Out of the Box

Hermès, which turned basic accessories into modern icons, takes the lid off what's luxe now. Reggie Nadelson reports from 24 Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré.

Once upon a time in a suburb of Paris, a guy kissed a bag, though it was no frog and did not really need a kiss. It was at the Hermès workshops in Pantin. Jean-Louis Dumas, company chairman and CEO, was there, and as he tells it, he watched while one of the craftsmen put the finishing touches on an Hermès bag. It was done. It was marked, as always, with symbols identifying the year, the workshop, the craftsman who made it. As the man packed it carefully, he caressed it. Seeing that Dumas was watching, he said, "You see, in a few days someone will receive this bag. She'll open the orange box, unwrap the tissue paper, and take it out. But what she won't know is that before it left here, I kissed it."

This is the kind of story they love to tell at Hermès, and there's something silly and revealing and touching about it, as there is with all fairy tales. The story seems to be about the romance of the artisan, about an idealized connection between the worker and the work that elevates both. It says that an Hermès bag is transcendent. That it is not just a bag, not just a piece of merchandise anyone with $5,000 (for a basic Birkin, $11,000 for an alligator Kelly bag, no discount for the fable) can buy, which it is, of course. That, along with beautifully hand-crafted, status-rich, stylish goods, you are buying a myth. Your purchase, even if it's just a tiny leather case for your Post-its, is your ticket to another world.

There's a lot of talk about le Monde d'Hermès, a world that is more than the sum of its parts, more than merely the things it makes: the scarves, ties, and belts, the shoes and jewelry and watches, the perfume, the tableware and beachwear, the saddles, furniture, baby clothes, fashion, and, of course, the bags. The bags, which have almost iconic status because of the women they are so closely identified with: Grace Kelly, for whom the signature Kelly bag was named (it gained international fame when she was spotted holding one on the cover of Life in 1956). Jackie Onassis, who wore the Constance shoulder bag with the double strap and the big H clasp so often that people asked for "Jackie O's bag." Or her other favorite, the slouchy Trim. You picture Jackie on that Greek island wearing Capri pants, dark glasses, a headscarf, the Trim slung over her shoulder—a throwaway gesture of infinite style.

The World of Hermès is more than thebuildings in Paris and Tokyo, on Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive, smaller shops in dozens of cities, stalls at airports—197 stores and 38 outlets in all. More than the 4,600 employees, the craftsmen in Lyons and Limoges. It's a world that includes goldsmiths in Mali, Tuareg tribesmen in Niger making silver belt buckles, Amazonian Indians turning sap into a latex material for a bag, and a mailman from Waco named Kermit Oliver who designs Hermès scarves with themes like Cheyenne, Pony Express, Kachina. There are 13 to date. Lawrence Marcus (of the Neiman Marcus family), a fan of the Texas mailman's Western art, introduced him to Jean-Louis Dumas. "I have the first scarf framed on my wall," says Oliver. "My wife wears them sometimes." Hermès in Waco.

"We consider ourselves multilocal," says Dumas, slipping into metaphor as he often does: "Britain had the boiling water, India had the tea."

The World of Hermès could even be said to have its own currency. In New York, young bankers and brokers trade ties, upping the ante on prints that are no longer on the market (like the yellow silk with pink watermelons). I know of a woman who plays backgammon for Hermès bags, and another who, when her very rich husband dumped her, gathered up her bags—she had more than 30—and sold them. She considered them part of the divorce settlement.

Despite its far-flung connections, Hermès is very, very French. (A buckle or a fabric or a leather may be made or acquired abroad, but the finished product is almost always crafted in France.) It's France as we imagine it: alluring, sexy, traditional, intellectually assured, utterly self-confident. Miles Davis in Paris in the '50s, writing movie music for Louis Malle. Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night, buying "two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermès." This is Haute Boho without the sandals, Vieille France without the duller snobberies. Colette adored Hermès and understood it wasn't about surface flash and dazzle (though some clients do like diamond clasps on their Kellys). "At Hermès," she said, "the bottom has to be as good as the top and the inside as good as the outside."

Jean-Louis Dumas, 63, has led the 165-year-old company since 1978. Charming, impish, gregarious, secretive, he's just back from a trip to Egypt and speaks rapturously of it when I meet him at his office on the top floor of the Hermès building at 24 Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré—an address loyalists consider the exact center of the known universe. Sharing the office with him is a huge stuffed cheetah ("my little cat," he says).

The wit, the curiosity, are tremendously seductive, but you also know that nothing—no new design, no shop, no acquisition, no party—is launched or changed or reimagined without him. It's Dumas who instigated the annual "themes," expressed in window displays and in-store exhibits, that tie the various departments and shops together: the Year of the Road, the Year of the Tree, the current Year of the Hand. He is even the force behind the Hermès magazine. Launched in 1966, sent twice a year to customers and the press, Le Monde d'Hermès is put together by artists, writers, designers, and photographers in an arcane, random way—a walk on the wild side of the catalogue, guide to the inner workings of this planetary system where if Jupiter aligns with Mars, Dumas might design a new bag.

About 15 years ago, he found himself on a plane next to Jane Birkin, actress, singer, and professional waif, and he noticed that she kept her possessions in an old straw basket. He invited her to the shop to help design a bag that would keep everything together. The result was a sort of hippie version of the Kelly called the Birkin, now so profound an object of desire that it makes women slavish: They'll take it in the wrong size, the wrong color—which is very un-Hermès. (Better a bag like the Plume that's really discreet, that no one can quite identify, that shows how confident you are.)

An avid jazz fan who played drums when he was young and later named a goatskin ankle boot Django for the great Gypsy guitarist, Dumas is also Hermès' chief of whimsy. He devised a riff on the Kelly, a little bag with hands and feet and a face, which he calls the Kelly Doll. As in Quelle idole! (What an icon!/What a doll!) Last Christmas, he hired magicians to work as salespeople at the Paris flagship store. "Can I show you a tie, sir?" one would ask a customer, who would then watch in amazement as the tie ascended toward the ceiling.

If at first glance Dumas seems rather unlikely as the head of a successful French luxury company, so does everyone else at Hermès, where consultants include the likes of Hilton McConnico. Designer of everything from Champagne flutes (for Daum) to a restaurant (in Paris' La Samaritaine department store) to films (such as Diva), McConnico is famously an American in Paris. For 14 years he's created exhibits for Hermès stores; his latest, mounted in New York, was called Everyday Dreams. "My job is storytelling," he says in his honeyed Tennessee drawl. "Jean-Louis loves telling stories."

Nor are the craftsmen the wizened old guys with gnarled hands, berets, and leather aprons that you might imagine. In fact, the average age is 30. Mornings at the sleek glass factory in Pantin (whose interior, like all the Hermès shops, was designed by Rena Dumas, Jean-Louis' Greek-born wife), hip young Parisians stride in on high-heeled boots or jog in on sneakers. Listening to music through headphones, they settle down to work amid racks of fine blue ostrich, lime box calf, maybe the striped leather called Vibrato. French kids compete for the jobs—crafts are très cool these days, and everyone wants a crack at Hermès.

Because most of the work is done by hand (it takes 18 to 24 hours to make a bag), special orders are an Hermès tradition. A whole department is dedicated to the whims of the rich and very rich: a musician who wants a leather violin case lined with Hermès scarves; a big-game hunter who brings in his own kill to be fashioned into luggage; a Japanese woman who wants her Kelly stenciled with a Pokémon design; a man who must have a leather case for his Rolls-Royce hood ornament. The craftsmen are heavily invested in the work—it takes about five years to train them—and they have the status of worker-kings. (If you're asking someone to wait a year for a purse, it can't hurt to let on that it's being made by royalty.)

Whatever your first impressions of Jean-Louis Dumas, it soon becomes clear that, apart from all else, he's a hardheaded businessman. "Hermès," he says, "is about steadiness and movement. It is a balancing act: keeping the traditions, breaking them up, balancing old and new, staid and stylish." But he insists that the company move forward, that it resist the constant pull of the past. In early 1998, when it was clear that women's fashion at Hermès had become staid and out of date, instead of going Gucci and hiring a possibly transient superstar like Tom Ford to revitalize the line, Dumas hired Martin Margiela, the reclusive, avant-garde Belgian designer then known for his deconstructed clothing. Margiela produced simple, elegant stuff, very Hermès but very modern, in fabrics like cashmere, alpaca, linen, silk; coats in buttery lambskin with the company's distinctive fastenings.

Hermès is still 80 percent family-owned, though since 1993 the rest has been publicly traded on the Paris Bourse. Its sales doubled over the last half-dozen years (to $1.08 billion in 2001). "We are frightened to grow and not to grow," says Dumas, "or to grow so much we blow a gasket." But, as he points out, Hermès family values and company values are the same thing. There are 17 family members in Dumas' generation, 41 in his children's, so there is no shortage of potential workers for the firm.I count at least 11 on the board. Until Dumas' son, Pierre-Alexis, left last year for art school, he was managing director in London; nephew Laurent Momméja-Hermès is director for Europe and the Middle East.

"We have been protected financially by two things," Dumas says. "The company is almost all in the family, and we self-finance. We develop as much as we want, and we pay for it. We don't work for banks—we work for ourselves." As a result, Hermès is almost immune to corporate takeovers. Its collaborations with other companies are investments in certain "ateliers" that produce goods to Hermès designs—Puiforcat for silver, John Lobb for bespoke shoes, Leica for cameras.

Over the past few years, the other big French luxury companies have become so diverse—they own Champagne, sneakers, fashion houses, leather goods—it's hard to distinguish one from the other. They invest huge amounts of time and money in the acquisitions game, in corporate rivalry. Bernard Arnault's LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) goes to the mat with François Pinault's PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute), which gives Gucci the money to buy Yves Saint Laurent. Compared with these monster corporations vying for domination, often in a very public fashion, Hermès seems incredibly well-mannered.

After September 11, the bottom dropped out for most luxury companies. No one wanted throwaway fashion or instant glitz. No one was even going shopping. As time passed, designers tried to figure out what people might want. Maybe something feel-good, something a bit hippie, something that felt handcrafted and therefore somehow righteous. In a New York Times interview, Ford said of his lace-up leather skirts, "I think women want something that feels touched by human hands."

Hermès goods are made by those hands. And since Hermès is not designer-led, it's not as subject to the fickle moods of fashion as other companies. Its identity, which is always simply Hermès, feels permanent. Even in 2001, one of the worst retail years in recent memory, its sales went up nearly six percent. (If you'd already ordered that Birkin bag and waited a year, you weren't going to cancel, were you?) And at the Paris collections last fall, François Pinault's wife caused a tiny scandal by appearing not with a Gucci bag but with a large alligator Birkin.

That same Times piece mentioned that Ford thinks about every aspect of what women want, "including how she likes to have sex." These companies think about marketability. Hermès (as it likes to boast) doesn't even have a marketing department. "We don't do anything but put objects into the world," insists Jean-Louis Dumas. "It's the customer who makes them live.

"We're a little like a singer in the street," he muses. "People come and listen, and if we're lucky, they throw coins."

Dumas knows that the company's best bottom line is in the myth ("Hermès is not just the bag; it's the bag safeguarding our customer's personal world") and the quality and the scarcity. This is especially true of the leather goods, which make up nearly 30 percent of the business (clothes constitute about 15 percent, scarves 12). In the words of Londoner Janice Blackburn, who organizes an annual crafts show for Sotheby's and probably knows more about fine craft than anyone: "It's because you have to wait a year that it's so desirable. It's because everyone knows you had to wait a year but that you got it, knows how much it cost down to the last euro. Hermès is a language that speaks to those who speak or aspire to speak the language." She laughs. "Though I wouldn't mind if my husband wanted to buy me an Hermès bag."

Hermès has been in business since 1837, though for most of the 19th century it catered largely to horses (and riders), making harnesses and saddles. The Kelly bag was inspired by an Hermès saddlebag.

Thierry Hermès, founder of the firm, arrived in France in 1821 from Prussia, where the family had settled after fleeing French persecution of Protestants.Jean-Louis Dumas speaks of how being Protestant in a Catholic country left its mark on the family. Partly by learning to keep their own counsel, they came to excel as merchants. Discretion about wealth especially remains an Hermès hallmark; Protestants, says Dumas, are "a minority with a long memory."

By the turn of the 20th century, Emile-Maurice Hermès was in charge. He modernized the company and bought the building at 24 Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré, which today houses the flagship store as well as workshops where saddles are still made by hand. It was his idea to turn window displays into art and spectacle, a brilliant ploy, and ever since people have come to gawk, to dream, and to buy. (The windows change four times a year; last Christmas they featured bags and saddles in gold- and silver-tooled leather.)

When he was 27, Emile made his way across Europe and Russia and came back a supplier of harnesses and saddles to the court of the czar. Europeans once brought the potato home from the New World; this latter-day explorer brought the zipper. In Canada buying military gear during World War I, he was impressed by the zipper that fastened the cloth top of the Cadillac he was driving. He brought the device back to France and put it on handbags, and in 1918 Hermès produced the first zippered leather golf jacket.

Emile also realized that the horse was doomed and the world was on the move, by automobile, boat, train, and plane. Wardrobe trunks, bags, and luggage of all kinds became new Hermès staples. (There's even a suitcase on wheels now.)

"One customer created our success," says Jean-Louis Dumas. "The horse. When its role diminished, we had to change."

Emile Hermès had four daughters; one of them married Robert Dumas, Jean-Louis' father. Robert introduced the Hermès tie, the beach towel, the perfume. He cultivated movie stars.

Jean-Louis was the fourth of six children, and it wasn't clear at first that he'd join Hermès. He took degrees in politics and economics, but he was obsessed with jazz and played the drums in a band with two cousins. He was crazy about Ella and Charlie Christian, and if he could take only one record to a desert island, he says, it would be Ory's Creole Trombone.

Dumas started traveling when he was very young. In 1960 he and Rena drove to Afghanistan in a Deux Chevaux—"just before the first hippies," he says. Today it is almost a compulsion, and he never stops: India, Japan, America. In photographs, like one of those aristocratic early-20th-century travelers, he always looks chic on the road, even in Africa—Panama hat, unwrinkled shirt, little notebook in hand.

Like his father before him, Jean-Louis Dumas has developed new lines, which include baby clothes, cashmere shawls, and watches—the elegant Arceau, the chunky Nomade—gardening gear, porcelain, crystal, and silver. There are dozens of little objects that Hermès flogs as necessities: I imagine an archaeological dig of the future unearthing a 21st-century devotee's cache of exquisite things—glazed lambskin gloves, crocodile cases for Palm Pilots, datebooks in alligator, pigskin CD covers, miniature leather pods with tape measures. (Why tape measures? Because you might need to measure some fabric for the house on your way home, I'm told.) There's even furniture, light foldup tables and chairs and chaise longues for those heading out on safari or dreaming of the 1920s world of White Mischief.

Then, of course, there are the scarves, the silk squares that every well-bred French girl has traditionally longed to receive on her 18th birthday and that women everywhere collect. Since 1937, when the first one was launched, there have been about a thousand designs. The scarves are made in Lyons, one of the great centers of silkmaking, using more silk cocoons, more screens, and more colors—there are 75,000 tones—than are used anywhere else.

"It sounds like just a technical thing," says Brenda Manis, a New York artist with an obsession for the scarves, "but the result is lustrous and nuanced, with color unlike anyone else's, not just in scarves but in most of the arts. You can't see all those tones, but you can feel them."

Most people tie their Hermès scarves onto a bag or around their neck. Some are inspired to more extravagant gestures, wrapping them around their body as a pareo, their top as a bandeau, their waist as a belt, their leg as a splash of color. Sunita Kumar, a woman of style living in Calcutta, purchased a couple, cut them up, and incorporated the pieces into one of her saris. "I was wearing it at a party in Delhi," she says. "Jean-Louis Dumas was there, and he asked, 'What have you done to the scarves?' Maybe a year later he called me. We met in London, and he said he'd like me to design some saris out of Hermès silk. There is no silk like Hermès silk. The saris were quite a success. Jerry Hall bought three."

At No. 24, Jean-Louis takes me out on the roof terrace to show me how the Hermès building stands—quite by chance, he says—at the crossroads of Paris. He glances at a tiny rooftop garden. "I was sent a couple of vines from Château d'Yquem, and I thought I might establish a subsidiary here," he jokes. "We had one grape this year."

"What did you do with it?" I ask.

"I ate it," he says.

Back inside, he points to a photograph of Groucho Marx that hangs on the wall of his office: "When I talk too much, he looks at me and says, 'Shut up.' "

In the kingdom of Hermès, no one really talks about the succession, about who comes next, and anyhow, it's hard to imagine the company without Jean-Louis Dumas. If you arrive skeptical, you leave charmed. If you arrive already reverent, you leave a member of the cult.

No matter how much you tell yourself it's just money, that anyone with the cash can buy a handmade saddle, that thousands of scarves have been sold at airport duty-frees to people for whom it's just a piece of silk, not some totemic object, secretly you believe that Hermès is different. Anyhow, you reckon, it's always got a few tricks up its beautiful sleeve.

Says Jean-Louis Dumas, "If we stop trying to surprise ourselves, we're dead."

Maybe I should confess here that I've always been a sucker for Hermès. My mother, who was not rich, somehow found her way to the shop on Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré in the 1950s, a time when ordinary middle-class Americans didn't get to Hermès much. Somehow she made friends with a saleswoman there who made her feel welcome. And so she bought the bags and probably the myth as well.

When my mother died, at the back of her closet, carefully wrapped in tissue and packed in the big orange boxes, were two Hermès bags. I like to think that, just before she put them away for me, maybe she gave them a kiss.

Visit the Hermès Web site at www.hermes.com.