A very talented decorator, Leïla Menchari
By: Yasmina Hage/Arab America Contributing Writer
France is known for its elegance, romance, refinement, history, art, and fashion. All these criteria correspond well to what the famous designer Leïla Menchari appreciates. France has therefore been for her the ideal destination to make her dreams come true.
She is a Tunisian designer who unfortunately died Saturday, May 4th, at the age of 93, because of COVID-19. She was very famous for her extravagant decorations of the windows of Hermès. In fact, in front of the windows of 24, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which is the most famous address for Hermès customers, we meet a crowd of tourists and Parisians. They marvel at these magnificent windows decorated by Leïla Menchari. People go there to enter the universe of this brand, but above all, to discover the new collections presented in a sumptuous decor by Leïla Menchari. For many, the decorations she stages are like a journey. She transformed the shop windows into baroque and magical paintings, filled with colors, and materials. The windows gave the impression of coming straight out of a dream.
The life of Leïla Menchari
She was born on September 27th, 1927, in Tunis. She is the daughter of Abderrahman Menchari, a Francophile lawyer, and Habiba Ben Djellab, granddaughter of the last sultan of Touggourt. Her mother, Habiba Ben Djellab, is a court clerk known for her lectures on women’s emancipation in the Muslim world and for being the first Tunisian woman to remove the veil.
At that time in Tunisia, girls were not allowed to do everything. However, Leila Menchari was fortunate to have parents who were less strict than for most other girls. In fact, she was, allowed to practice swimming at a high level. While swimming in the Gulf of Hammamet, she had an incredible encounter that will allow her to find her vocation later. This encounter took place with Violet and Jean Henson. This American-British traveling couple, crazy about art and nature, opened to her the doors of their villa, which has a magnificent garden. In this garden, there were fruit trees, eucalyptus trees, and dozens of peacocks. Leïla Menchari was introduced to horticulture, scents, colors, and met the artistic elite of the time in this garden. The encounter of this couple, their paradisiacal garden, and the meeting of the personalities of the time gave her an artistic vocation.
After discovering her artistic vocation, Leïla Menchari graduated from the School “L’école des beaux-arts” in Tunis. Then, she went on to the School “L’école des beaux-arts” in Paris. At this point, she met her childhood friend, the couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who introduced her to the world of French couture.
Her professional path
In 1957, Leïla Menchari became Guy Laroche’s star model. It is a job that she accepts without much joy, but which will serve her enormously. In fact, this work taught her the codes of Parisian elegance and gave her enough self-confidence to go to Hermès in search of work. In 1961, she met Annie Beaumel, the window designer at 24 Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. Annie Beaumel asked her to design “a dream carriage” for the Calèche perfume, which was about to be launched. Leïla Menchari suggested a team of seahorses pulling a frosted horse-drawn carriage, and her project was accepted! So she became Annie Beaumel’s assistant and then her first designer.
In 1978, she was appointed by CEO Jean-Louis Dumas to head the decoration department at Hermès. Until 2013, four times a year, she decorated the windows to the rhythm of the four seasons with the annual theme suggested by the artistic directors of Hermès. She put her dreams at the center of the Hermès window displays, creating a fantastic universe in East and West mingle. She combined the brand’s luxury with the bright colors of Tunisian weaving and embroidery, as well as gold, silver, silk, and cashmere, which are the East’s precious materials. Leïla Menchari said: “I built a bridge between the two shores of the Mediterranean, and the beauty of the windows comes, in part, from the memories anchored deep inside me” She was very attached to her country, Tunisia. In addition, to realize her creations, she drew much inspiration from her various travels around the world.
Tribute to Leïla Menchari
In 2017, Hermès celebrated all these years of collaboration with her with an exhibition focusing on the decorator’s work at the “Grand Palais”. The exhibition is called “Hermes à tire-d’aile – Les mondes de Leïla Menchari”.
A book entitled “Leïla, la Reine Mage” has also been published in collaboration with Actes Sud. Furthermore, in 2010, the Arab World Institute is dedicating a beautiful exhibition to her: Orient Hermès.
Her friend Michel Tournier said of her: “When I wrote my novel on the Magi, I understood that Leïla Menchari enriched my imaginary world according to two sources. In Tunisia, she is the soul of a magical garden whose tropical essences are pouring onto the beach. In Paris, her job at Hermès surrounds her with shiny and fragrant objects. Gold, incense, and myrrh, of course, but also leather, silk, and cashmere. Leïla or the Queen Mage… “
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