". . .Set alluringly on the desk, like a cake on an altar."
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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."
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."
Author Michael Tonello talks about his fabulous book, "Bring Home The Birkin" (And be sure to enter the contest to WIN a BIRKIN by clicking HERE)
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.
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.
PARIS — Hermès International SA, the maker of Birkin handbags and high-end scarves, said Friday that its net profit rose 9 percent in the first half of the year as advertising efforts encouraged sales.
The French luxury goods company reported a net profit of 128.1 million euros ($174.3 million) compared with 117.5 million euros a year earlier.
The weak dollar had an "appreciable impact" on net profit, which would have risen 20 percent at constant exchange rates, Hermes said.
Sales in the first half rose 2.9 percent to 721.1 million euros ($981.4 million). Operating income rose to 185.8 million euros ($252.9 million).
All divisions delivered growth, Hermes said.
Silks and textiles sales rose 14 percent over the period, and tableware sales were 20 percent higher than the previous year. Ready-to-wear and accessories sales rose 11 percent, and perfumes delivered a "robust" 12 percent increase after the launch of Terre d'Hermes, Hermes said of the first half.
Leather goods sales increased 4 percent in the first half, with an 11 percent jump in bag sales, while watch revenues increased 5 percent.
Hermes said it plans to invest in its distribution system in the second half, with a dozen branches to be opened or renovated, including the expansion of its Paris store on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.
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