Thank you for posting!! Just finished reading it and found it very interesting.
latigresse, What a great article...I only had time to read the first page
so far. I'll have to read the rest later. I loved the pictures as well.
Thank you for posting!
It's a lovely article and much different from the WOW its a really expensive bag article we usually see. I learned a lot and believe it or not actually got a deeper apprecaition for something I have always held so highly.
Great article, thank you VF.
That was a very nice read. I enjoyed it!
Thanks for posting! I read this printout sweet Asa gave us and I really enjoyed it.
Thank you for posting, interesting read!
Could someone that can view this paste it please? I keep having to restart my pc when opening it.
From Hermès to Eternity
Almost two centuries ago, a royal coronation might be delayed until the arrival of its exquisitely stitched Hermès carriage fittings, just as today even the richest women must wait for an exquisitely stitched Hermès Birkin bag. With the family-run French company passing to a sixth generation, the author chronicles its rise to global pre-eminence, where a modern aesthetic meets the humble tools—awls, mallets, needles, knives, and stones—of unsurpassed tradition.
by Laura Jacobs September 2007
‘The world is divided into two: those who know how to use tools, and those who do not."
"We are an industrial company with 12 divisions, which designs, makes, and retails its products. We aren't a holding company."
Atop 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré a statue, affectionately known as "l'artificier," waves Hermès scarves.
"We will continue to make things the way the grandfathers of our grandfathers did."
For 28 years, from 1978 to 2006, the most quotable voice in retail—pragmatic, poetic—came from Jean-Louis Dumas, the head of a company that in every other way speaks with its hands. It is an old company with a Protestant spine and a Parisian perfectionism, one of the oldest family-owned-and-controlled companies in France. Its name alone prompts sighs of desire among those in the know, and those in the know run the gamut from French housewife to fashionista to queen (both kinds), from social climber to Olympic equestrian to C.E.O. The name itself is a sigh, a flight, and its proper pronunciation must often be taught. "Air-mez"—as in the messenger god with winged sandals. Mischievous, witty, ingenious Hermès.
"We don't have a policy of image, we have a policy of product."
Dumas, fifth generation of the Hermès family, was eminently quotable because he expressed clear concepts that made sense in any language. Though Hermès is grouped with other luxury brands, it hovers ineffably higher, apart, and not only because it is more costly. Dumas himself pooh-poohed the term "luxury," disliking its arrogance, its hint of decadence. He preferred the word "refinement," and intrinsic to that refinement is what Hermès won't do. It does not boast, does not use celebrities in advertising, does not license its name, does not let imperfect work leave the atelier (imperfect work is destroyed), does not get its head turned by trends. What it does do—Dumas's "policy of product"—is create necessary objects made from the most beautiful materials on earth, each so intelligently designed and deeply well made it transcends fashion (which is good because the pieces last for generations). When Diane Johnson, in her best-seller of 1997, Le Divorce, describes a gift box from Hermès "set alluringly on the desk, like a cake on an altar," she catches that special blend of the senses and the soul inherent in an object from Hermès.
"Time is our greatest weapon."
Inside that gift box is an Hermès handbag, a Kelly, the company classic renamed in 1956 for the actress Grace Kelly, who used one to shield her pregnancy from a paparazzo's lens. In Johnson's novel the Kelly is symbolic of an Old World transaction—the taking of a mistress. But under Dumas's brilliant leadership, Hermès became a brave-new-world company, growing global in a sustained, savvy, relatively debt-free ascent that was prepared for in the 80s, rocketed in the 90s, and continued to climb after 2000 even as other luxury brands slipped. Young women in Japan, China, and Russia now buy their own Kellys. Paris is no longer the only destination for those who want incomparable leather goods, scarves, ties, and iconic jewelry and watches—Hermès now has 283 stores worldwide, 4 of them flagships. Dumas set the tone for Hermès as a fierce competitor that competes only with itself and keeps winning. Upon his retirement, in March of last year, he handed the reins to members of the family's sixth generation, who must now find their own relationship with time.
It began with Thierry Hermès, the sixth child of an innkeeper. He was born a French citizen in the German town of Krefeld, land that in 1801 was part of Napoleon's empire. Having lost all of his family to disease and war, Hermès went to Paris an orphan, proved gifted in leatherwork, and opened a shop in 1837, the same year Charles Lewis Tiffany opened his doors in New York. Today the two companies have the most distinctive color signatures in retail—Hermès orange and Tiffany robin's-egg blue—but there the similarity ends. Where Tiffany began in stationery and costume jewelry, Hermès specialized in the horse harnesses required by society traps, calèches, and carriages. The dynamics of animal power and grace, movement and travel, energy controlled and the outdoors enjoyed, are deep in the lifeline of Hermès. It was a business built on the strength of a stitch that can only be done by hand, the saddle stitch, which has two needles working two waxed linen threads in tensile opposition. It is a handsome, graphic stitch, and done properly it will never come loose.
Saddle master Laurent Goblet and one of his craftsmen flank their handiwork.
The clients of Thierry Hermès were rich: the Parisian beau monde and European royalty, including the emperor Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie. But Thierry's true client—the wings on his sandals—was the horse, whose hauteur in this era was unrivaled. It was in equipage that the Hermès allure took form, born of a linear integrity, a tailored masculinity, its richness lying in the leather and in hardware honestly, elegantly designed. When Thierry's son, Émile-Charles, succeeded him, the family business moved to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where it has been a limestone landmark—the home of Hermès—ever since. In that same year of 1880, saddlery was added, a custom business that required measurements from both horse and rider. Added as well in the 19th century, another Hermès institution: the wait. Because handstitched perfection cannot be rushed, royal coronations were sometimes delayed until Hermès fittings for the carriage and the guard had arrived. In this century, the waitlist for items such as the hot-and-heavy Birkin, a handbag created in 1984 for the actress Jane Birkin, can stretch to five years. One Birkin takes 18 to 25 hours to make, and the Paris workrooms produce only five or so each week; these supply Hermès stores worldwide.
^First page, Gaz....hope that helps - it's a FAB article, Latigresse - thank you!!!
In the third generation of Hermès, when Émile-Charles's sons, Adolphe and Émile-Maurice, succeeded him, lightning struck. Hermès Frères, as it was then called, was peerless in its field, adding Czar Nicholas II of Russia to its client list, along with royals and riders from around the world. Nevertheless, the century had turned and the centrality of the horse was diminishing. Elder brother Adolphe, shy and fearful of this epochal change, thought there was no future for Hermès in the age of the motor. Émile-Maurice, adventurous and inspired, thought otherwise.
"My grandfather," says Jérôme Guerrand, the chairman of the Hermès supervisory board and a cousin of Jean-Louis Dumas's, "during the war was sent as an officer to the States, and he met [Henry] Ford. At that time it was the best example for factories in the world. And in Canada he found a kind of zip, for the [canvas] roof of the cars. He thought it was something he could use in France—to make other things."
Perhaps only a man named for the Greek god of swiftness would perceive the future in this quicksilver device. Émile-Maurice returned to Paris with a two-year European patent on the zipper. He saw Hermès zooming into the age of the automobile, which would no doubt require leather accessories. The zipper opened and closed in a flash, a perfect mechanism with which to secure a purse or jacket against high speeds. The "Hermès Fastener," as it was called even after the patent had expired, would revolutionize clothing (made by Hermès, the first-ever leather jacket with a zip was worn by the Duke of Windsor), and the Hermès workrooms became so expert in its manipulation that other companies, including Coco Chanel's, came to learn from them.
That zipper—not flat like today's, more like a skinny, silver snake skeleton—lies in a desk drawer in the hushed and beautiful room that was once Émile-Maurice's office and is now another of his legacies, the Hermès Museum. Secreted away on a floor above the store, the museum is a long rectangular room with old oak walls, windows curtained in moss-green velvet, and the dust-mote magic of another world. From the age of 12, when he bought his first piece, a walking stick, Émile-Maurice was an avid collector, and in this room he housed his treasures. His focus was the golden age of the horse, which spanned many centuries and even more cultures.
Bejeweled saddles for Eastern warriors and Russian leather for Western kings, stirrups forged in Peru, bridles from Africa and India. In this room there are phaetons and victorias made as tiny as toys, or scaled as salesman's models. A galloping horse on tricycle wheels, its horsehair face worn bald by too many kisses, belonged to Napoléon III's son, the Prince Imperial. (General George Patton's signature is in the museum guest book.) And a royal carriage on a table, created from paper slips rolled between finger and thumb—the art of paperole—is a masterpiece probably made by a nun. (Andy Warhol also visited the museum.) The severe black wool sidesaddle suit—or amazone—of Julie Hermès, Émile-Maurice's wife, recently served as inspiration for the Miss Julie–esque costuming of Madonna's Confessions tour. And if the collection's parasol made of pheasant feathers hadn't been so fragile, it would have taken part in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Coppola did have use of an 18th-century hunting knife and a ray-skin spyglass called an indiscrète, which were accompanied to the set by Ménéhould de Bazelaire, the museum's curator since 1986.
"Ali Baba's cavern," "Gepetto's workshop"—these are ways de Bazelaire describes the collection. "In this room, the childhood spirit of Hermès is gathered. Not to be a prisoner of the past, not at all. Every time an artist, a designer for Hermès, comes here, they are excited. They feel energy from the craftsmanship."
So while the collection has a Proustian power, it is more important in the way it acts as a bank of visual motifs from which Hermès designers may draw imagery, inspiration, for future projects.
"We cannot do an ugly gadget," says de Bazelaire, "because we would be ashamed if we compared it to this."
The collection as conscience?
"Yes," she says. "Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio."
Émile-Maurice Hermès had four daughters, one of whom died young. When the other three married, their husbands' surnames—Dumas, Guerrand, Puech—became synonymous with the fourth generation of Hermès. Thus began a branching out in the family tree, a phase in Hermès history when more members of the family began working for the firm. When Émile-Maurice died, in 1951, having added such classics to the company repertoire as the Hermès silk scarf, in 1937 (it grew out of Hermès racing silks), and the Collier de Chien, in the 40s (the cultish dog-collar bracelet, a waiting-list item today), son-in-law Robert Dumas took the helm, working in close collaboration with his brother-in-law Jean-René Guerrand.
Presiding over a postwar era in which the Hermès presence in France was consolidated, Robert Dumas put the stress on new design. Artistic and more introverted than his father-in-law, Dumas turned his hand to belts and bags. He brought the Hermès tie to its sine qua non status as the power tie. And his focus on the Hermès scarf—"my first love," he called it—resulted in company scarves so recognizably Hermès that flagship stores fly them from their rooftops. Thirty-six by 36 inches of the finest Chinese silk; engraved with an accuracy of one micrometer; screened with as many as 36 color frames; brought to completion over two and a half years; with 12 new designs a year (plus classics brought back): these virtuosic fantasias on culture, nature, and art are pure joie de vivre, something better than a status symbol. To receive one's first Hermès scarf—it's not about coming up in the world but about embracing it.
Nine of the company's 10 best-selling scarves, including 1957's Brides de Gala (Gala Bridles, the all-time best-seller) and 1963's Astrologie (favorite of fashion designers), were made on Robert Dumas's watch. In fact, in the imagery of these two scarves—the ceremonial gravity of leather bridles and the overhead soaring of the spheres—we see the reverberating dynamic of Hermès: earth and air. It was this very dynamic that Jean-Louis Dumas would articulate when in 1978, upon his father Robert's death, the family made him head of the company.
When he was C.E.O. and artistic director of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas often said, "We are like peasants working the land to yield fruit." It is a sentiment he took from his mother, Jacqueline, and it expresses both the sense of stewardship each Hermès generation feels toward the firm and also the simple dignity inherent in work done by hands with tools—the awls, mallets, needles, knives, and stones that populate the workbench of every Hermès artisan (each of whom is five years in the making). Hermès is different from other luxury brands in that it is not so much a design identity as it is a culture, a rarefied world with its own values and ways of working ("the way the grandfathers of our grandfathers did"). Retired workers don't leave the company; they join its Club des Anciens—"the ancients"—which meets for monthly lunches and yearly trips and is a living library of company history and wisdom. The ancients are as much Hermès as the Hermès family members, who even with advanced degrees in other fields may find themselves drawn back to their native ground of leather, silk, and the saddle stitch.
When Jean-Louis, one of 17 cousins who constitute the family's fifth generation, took the reins, in 1978, Hermès was still lofty and a bit sleepy, especially in the leather-working atelier above the store, where, as Forbes reported, there wasn't enough work to keep the needles busy. Financial consultants suggested that the company close the atelier and hire outsiders to do the work—tantamount to cutting the heart out of Hermès. Dumas knew better. Equipped with degrees in both law and economics, keenly well read and well versed in the arts, a globe-trotting traveler who relished exotic climes and yet, having worked at Bloomingdale's for a year in the 60s, loved America as well, he looked up over the horizon, much as his grandfather Émile-Maurice once had, and saw a global Hermès, scarves snapping across the continents.
It began with a jolt. In 1979, Dumas launched an advertising campaign, put up in Paris overnight, that pictured hip young Parisians wearing Hermès scarves with jeans—a look so radically high-low the whole house of Hermès protested, an uproar that lasted days. "The idea is always the same at Hermès," Dumas would say in his lighthearted way, "to make tradition live by shaking it up." He'd recognized that retail had changed and if Hermès was to survive without compromise it had to reposition its products, make them relevant to more walks of life. Dumas expanded the Hermès profile by investing, usually at 35 percent, in companies that shared the Hermès ethic of No Compromise—companies like Leica optics and Jean Paul Gaultier's couture. He expanded the Hermès product line by buying entire companies that he believed in (the London bootmaker John Lobb) and that made sense within the context of Hermès's Art of Living department: Puiforcat silver, Saint-Louis crystal. (The company now has 14 divisions.) And he expanded the Hermès global presence with a steady increase in the number of boutiques and stand-alone stores, making few mistakes in a well-researched strategy of growth.
From 1982 to 1989, sales grew from $82 million to $446.4 million. And if you'd bought shares of Hermès in March of 1993, when 19 percent of the company was publicly floated (a way to allow family members to sell some shares without upsetting company structure), you'd be a happy camper. From December 1993 to December 2006, the cac 40 Index shows a rather flat line with a shallow rise around 1999, while the Hermès international share price climbs like Everest. As a Lehman Brothers analyst said of Hermès in 2000, "It's the only stock in its sector to be in its eighth-straight year of double-digit growth." Sales in 2006 reached an all-time high of $1.9 billion.
It wasn't empire building per se, because Hermès could never be mass—and never wanted to be. It was more like ambassadorships. Dumas's vision, which he called "multi-local," saw Hermès stores outside of France operating with a great deal of independence, being Hermès, yes, but with a posture that was proper to each new environment. It would be a dialogue, a dance, Hermès taking the pulse of the place, building relationships with new artists it admired, and often leading the local Zeitgeist, not only through avant-garde, often curated windows (also done locally, while following the lead of Leila Menchari, the acclaimed designer of Hermès's surreal Paris windows), but also through heavy sponsorship of events, art exhibitions, and mini film festivals. "Multi-local" inspired, as well, the way new stores were conceived, whether worked into existing, often landmark buildings or constructed from scratch, as in Dosan Park in Seoul, and in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
When it comes to the evolving aesthetic of Hermès, almost incalculable is the influence of Rena Dumas, the wife of Jean-Louis. Born and raised in Greece, knowing she wanted to work with space ever since she was a girl, Rena met Jean-Louis in 1959 when she was studying architecture in Paris. The principal of a company she founded in 1970, Rena Dumas Architecture Intérieure (R.D.A.I.), she has designed the interiors of more than 150 Hermès stores. Her style—clean, taut, extremely subtle, and highly resolved—might be described as abstract modernism, but with a sensation of sinuous play and kinetic daring
R.D.A.I.'s first job for Hermès was to design the interior of an addition to 24 Faubourg, made possible by the purchase of the building at 26. Rena said she could not do a replica of 24—she was interested only in doing something modern. "They gave me a very interesting answer, which guided me," Rena says. "They said, 'O.K., but we want the client who enters 24 and goes to 26 not to have a feeling of change, that he goes from the old store to the new store. We don't want the 24 Faubourg to become something old.'" From 24 Faubourg, Rena took "a code of elements," as she calls it: limestone, cherrywood, mosaics, leather, and light. Her firm's stunning design for the company's facility in Pantin, where the leather workshops moved in 1992 to meet the huge increase in demand, is all windows, air, awash in light. It's a crystal palace born of a prism.
Design of Hermès objects, always subtle, has increasingly partaken of this more abstract and architectural approach. The men's wear of Véronique Nichanian, who came on in 1988; the women's shoes and jewelry of Pierre Hardy, who joined the house in 1990; and the ready-to-wear of the esoteric Martin Margiela, engaged in 1997, much to the surprise of the fashion world: these three, all minimalists with an extravagant edge, brought a powerful coherence to Hermès design, a disciplined rigor and sly wit. Indeed, one might say that the Hermès allure is today more dressage than equipage, concentrated yet cool. In fact, the saddles used by the Academy of Equestrian Arts, located in Versailles, are provided by Hermès.
The first years of the new millennium saw Dumas making his last hires, and they were important ones. In 2003, when the press-phobic Margiela decided not to renew his contract with Hermès, wanting to devote himself to his own line, Dumas again surprised the industry, this time by hiring Jean Paul Gaultier—bad-boy couturier, costumer of Madonna, and out-there showman. And Gaultier, who'd turned down many offers to design for other houses, surprised himself by wanting the job. Dumas had asked him for suggestions about who could take Margiela's place. "I threw out a few names," Gaultier recalls, "but finally when I got home, I said to myself, 'Me. I would love to do it.' It's a house that allows for great creative freedom with no limits."
The press fretted over the choice: Could Gaultier rein in his wildness? He could. Gaultier understood the Hermès ethic of au point—"just at the right point"—and his collections for Hermès, always in the most sumptuous materials, have ridden that fine line between respect and irreverence. "My mother used to wear Calèche, and through the scent, Hermès was in my childhood memory. That's why I play with the Hermès codes, giving them a twist."
And in the fragrance department: despite the classic Calèche, introduced in 1961, and other successes through the decades—Équipage; Amazone; 24, Faubourg—this was the one Hermès division that underperformed through much of the 90s. In Jean-Claude Ellena, hired in 2004, the company found its nose. Sophisticated, cerebral, with a poet's sense of the mystery of his subject, Ellena creates fragrances that are like organic architecture. His line of Hermessences—lighter, more ethereal mixes—have the feeling of musical airs or inventions, the buoyant play of Hermès.
Come 2005, Dumas began to loosen the reins and relinquish responsibilities. It was during this time of quiet transition that Hermès suffered the loudest, and possibly worst, publicity in its history. What has been called a controversy and a "Crash moment," but is better termed a misunderstanding, unfolded on June 14, when Oprah Winfrey and friends arrived at 24 Faubourg at 6:45 p.m. and were told the store was closed. It was true, Hermès closes at 6:30 p.m. But on this particular evening, because the staff was preparing for a fashion show, the store still looked open. "The doors were not locked," Winfrey later said on her television show. "There was much discussion among the staff about whether or not to let me in. That's what was embarrassing." Newspapers and the Internet whipped it up. Hate mail poured into Hermès. The family was mortified. Dumas himself, had he been in better health, would have taken a flight to meet Winfrey, to explain that Hermès never closes its doors to anyone. In his place, Robert Chavez, the president and C.E.O. of Hermès U.S.A., appeared on Winfrey's show to say how sorry the company was. She accepted the apology.
"What is the future of Hermès?" Dumas once answered this question with a single word: "Idea." In early 2006, when Dumas announced he'd be retiring, Hermès was faced with that future: Who would fill the shoes of Jean-Louis Dumas? As it turned out, three people. With the unanimous approval of the Hermès board, Dumas named company veteran Patrick Thomas the new C.E.O. and designated as co–artistic directors his son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and his niece, Pascale Mussard. Thomas spoke for all when he said, "This is a family company with a long-term vision. There will be no revolution." And yet, when leadership moves from one generation to the next, there is always a leap, if only of faith.
‘One very important feeling for me," says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, "is the feeling of humility. That came about very early, that I never took Hermès for granted. It was a house, our house, and a highly respected institution."
By age 10, Dumas was asking to learn the saddle stitch. "It's not really about the stitch," he says. "It's about being aware of the sense of touch, being able to stitch with your eyes closed, being able to represent yourself and the object you're making in space, being able to listen to what your hands tell you. These are fundamental acts which built our civilization. When I was able to control my hands, I was so proud."
Dumas graduated with a degree in visual arts from Brown University, where fellow students sometimes confused Hermès with Aramis, a hot American fragrance in the 80s. "I was shocked," he recalls. "But this brand is full of paradoxes. It's been around for 170 years, and yet it's a very young brand, because its geographical expansion happened in the last 20 years."
Mussard, like Dumas, doesn't "have any memory without Hermès." Descended from the Guerrand line of the Hermès family, she remembers that "the key of my parents' apartment was the same key as all the offices and the safe of Hermès. My uncles could come every day, at any hour." After school Mussard would go to the Hermès upstairs atelier to watch the leather workers or to play on the terrace. After studying law and obtaining a degree in business, she began at Hermès as a fabric buyer in 1978, when her uncle Jean-Louis took over.
"I knew that my heart was with Hermès, but I always thought I was not good enough." (Company policy: a family member never gets the job over a more qualified outsider.) "When Jean-Louis asked me to join, I was astonished. He said to me, 'You know every corner at Hermès, you know every person.'" Though Mussard is shy, her uncle promoted her into advertising and P.R. Be natural, he told her; say what you want to. "He helped a lot of people to bloom," she says.
And in critiquing a window she'd dressed, one she was proud of, Dumas taught Mussard an important lesson in Hermès allure. "He said, 'It's not a good window—everything is too Hermès. You are like a good pupil, and a window is not about that. You have to make a reaction. You have to surprise. You have to astonish yourself. Be always on a wire, a thread.'"
Pierre-Alexis Dumas reiterates this ideal. "My father was always anxious. He had stage fright, convinced that when everything was prepared, at the greatest events, it will not work. And it was always a success. I understand today that that attitude is a wise one. If you just say everything is O.K., you're not taking risks. The brand is going to be affected by that. Slowly it's going to become banal."
Dumas is in charge of all the silk, textile accessories, and ready-to-wear, and Mussard oversees leather, jewelry, and non-textile accessories. "Pierre is very abstract," she says. "He loves paintings, he wants to be a painter, he loves things flat. I love three dimensions. I love objects. And so we are very complementary." And they are aesthetically in sync. Like Dumas's mother, Mussard's father, the late Pierre Siegrist, was an architect. Having both grown up with modernist values, Dumas and Mussard share a love of clean shapes with strong energy. They want the company to grow slim and fit, its touch light but not too light.
"We've known each other for a long time," says Mussard. "We understand right away if it's Hermès or not. If we like it or not. If we've gone too far away."
"We've got to remain true to ourselves," says Dumas, "but we've got to change constantly. And it's that tension which is at the heart of Hermès."
And something else. Something Mussard was searching for, a key, when she came into the company. "It's from Jean-Louis's father, Robert Dumas," she explains. "I asked him, What is it about Hermès? If you can say one thing, what is it? And he said to me, 'Hermès is different because we are making a product that we can repair.' It's so simple. And it's not so simple. Think that you can repair something because you know how to repair it and why it has been damaged. You have the hands. Think that you can repair it because you want to keep it. And think that you can repair it because you want to give it to someone else. I think it's right. It's what Hermès is about."
Having read it, it makes me sure I don't want to acquire a whole collection of bags fast....I'm slowly enjoying what I have!