Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Kermit Oliver, a Waco postman designs Hermes scarves with a Western flair

In the early 1980's, Kermit Oliver (a descendant of African-American cowboys from Refugio County, Texas), became the first American artist commissioned by French fashion house Hermès, to design a series of one-of-a-kind scarves.

Mail sorter and artist Kermit Oliver, 46, the first American to design for the 152-year-old fashion house, has created two of Hermès's most popular scarf designs and has three more on the drawing board. In 1982, his first scarf, depicting a Pawnee Indian chief, sold so well that it had to be reissued (like most collectibles, the $175 Hermès scarves are printed in small runs). His next design, an intricate study of Texas wildlife, was issued in 1986 to commemorate the Texas sesquicentennial but was popular in Hermès boutiques around the world. "I cannot deny it is a juxtaposition to have him working for us," says Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès. "But more it is a privilege to know him."

The Pani La Shar Pawnee scarf was designed by Kermit Oliver and first released in 1982. It’s a popular design that has been reissued over the years in different colorways. 

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- L' Indien 1984

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Les Cheyennes 1993

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Les Mythologies des Hommes Rouges 1999/2000

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Marquis de Lafayette 2007
( to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the Marquis de Lafayette’s birthday in 2007)

A reclusive, almost ascetic man who spends his time away from the post office painting in his dining room, Oliver inspires that kind of reaction in many who meet him. A native of the small South Texas town of Refugio, Oliver has always preferred solitude to social encounters. "When I was a child, they used to call me Turtle' because I didn't talk or socialize with the other children much," says Oliver of life with his father, Karl, a factory worker, mother Katherine and three brothers. "Art was one of the only ways I had of expressing myself."
Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Faune et Flore du Texas 1987

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- La Danse des Indiens 1999

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Madison Avenue 2000

In 1962, Oliver moved to Houston to study art at Texas Southern University, where he met and married a fellow art student. After graduation, he took a series of part-time jobs, including teaching art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He devoted the rest of his time to his art. By 1970, Oliver's oil paintings and pencil drawings were selling well enough to support his wife, Katie, and their kids—Kristy, now 25, Khristopher, 16, and Khristian, 12—but the uncertainty of the art world bothered him. Oliver signed on with the post office in 1978, transferring from Houston to Waco in 1983 and eventually upping his salary to $26,000.

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Kachinas 1992

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- The Pony Express 1993/1994

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Rodeo des Cowgirls 2001

Oliver's paintings were brought to the attention of Hermès in 1982 by art consultant Shelby Marcus, whose husband Lawrence was an executive at Neiman Marcus, the only Texas retailer that carried the scarves at the time. And while Oliver's designs were more detailed than most Hermès scarves, and thus more difficult to print, the relationship blossomed. "When I saw his first design, I said 'Kermit, we must not stop here. We must go on,' " recalls Dumas-Hermès.

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Les Ameriques 1992/1993

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Naturalia 1994

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Tsitsika (Tuituika) 2002/2003

Kermit Oliver for Hermès- Samuel de Champlain 2006/2007

But fame has presented some difficulties for the reclusive Oliver, who has been known to stand outside gallery exhibits of his work for more than an hour trying to decide whether to go in. "I don't like to be the center of attention," he explains. Even though Oliver is making a pretty franc from his Hermès designs—he is paid for the original design and gets a royalty for every scarf sold—no one at the post office is worried that he will quit his job at the mail-sorting machine. Says Oliver: "The art world life is not conducive to my life or to my family—which has always been most important to me."

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According to wikipedia.org, the Hermès scarf debuted in 1937 and quickly became a part of French culture. During the accessory's creation process, raw Chinese silk is spun into yarn, vegetable-dyed and woven into fabric twice as strong/heavier than most scarves available today. Each scarf's commissioned artist (exclusively chosen by the house), spends at least 12 to 24 months in pre-production, researching a particular theme selected by Hermès, before a design becomes complete. In addition, based on information sourced from Hermès' Profile of a Scarf, the house generally issues about 24 total carré (scarves) per year (12 each season), with about six 'new' and six 're-issued' colour ways produced for fall/winter and about six 'new' and six 're-issued' colour ways for spring/summer; which, since 1937, would bring the house to a total of about 1,752+ designs made in its 73 years' history of Hermès carré.

In Oliver's case, according to online fashion personality 'Grands Fonds' (via purseblog.com), she says, "there are many great stories behind the artists, many people apply to Hermès with a design, and then are selected, and some are 'kept on' by Hermès. Oliver was originally a postman... and the story goes from there!" More interesting is the fact that before he became a USPS (United States Postal Service) worker, Oliver -in 1966- studied under legendary painter Elaine de Kooning (wife of artist Willem de Kooning), and in 1967, he obtained a B.F.A. Composite Degree & Bachelor of Science Degree in Art Education from Texas Southern University; outside of Hermès, Oliver's artwork has been shown all over the world, both in solo and group exhibitions.

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In 2009, Oliver's youngest son, 32-year-old Khristian Oliver, was executed in Texas for a murder he had committed 11 years earlier.


Oliver was condemned for the March 1998 slaying of 64-year-old Joe Collins who interrupted the break-in at his rural home outside Nacogdoches, about 140 miles southeast of Dallas.

A witness to the attack on Collins, in which the then-20-year-old Oliver beat and shot him with a rifle, compared it to someone getting bashed with an ax or a golf club.



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