who will have a love of wild things and wild places.”