“I don’t present our guests with jam made from our fruits from the trees we grow here anymore,” Axel Dumas, the scion of the founding family that owns the luxury brand Hermes, and the current company CEO, tells me while standing in a small garden on the rooftop of a building in one of the posh arrondissements of Paris, which has housed the original Hermes factory since the beginning, in the 1830s. Guests in the past were honoured with a gift of the said jam, but apparently the expectations from the brand required something more enduring, so instead we were gifted a bottle of Un Jardin Sur le Toît, an EDT named after the garden.
Hermes CEO Axel Dumas poses on the roof of the the Hermes Faubourg Saint-Honore store in Paris
Luxury at Hermes isn’t obvious in visuals as much as it is a perceived entity. It is a way of life, not merely to make things more expensive or attractive, but to infuse it with attention in a way that even something quotidian is elevated to the level of fine art. The house has remained family-owned since inception, and none of the bigger luxury houses in the world, despite their best efforts over the years, have been able to either acquire or displace it from its leadership position. Hermes continues to flourish, like a timeless French tradition, subtle and quiet, but never unnoticed.
Hermes takes pride in the high level of craftsmanship that goes into all its offerings
No order is too tall for Hermes when you want to get something made and personalise it. From boxing gloves in a particular shade of green with a logo of your choice to car and airplane seat covers, if you have a fantasy that involves craft in leather, Hermes will execute it for you. Not just the actual manufacturing, but even the research to produce an article is a journey unto itself. There are no dissatisfied clients.
After World War I, when mass produced cars killed horseback travel, Hermes moved on to make other products like seat covers, car trunks work and travel bags and accessories. The attention to detail continued. Hermes was the first brand to use zippers on bags (thanks to Emile Hermes, who returned from the US inspired by the success of the Ford Model T and decided to transform things back home – zips on bags came forth from here). Even today, workers are encouraged to innovate and think in a design-forward manner, without compromising functionality; they are also the ones who often get to name the products. The sheer range of Hermes products means that none of their 307 stores worldwide would ever be able to stock all that is made or available, an idea which is anathema to most luxury brands.
The famous Hermes saddle is still made in Paris
This limited availability, of course, has the effect of fuelling demand for those products. Just think of the iconic bags, Kelly and Birkin. Considering how Hermes has never had a brand ambassador nor paid for endorsements, it was the stars themselves who chose to be seen with Hermes bags so often that their names came to be associated with it. Even today, Hermes believes in communicating rather than marketing.
Another thing Hermes doesn’t believe in is collaborations. “If you need to collaborate, it means you are lacking something internally. When I met (the late) Steve Jobs, we shared our dislike for collabs. We hated it so much that we decided to launch a watch together immediately!” Dumas tells me jokingly. Hermes, of course, makes the leather straps for the luxury Apple watches. Such ironic anecdotes punctuated the breakfast meeting throughout. They aren’t necessarily the first movers in any market; they choose to take their time getting there, but then they stay put. This was what they did in Japan, China and, a few years ago, in India. E-commerce, similarly, was a big move for them and in their own calculated way, they have made it work (among the first things they sold online was a couch).
Hermes today has a mix of clients that comprise men and women, certainly the older lot but also the younger ones, who are beginning to realise the timeless beauty of a handmade object. To me, it’s not about wearing a belt with an H logo, quite the opposite, in fact; as people graduate from flashy brands to the notion of true luxury, which is more about the personal experience than the show, Hermes is one of the brands they will head to. Oh, and here’s one last parting anecdote – what’s with all that orange, you ask? Well, during a certain period of shortage (one of the World Wars, if I recall correctly), the only leather available was that particular shade of orange, so they went with it, and the rest is history.