most famous heritage brand
From The Birkin to The Kelly, Herms bags are so famous they need no introduction. So how does the Herms heir and CEO Axel Dumas handle taking the heritage luxury brand into the modern world? Laura Craik finds out
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 Herms 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 Herms 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.”
That he is upbeat is in no small part due to Herms’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 14per cent. Lucky for some. Herms’s 12,834employees 4,000 of whom are craftspeople, 2,700 of them work in leather workshops in 15 different ateliers spread across France 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 Herms 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 ever expanding range of bags, clothes, jewellery, textiles, homeware and fragrance, Herms 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, hermes replica bags for sale
[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; Herms trains almost 200 craftsmenper 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 Herms; that our products last long, and are not to be discarded. You can give it to your granddaughter.”
That an Herms 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. Understandably, Dumas gives short shrift to the idea of immediate gratification: he understands the desire, but it’s irrelevant to his business model. Given that Herms 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 Herms, 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 a series of 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. So I’m still against collaboration, but I love this work with Apple.”
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 Herms 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.”.