The Legendary Hermès
Widely recognized today as a high fashion house, Hermès had been on a much narrower trajectory long ago before it morphed into its present day incarnation as a purveyor of high-end leather goods, silk scarves and ties, perfumes, jewelry, apparel, and accessories for the home. One need only glimpse the organization’s famous logo—of a Duc carriage and horse above its signature logotype—to discern that it had initially been devoted to the equestrian domain, namely in harnesses for the carriage trade. Having originated in 1837, it was this unassuming product which set the standard for every Hermès creation that followed. Its founder, Thierry Hermès, was a talented leathersmith, unrivaled in his meticulous craftsmanship of horse driving tack—of considerable importance at the time, bearing in mind the regularity of carriage use and the might of the horse strapped to it. Owing to his expert saddle stitch and the lasting durability of his product, his work eventually caught the eye of European nobility, including the formidable Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, and a luxury brand was born.
Hermès’ clientele grew to consist not only of nobles and aristocrats, but also of the fashionable elite in pursuit of well-wrought bridles and quality harnesses for their stylish barouches and calèches. Hermès delivered, setting a name for itself and later garnering awards at a number of Paris Expositions. Harboring more grandiose aspirations, Thierry Hermès’ son and successor, Charles-Émile, increased the product line to include horse saddlery and began vending as a retailer. Their client list swelled in the years that followed to encompass an exclusive array of discriminating consumers across many continents, such that Charles-Émile’s own sons, Adolphe and Émile-Maurice, were equipping Czar Nicholas II of Russia with custom saddles and increasing their staff of saddle craftsmen.
Through a few manifestations and leadership shifts along the family lineage, in addition to the expansion of its product line and new store placements, Hermès, as it is known today, was on its way to establishing itself as one of the most esteemed brands in the fashion industry.
From Humble Beginnings to a Family Dynasty
Thierry Hermès was born in 1801 to a French father and German mother, both innkeepers in Krefeld, Germany. By 1827, having lost his entire family to illness and war, Thierry relocated to France and learned the skills of fine leatherworking, demonstrating a giftedness which led him to open his own workshop in Paris in little less than a decade. There, he handcrafted carriage fittings which were so artfully produced his work differentiated him from all others. The quality was in the aesthetic of the product as well as in its durability. In using the saddle stitch—a hand-sewn technique that came to define a Hermès product—Thierry was not only creating a highly durable commodity, stronger even than today’s machine-stitched leather, but also a lasting one, for a saddle stitch will not unravel if broken. The beauty of the saddle stitch is in the painstaking process of threading one waxed strand of linen with two needles in a figure-eight pattern through the same hole from opposite ends, with particular emphasis on duplicating the needle placement each time. This created a graphically striking stitch, and formed the basis for the quality that continues to define every Hermès product today.
In 1859, a second generation assumed control of the workshop in the form of Charles-Émile, and it wasn’t long before he was able to carve out a list of objectives for enhancing the store and its product line. In 1880, he relocated the ateliers to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a more fashionable area of Paris that increased exposure to the wealthier Parisians of the time. The limestone address he rented encompassed the workshop until 1889, when he opened the Hermès boutique next door as a retail shop, merchandising the company’s token harnesses, and expanding into saddlery and other equestrian accessories with the help of his two sons, Adolphe and Émile-Maurice. Therein he launched the flagship store.
Charles-Émile died in 1876, two years before his father’s demise, and the third Hermès generation subsequently took control, renaming the company Hermès Frères, though not for long. Adolphe and Émile-Maurice were responsible for expanding their customer base of royals not only throughout Europe, but as far abroad as Asia, North Africa, the Americas, and Russia, employing up to 80 additional craftsmen to meet the burgeoning growth.
For some years following that period, Hermès enjoyed great success. But at the turn of the century, a shift had begun in the marketplace that would impact future sales at Hermès. As the motor car grew in popularity amongst the landed gentry, horse and carriage became a fading mode of transportation and the demand for horse accessories began to decline. Fearing this was an ominous turn, Adolphe left the company in 1919 and sold his shares to Émile-Maurice. Not to be outdone, Émile-Maurice managed to unearth another avenue for revitalizing the firm’s legacy and expanding its brand offerings. This came about due to an interesting turn of events, when Émile-Maurice, an ardent traveler, was on a trip to Canada. He came across the American-invented clasp locker, known today as the zipper, which had been modernized to its current form in 1913. It was used at the time for canvas hoods on cars, but Émile-Maurice had other ideas. He subsequently conveyed it to France where he obtained exclusive rights and introduced it as the Hermès Fastener. The company soon incorporated it into its new offerings of clothing and accessories. In one instance, he fashioned a golf jacket from leather that zipped closed—a first of its kind—which had been custom made for the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII (who had become king in 1936, only to abdicate less than a year later for the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson). This application was a revolutionary advance in fashion—to add a zipper in place of the customary buttons or ties. It was quick and easy to use, as well as stylish, which really coincided with the new modernity that followed on the heels of World War I. The Hermès manufacturers became so adept in the zipper’s treatment in clothing and handbags, other design companies soon took notice, including the flourishing Chanel brand.
Émile-Maurice had spent the greater part of the 1920s expanding into clothing and accessories. It proved to be a savvy move for the firm, as one of the accessories, introduced in 1922, was the women’s leather handbag, which is still a highly coveted item to this day. In 1924, the firm expanded into the U.S., and in 1929, the first couture collection for women’s apparel was previewed in Paris. But that was also the year of the worldwide financial crash, and though Émile-Maurice had been finding new expressions for innovativeness that were proving successful, Hermès did not go untouched, and the company began to fall into economic decline. Émile-Maurice brought in his sons-in-law, Robert Dumas, Jean-René Guerrand and Francis Puech, to take on partnership roles in the company to prevent the company from sinking further. When Émile-Maurice died in 1951, Dumas assumed control of the company.
Before Robert Dumas came on board, he had been working successfully in the import/export business. But following the financial crash, a family friend alerted him to the economic failings of Hermès, and he resigned from the business in order to offer his assistance, along with his two other brothers-in-law. The partners weathered the economic crisis through hard work, determination, and the generosity of their workers, who agreed to suspend their wages for a few months based on their loyalty to them and to the brand. Fortunately, their suppliers also remained loyal to Hermès and continued to furnish materials during that period, and Hermès quickly rebounded. Aside from the introduction of jewelry, including the famed Jacqueline bracelet (named for his wife) and the R.D. bag, Dumas’ tenure also included the introduction of new designs, such as leather belts, and he also elevated the status of men’s ties and women’s scarves, two products which remain highly sought after today. It is said that nearly everything produced by Hermès from 1930 to 1970 can be attributed to the innovation of Dumas.
When Dumas passed on in 1978, his son Jean-Louis Dumas was named C.E.O. and artistic director at Hermès. Around this time, the company had found itself once again facing some financial challenges. Though they’d been advised to close the atelier and outsource the stitching, Dumas refused, keeping true to the Hermès philosophy of refusing to compromise quality, and instead decided to ramp up its advertising campaign, reposition its product line, and expand its global presence. To accomplish this, Jean-Louis placed advertisements around Paris showing young, denim-clad Parisians donning Hermès scarves. Though this act created some friction within the company, it proved successful for breaking into a younger market, and appealed to consumers who hadn’t considered accompanying a more casual look with a Hermès accessory.
In the years following, Jean-Louis ventured into acquisitions, purchasing companies whose products encompassed everything from boots to silver and crystal, and jewelry to perfume. This period of diversification proved highly profitable, as it reached customers loyal to the brand, as well as those who were turning to Hermès for housewares, fine jewelry, and shoes.
During this period and into the current century, Jean-Louis increased the number of stores and boutiques around the world, cementing a worldwide footprint for the brand. And when his head designer, Martin Margiela, left in 2003, that title went to Jean Paul Gaultier whose standards ran as high as Dumas’. All of these endeavors proved successful, increasing revenue, embellishing the brand, and bringing renewed global recognition to the House. Hermès was once again capturing the attention and admiration of consumers, this time on a much larger scale than ever envisioned by Thierry Hermès.
Of Silk Scarves and Handbags
It is reported that during gift-giving seasons, a Hermès scarf is sold every twenty seconds somewhere in the world. It is one of the company’s most identifiable products—developed as an extension of the Hermès racing silks, and recognizable due to its size—always a standard 90 cm2—its characteristic patterns, and the fragrance enhancement conceived by the firm. First produced in 1928 from a Robert Dumas design, the scarves became so popular that a factory in Lyon was established a little less than a decade later solely for their manufacture. Each scarf is comprised of Chinese silk (250 mulberry moth cocoons, to be exact) and are screen-printed, with one screen used for each color (up to 43 screens can be used for one scarf). The hems on the scarves are all hand-rolled and hand-stitched, and the subjects can encompass nautical motifs, equestrian themes, geometric shapes, military treatments, culinary patterns, and numerous other subjects. Once a design is complete, it can take up to 18 months for its production, which is why only two collections are released a year. Numerous celebrities and other luminaries have been spotted wearing the famed scarves, including Queen Elizabeth II, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Madonna, as well as the late Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. These iconic scarves continue to be high on the list of people from all demographics, owing to brand recognition and global reputation of luxury and quality.
The other highly popular Hermès’ accessory is the handbag, which carved a place in fashion history from two iterations, in particular: the Kelly Bag and the Birkin Bag. Though the large crocodile Sac à dépêches bag had been introduced in the 1930s, the Kelly Bag gained popularity when Grace Kelly hid her pregnancy with it in 1956, as a photographer for LIFE magazine was snapping her photo. The Birkin Bag is likely the most famous of all Hermès bags, named for the British actress Jane Birkin, who had been seated next to Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight from Paris to London in 1984, when she happened to mention that her straw bag was impractical for weekend use. As a result, he created a black leather bag for her from a design made two years earlier. Though it was intended as a means of practicality, it became a symbol of luxury owing to its presence on TV shows like Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls. A Birkin can start at around $6,000, and make its way into five-digits, though an occasional Birkin has been known to reach six figures. One Hermès bag, whether a Kelly, a Birkin, a Constance (preferred by Jackie Kennedy), a Lindy, or any other in the collection, can demand up to 18 hours of work by one individual craftsman who painstakingly hand-stitches the leather using the famed saddle stich, followed by a labor-intensive process of production.
After a long and successful tenure at the helm, Jean-Louis Dumas chose to retire in 2006. He named a company veteran, Patrick Thomas, C.E.O. and nominated his son, Pierre-Alexis, and niece, Pascal Mussard, to share the post of artistic director. Dumas wanted the firm to remain largely in the hands of family, as it always had. Then, in 2010, Gautier left as head designer and Christian Lemaire, of Lacoste, replaced him. Today, the company maintains 14 divisions, which continue to offer jewelry, perfume, footwear, bags and other leather goods, clothing, scarves and ties, ready-to-wear, and other accessories, including home furnishings.
A Hermès product is not just a product of quality, produced by artisans and marked by an intrinsic level of refinement, but it is also a status symbol, one that is as iconic and recognizable as its signature horse and carriage logo, a reminder of its origins, when Thierry Hermès stitched saddles for a distinct clientele. Regardless of the rise and fall of world economies, a Hermès product is a coveted commodity, one which evolves into a currency of its own, garnering large sums in secondary and tertiary markets. Little did Thierry know in 1827 what was to come of his efforts to build a new life in France and learn the art of leatherworking. Robert Dumas, was quoted to have said, “We don’t have a policy of image, we have a policy of product,” and because of that ethos, Hermès is immortalized in the hearts of those loyal to the brand, as equally as those who are new to it.