The Daily Telegraph

Hermès: the making of a modern classic

The heritage brand famous for The Birkin and The Kelly has never gone out of fashion. Laura Craik discovers its secret...


For someone who flew straight from LA to the launch party of his new store on London’s Sloane Street, Axel Dumas is looking pretty fresh. One never knows what to expect when meeting a CEO - other than that they are frequently male, dry and humourless - so it is a pleasant surprise to find that the 46-year-old Hermès heir only ticks the first of these boxes. Bonus ball: he is handsome. Well, his looks would be mentioned if he was a woman.

The sixth-generation Hermès scion took over as chief executive in 2014, joining the storied brand - Europe’s third largest luxury goods group - in 1993, after a stint as a banker at BNP Paribas based in Beijing and New York. “We live in a globalised world, but within this world there are only a few global cities. London is definitely one of them,” he says of the decision to relocate and expand their third London store. “There has always been this vibrancy about London. But there are two sides. One is the internatio­nal market; the other is the local customer. When we have a store, its role is to please and seduce the local client. That’s the main goal. As with the French, they [the British] are very particular in their taste. They’re not pleased easily, so it is a challenge.”

So the British customer is quite demanding? “I’ve never met a non-demanding customer,” he says affably. “Most of the time I receive complaint letters, as the CEO. If you have something good to say, you say that to yourself. Recently, I received this letter which started badly. ‘Mr Dumas, I waited five years to get my bag’. But then it said: ‘It was wonderful! Perfect! I’m so glad I waited so long!’” He beams proudly.

That he is upbeat is in no small part due to Hermès’s record profitabil­ity: in 2016, consolidat­ed revenues amounted to £4,480 million, with net profitabil­ity reaching £947 million. While other luxury brands stumbled, growth in leather goods, which account for 47 per cent, increased by 14 per cent. Lucky for some. Hermès’s 12,834 employees - 4,000 of whom are craftspeop­le - can’t make those bags fast enough.

But numbers only tell part of the story. Even those with a cursory interest in fashion will probably be familiar with the Hermès narrative, a heady tale featuring expensive handbags, Grace Kelly, Jane Birkin, long waiting lists and a family saddlemaki­ng business founded in 1837. For connoisseu­rs of its range of bags, clothes, jewellery, textiles, homeware and fragrance, Hermès is the pinnacle of luxury. Put simply, there is nothing finer.

Every luxury brand bleats on about craftsmans­hip these days (“you said it,” says Dumas, deadpan), but there are particular challenges inherent to a business model built on craft. “It’s easy to speak about craftsmans­hip, [but] to continue to maintain the high quality of materials is complicate­d. Finding good material for wool, for leather, for silk, is becoming more and more difficult,” he says, citing industrial­isation as the main enemy of quality.

Workmanshi­p is also key; Hermès trains almost 200 craftsmen per year. “To do a crocodile bag, it’s probably going to take you seven years to master. It’s an ongoing process. Craftsmans­hip is going to age well. Our products are meant to be repaired. That’s something very nice about Hermès; that our products last long, and are not to be discarded. You can give it to your granddaugh­ter.”

That an Hermès bag is the absolute antithesis of the “see now, buy now” movement currently sending shockwaves through the fashion system is one of its greatest strengths. Given that Hermès waiting lists are almost as fabled as its bags, Dumas has more proof than most that customers are prepared to wait for something that they love. “That they love, yes. You need to have a good reason to wait,” he emphasises.

Ask Dumas how he keeps the 180-year-old brand relevant, and he is refreshing­ly honest. “This is tough to answer, because it’s a question that will probably keep us up at night. It’s a fine balancing act between tradition and also being able to reinvent yourself. For almost 100 years, we only catered to one customer, which was the horse. The turning point was during the First World War. My great-grandfathe­r went to the US to buy leather for the French cavalry, and there were no horses, only cars. And he came back, and said, ‘You know, horses are going to disappear’. And his brother said, “Well, if there is no horse, there is no

Hermès, so we need to sell the company.’” They didn’t, of course: they adapted, and have been extremely nimble ever since. In 2015, they took the surprising step of collaborat­ing with Apple to produce leather straps for its Apple Watch. “We don’t do collaborat­ions,” says Dumas. “We had a discussion with Jonathan Ive, where I explained why we didn’t do collaborat­ions, and he explained why they never do collaborat­ions either. What was interestin­g is that our reasons were exactly the same,” he laughs. “There are a few values that we share. Design, [that] the interiors should be as beautiful as the outside. There is a lot of synergy. It was also a telling moment to see how our leather and also the design gave [the watch] such a transforma­tion.”

Ask about the challenges of being a family company though and Dumas is relaxed. “They say if you have two people who have the same competency, then it’s great to take the family member, because he will understand the value and care for it. If the two are as bad as each other, don’t take the family one, because he will be much harder to fire!” he quips.

Does he think Hermès will ever name a bag after an icon again? He pauses. “I don’t know, to be honest.”

They don’t make icons like they used to, I suggest. “In a way, you are right. At the time, everything was more genuine. Everybody was mingling, and it was done, just like that. It was good relationsh­ips with people that mattered. Whether Grace Kelly or Jane Birkin, everything was about a meeting of minds. Now, if you wanted to do it, probably you’ve got an agent, you’ve got a marketing plan, back and forth. You lose the beauty of it. It was never a marketing plan. It was a tribute, a seduction.”

Hermès neither gifts its bags nor pays ambassador­s to endorse them. It doesn’t have to. “We have celebritie­s who buy our bags, but we’ve never had a celebrity [ambassador], because everybody is seen as a client. Everybody’s welcome, no one is judged.”

Does he have a favourite bag, or would that be like choosing among his three children? “It’s a tough question. The Kelly was done by my grandfathe­r and the Birkin by my uncle. So it’s definitely not choosing between your children.” He pauses. “It’s choosing between your ancestors. It’s worse!”

‘It takes seven years to master a crocodile bag’

 ??  ?? Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, would use her favourite bag as a shield from paparazzi. The 2017 version of the Hermès Kelly bag features a scarf print design.
Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, would use her favourite bag as a shield from paparazzi. The 2017 version of the Hermès Kelly bag features a scarf print design.
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 ??  ?? Hermès CEO Axel Dumas has overseen record profitabil­ity
Hermès CEO Axel Dumas has overseen record profitabil­ity

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