The days of conspicuous consumption may be behind us once more, thanks to a tiny financial blip called the global credit crunch, but that doesn't mean we're going to see tycoons and magnates getting the Al Ghazal bus when they travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The delivery last week of the first complete L'Hélicoptère par Hermès to the UAE's Falcon Aviation Services brought a little wave of nostalgia for the days when this sort of extravagance was an everyday occurrence in wealthier parts of the world. The chic but low-key celebration at Emirates Palace last Sunday was the culmination of a collaboration between Hermès and Eurocopter in 2007, before the financial crisis was a twinkle in Wall Street's eye; and while it was no Atlantis extravaganza, one nevertheless felt a guilty thrill at being invited to witness such frivolity in these sombre days.
Still, given the excitement with which luxury-watching websites such as Luxist.com had greeted the Versace helicopter and the Hermès Bugatti Veyron Fbg in recent years, this was a quiet, rather tasteful launch, reflecting the brand's careful positioning as a company that's all about craftsmanship and the famous "art de vivre". Hermès is recognisable to those in the know by details such as its fine leathers, signature colours, stitching techniques and, on the more show-off pieces, a simple gilded or perforated "H". There are no monogram leathers or canvases and the company remains a deliberately small (by the standards of the luxury industry), family-owned enterprise.
So in spite of the bright orange ribbon transfer on the outside of the helicopter, the interior is subtle, well thought-out and a million miles from the retro-flashy black-and-white style of the Versace version, which was revealed in 2007. The seats are in a disappointingly bland taupe colour (though Hermès red, orange, gold and other colours are available, together with plenty of other customising options), the only Hermès logo is on a pair of silver studs and there is a perforated "H" allowing communication between the cockpit and the passenger seats.
Nevertheless, all the marks of Hermès quality are there. The seats are in a soft bull calf leather called Plume, usually used for bags and treated for robustness and to comply with aviation regulations. The cabin is lined with Toile H canvas, a strong fabric that is usually used to protect leather Hermès luggage, but that here adds a level of soundproofing (not to mention style). Rather than brightly coloured stickers, the signs about where to stow your bag and which doors not to open while flying are woven clothing labels, stitched neatly on to the canvas. François Taverne, the president of Hermès' interiors division, explains: "When you have this interior lined with canvas and then you have these ugly stickers as labels, you have to find something different. I'm sure when you're in a plane you never look at the signs because you're used to the same thing, but here maybe you will look at them because they're different."
Of course, however comfortable the seats, however great the view from the extended windows, the one thing a helicopter can never be is quiet: "It's not a limousine," comments Taverne. But this one is as quiet as it gets: the sound-absorbing canvas and the Bose sound system do their work, and the passengers can comfortably hold a conversation sans headphones, not to mention listen to music or watch a DVD.
Interestingly, it is not only the passenger portion of the helicopter that is luxurious: the company has made just as much of an effort with the cockpit, nattily upholstered in bitter chocolate leather. Says Taverne: "A pilot told me that when you're in that configuration, and when you feel that everything has been done so carefully for you, it feels as if you are driving a luxury car or something; it's very comfortable. And he told me that you are more relaxed and more in a position to be precise when you land or take off. There is a sense of well-being that allows you to be more precise in your job. And that's good for a pilot, non?" He also points out that, in the world of luxury-loving high flyers, there are certain passengers that are pilots as well. So if you feel like swapping the relaxation of the back seat for the driver's position, there will be no below-stairs austerity: if you're good enough to fly the Hermès helicopter, you're good enough to sit on Hermès bull calf leather. Who said luxury was elitist? *Gemma Champ