THE LUXURY COMPANY HERMèS HAS BEEN CREATING LEATHER ACCESSORIES FOR 175 YEARS, FROM ITS BIRTH AS A SADDLEMAKER TO ITS LATE 20TH CENTURY REINVENTION AS THE wORLD’S MOST COVETED BAG MAKER. LUKE LEITCH TALKS TO THE TwO COUSINS AT THE COMPANY’S HELM AS ITS EXPANSION IN CHINA GATHERS PACE.
[dropcap size=small]B[/dropcap]y sheer coincidence, my Parisian rendezvous with the two cousins to whom has fallen the six-generation ancestral responsibility of running Hermès takes place at 13 rue des Beaux Arts. It was at this very spot, a beautiful stone-floored (and stonily staffed) hotel, that Oscar Wilde – the unsurpassed master of the comic potential of a handbag – croaked his last bon mot. That was 112 years ago, when Hermès was already a 63-year-old saddlemaker of considerable renown.
Fast-forward to now, and Hermès might just be the world’s best-regarded luxury company. The regard is reflected in its performance: last year, its profits rose 41 per cent to £495 million. Its exquisitely printed silk scarves are lusted after, but the cult of Hermès is predicated primarily on its handbags. These include the Kelly – so christened after Grace used hers as a paparazzi-block, the less famous but equally lustrous H-buckled Constance, the Verrou clutch, the Jypsière messenger (my favourite), the roomily-gusseted Paris-Bombay holdall, and the 1920s-designed zippered Bolide. All of these, when spotted, will prompt a shudder of pleasure among members of the handbag cognoscenti. But by far the most famous, and most collected, is the Birkin, named after Jane.
Half an hour before my meeting with the Hermès cousins, at the autumn/winter Hermès womenswear show held at the end of the rue des Beaux Arts, Birkin herself told the story of how, in the early 1980s, she was seated next to Jean-Louis Dumas (the man most responsible for Hermès’ recent elevation) on a flight from Paris to London. Between them they came up with the idea for the Birkin bag, after her hand luggage had spewed its contents from the overhead locker on to the first-class shagpile. She even recalled them sketching that first design on a sick bag. The world’s most famous handbag, dreamt up on a sick bag. Now that is something that could turn Bernard Arnault green with envy.
En route to the hotel where Wilde checked out, I’m itching to discuss this with the rarely interviewed Dumas cousins, Pierre-Alexis, 45, the creative director, who wears a raffish scarf over his navy jacket, and Axel, 41, the chief operating officer, who is a waistcoat-under-charcoal-jacket man. Born into handbags, they are disconcertingly earnest (sorry, Oscar). I mention the Birkin chat, and Pierre-Alexis tells me that Jean-Louis Dumas, that man on the plane, was his father.
Jean-Louis, who retired in 2006 and died in 2010, had worked as a buyer at Bloomingdale’s in New York. He took charge of Hermès from his father, Robert, in 1978. After decades of expansion, the company was in danger of stagnation; Jean-Louis brought his experience from Bloomingdale’s, and oversaw its expansion from a European institution to a global one. He went by submarine to the bottom of Lake Geneva to launch a watch, tapped up Birkin, and brilliantly rejuvenated the company for a younger audience. Now Pierre-Alexis has succeeded his father in creative charge of this business that has 33 (soon to be 35) production facilities in France (and France alone), employing about 3,000 men and women.
He tells me about a Salman Rushdie article he once read that informed his entire vision for Hermès – fascinating, if perhaps a philosophy too far for handbag production. He said that the leading value of the 21st century was progress and speed. “We started with automobiles and ended up with the internet. Going fast was the symbol of progress, of a better world. But the fact that we now communicate at the speed of light does not mean we are happier – in fact, we are more stressed than ever. Something is still not right. So it seems that as a reaction to that, we are going to slow down. I thought a lot about it. And it’s not about being slow. It’s about being deep. It’s about taking the time to appreciate what we have.”
Which segues into the reason for this meeting. Last May a London exhibition called Leather Forever revealed how every Hermès-made leather good – from flights of fancy such as the Satyr-winged saddle made for a Japanese rock band to, of course, the handbags – is born of a tradition going back to Thierry Hermès’ foundation of the company as a saddlery in 1837. Pierre-Alexis says it goes back beyond even that, to the generations whose knowledge was passed on to Thierry. “We want to share our culture,” he says. “We are tenants of a culture that is age-old. We used our tools and know- how from our link to horse equipment, and we applied it to accessories and handbags. It is a long, beautiful, human tradition.”
That tradition was shaken last year when LVMH, the world’s largest agglomeration of luxury marques (including Louis Vuitton), acquired a 22 per cent stake in Hermès. To secure Hermès from LVMH, 50 relations from three branches of the family recently met to establish a watertight holding company that owns 51 per cent of Hermès, and which cannot be sold for 20 years. “Although we’re confident,” Pierre-Alexis says, “we will remain paranoid until the end. It was really a Nietzschean moment, it didn’t destroy us, so it made us stronger. When I pass this company on to the seventh generation, then I will believe I’ve done my job.”
“No,’ Pierre-Alexis says baldly. ‘I don’t. It’s not my bag.”
A few days later, I visit an Hermès facility on the outskirts of Paris. Once my passport is politely confiscated, and I am firmly admonished against photography, the experience proves cheery. The vision of Hermès at the Leather Forever exhibition did not include the snaps of David Beckham or Daphne Guinness (toting an Hermès) that are Blu-Tacked to Parisian workers’ desks, or the laughter-punctured murmur of chatter, machine-whirr and banging (during ‘perlage’, the attachment of hardware to bags) that fills the room.
The craftsmen and women I meet (all quite young) appear both genuinely charming and charmed by their jobs. They say the Plume – the company’s oldest bag design – is the most difficult to make, and that the average time it takes to make a bag is two and a half weeks. A recently hired 17-year-old named Dimitri, wearing piercings and jeans, has just finished his first Kelly, coloured a glowing light blue, and made inside out to reduce the appearance of stitching on the exterior. In front of us, with infinite slowness and the help of a tiny iron to reduce stress to its calfskin, he turns the bag outside in again – and beams like a new father when the delivery is flawlessly complete. Another worker, a cool, slightly older chap named Julien Serange, says, “We don’t feel like machines here, because we do everything from the beginning to the end, from A to Z. It is a pleasure to do this.”
Even if you’ve no intention of spending thousands of pounds on a handbag, it is certainly interesting to see how the world’s finest are made. And the determination of the people who run it is impressive too. Pierre-Alexis may be a little prickly, but who wouldn’t be in the face of an unwanted outside attempt to wrest control of a company built, and loved, by six generations? As he says, “As long as the Hermès house remains a family business – and as long as we’re alive – I can tell you that we will be here to remind people that there are human beings behind an object. An object is a tenet of culture, and it has a soul. If we forget that, we die.”
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