Visiting Leila Menchari’s garden in Tunisia


A few days ago at the Grand Palais in Paris, Hermès opened “Hermès à Tire d’Aile: Les Mondes de Leïla Menchari,” a free exhibit (through 3 December) to celebrate the Tunisian woman who designed their celebrated windows for 35 years. This could seem a niche activity of just putting stuff in store windows but in Leila’s hands it became something else: part performative art and part transporting fantasy. I worked with Hermès for many years and when I would go to their main store on rue du Faubourg St-Honoré there would invariably be a crowd gathered by the windows, peering in with a degree of engagement that was astonishing for what was generally a static display of products. And the unveiling of a new window, when the shades were first drawn up, was often greeted with applause as if at the theater.
In 2012, I had the rare pleasure of going to Tunisia to meet Leila (when I took this portrait of her, above) in the extravagant garden she has cultivated in Hammamet that is, in some ways, the true labor of love in her life. I found her immensely charming and we spent many hours together strolling through the garden and discussing her improbable journey. In her childhood, the garden belonged to a bohemian Anglo-American couple, Jean and Violet Henson, and at ten years old she wandered in one day by chance from the path off the beach and, in a spiritual sense, never left. The couple adopted her as their own and every time Leila mentioned Jean, in particular, he was always the “handsome and blue-eyed Jean,” as if this detail might have been forgotten. The Hensons are buried on the grounds in tombs assembled of ancient parts with each adopting 1927 as the year of their birth on their epitaphs, this being the date of their arrival to this near-sacred ground in Hammamet. There was only sand then and water remains a struggle to this day but they, and Leila, have cultivated a kind of jungle — Mexican cacti in one part, eucalyptus or baobabs in another, peacocks chasing peahens everywhere — that is given some order by a long reflective pool, a basin filled with lilypads, and a whitewashed pool inviting a swim. It was tempting, of course, to see in the nurturing of this garden on inhospitable terrain something of the elaborate mise en scène of her windows and when I left she offered me a seashell so that I could take part of it with me.

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Click here to read the article I wrote for Le Monde d’Hermès about Leila Menchari and to see my photographs of her garden in Hammamet.

Click here to see other photographs I took on that assignment to Tunisia.

And click here to read a feature about Tunisia I wrote for The New York Times on a previous assignment there.

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