s doesn’t make it easy for you to buy its stuff
Cloud capped waiters attend to guests at a Mellon Auditorium dinner celebrating the opening of the Herms store at CityCenterDC in downtown Washington. (Tony Powell)
Herms inaugurated its CityCenterDC boutique with a grand, eccentric flourish befitting a nearly 180 year old French luxury firm that was born as a harness maker and grew into the purveyor of $10,000 Birkin handbags. At a seated dinner in the stately surroundings of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, 120 guests began their meal with a foie gras feuillet and ended it with a white chocolate “flower pot” filled with raspberries and mousse a dessert so finely executed it could have been a porcelain figurine.
Though the fine china upon which the pea crusted lamb loin was artfully arranged came directly from the company’s stock, the dinner otherwise did very little to showcase the actual stuff of Herms. But in the digital millennium, luxury is defined less by products than by experiences.
And so the company recently presented an evening of culinary theater choreographed and costumed by Belgian artist Charles Kaisin (who recently dazzled Hong Kong with a 35 foot golden goat constructed from 13,500 origami horses for Chinese New Year). Two sopranos trilled the “Flower Duet,” and 60 waiters imported from New York one for every two guests, as if catering to a royal court marched out in synchronized precision to deliver the meal. They changed costume with each course: silver origami masks, golden welding suits and, finally, white cumulus headdresses lit from within.
Herms is the latest high end brand to open at CityCenterDC, the gleaming mixed used development newly built downtown. It joins Burberry, Loro Piana, Canali, Hugo Boss, Salvatore Ferragamo, Paul Stuart and Alexis Bittar, among others. This summer, Louis Vuitton will open; Dior is coming in the fall. And in June, Carolina Herrera will throw open the doors of a CH boutique not quite as high end, but perfumed by its association with her flagship line and the glamour of a Vogue sponsored cocktail party.
Of all the brands, however, Herms is arguably the most rarefied. It is a shop where a business card case two small replica hermes constance belt
rectangles of leather stitched together costs $335. And the suitcase size Birkin and Kelly bags stashed not so discreetly under the tables during the gala dinner each cost as much as a car.
[Saint Laurent goes punk at Paris Fashion Week. Does luxury have a place for ripped stockings?]
The 6,000 square foot Herms shop, on Palmer Alley NW, replaces the company’s Tysons Corner store. While this new space might be light and airy, it is not a joltingly modern place with sales clerks toting mini iPads in side holsters. Immediately upon crossing the boutique’s threshold, there is a mosaic insignia embedded in the floor based on one found in the mother store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honor in Paris a reminder of Herms history and tradition.
The new Herms store at CityCenterDC is one of seven new projects in the United States for a company thriving on a new demand for luxury goods. (Tony Powell)
The mosaic drives home the point that Herms traffics in slow fashion in an impatient, buy it off the runway, want it now culture. Babies are conceived and born in less time than it takes for a dedicated customer to acquire a Birkin handbag, which was introduced in 1984.
In many ways, Herms violates all the rules of the modern retail environment, which is to make shopping as effortless as possible including buying a $10,000 handbag while lounging at home in pajamas.
Yet shoppers want what Herms is selling even if they have to go out of their way to get it. The company reported that its first quarter revenue was up by 19percent over last year, to $1.2billion. That growth was fueled by Asia and Europe, as well as the United States the No.1 luxury market in the world. After years of luxury firms chasing consumers in China, Russia and South America, the United States is once again devouring high priced clothes and accessories. Herms has seven projects in the works in the country. Six, including Washington’s, are expansions in markets where the brand already had a footprint; the seventh is a dedicated perfumery in New York.
Herms is one of the fastest growing luxury companies in the world, according to a 2014 report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, with a Q rating a measure of a brand’s resonance and value among consumers that places it third among luxury brands. That’s ahead of Prada, Ralph Lauren and Burberry.
Herms is so certain of its own mystique that since 2011 it has sold a monthly mystery box to customers starting at about $250, which includes a unisex trinket crafted from workroom scraps of leather, silk or the like. It has no Twitter followers because it is not on Twitter. The social media site is about personalities and celebrities, and Herms is not.
Herms maintains a Web site that resembles a charming old sketchbook sweetly animated. It is a pretty site, but a frustrating one. There are no high definition photos sweeping, spinning or rocketing across the screen. The bags most closely identified with the brand the Birkin and the Kelly aren’t even represented. Ready to wear isn’t displayed on models, but on drawings of models. There is no technology to give a shopper a sense of how the garment might move. At a luxury conference this year, chief executive Axel Dumas, a sixth generation descendant of founder Thierry Herms, joked that the company wants its things to be difficult to find even on the Web site.
A $129,000 crocodile Herms Birkin bag on display during a 2007 event at the Herms store in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
A shopper exits a Herms shop with two of the store’s branded bags. The company has a charmingly outdated Web site, which is the only place online where you can officially buy most of its products but the difficulty of buying seems to have ramped up the demand for them. (Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg News)
Indeed, Herms products aside from its fragrances are not officially sold anywhere online aside from the brand’s own site. On the site Bag, Borrow or Steal, customers can rent a Chanel or Saint Laurent handbag but not a Herms. At Rent the Runway, a shopper cannot get a loaner Birkin.
“Herms is in a special place all to itself. They have coveted their rarity and they had to do it with all the temptations that a brand faces,” Shea says. “They didn’t know which way things were going to go [in the luxury market], but they knew who they were.”
The brand has no public face making the rounds at cocktail parties. It does not hire celebrities to be brand ambassadors. It does not make a splashy showing on red carpets although it has been represented by Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Carla Bruni Sarkozy. The name most people might associate with the brand is Oprah Winfrey. Not because she is a devoted customer but because the Paris store once denied her after hours shopping privileges. (The company later expressed regret.)
[Oprah and the view from outside Herms’s Paris door]
Last summer, Herms announced the arrival of a new creative director: Nadge Vanhee Cybulski. Her hiring was news in the fashion industry, but it meant little to the brand’s customers. For them, it’s the Herms name that counts, not that of the person sketching the cashmere overcoats, which look an awful lot like the overcoats from previous years. But that doesn’t give a fashion designer much room to experiment.
Vanhee Cybulski arrived at Herms with an impressive rsum, notable for its legacy of discretion. She has worked for some of the most restrained brands in the industry the Row, Maison Margiela, Cline. She presented her first collection on the runway in March. It will arrive in stores for the fall season.