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You start with a scarf.
That’s the first Hermès item for most people, coming into their life as a gift or purchase or, perhaps, passed down from a grandmother. And each 90-by-90-centimeter silk carré, printed in Lyon on twill made from thread created by the label’s own silkworms, holds a story. Since 1937, almost 2,500 original artworks have been produced, such as a 19th-century street scene from Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, the company’s home since 1880. The flora and fauna of Texas. A beach in Spain’s Basque Country. An abstract, spaceage design from the mind of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo.
These legendary, and highly collectible, silk scarves are being celebrated across the country this holiday season at Hermès Carré Club events— pop-up shops and immersive experiences where scarf collectors can meet scarf designers. And scarves are where Bali Barret’s story with Hermès begins. They are how the 52-year-old Paris native came to work for the company.
Head of all women’s wear at the house since 2009—the first time a woman has been in that position—Barret started in the fashion industry with her own label and a small shop in Paris in 1998. Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès and the great-great-great-grandson of its founder, Thierry Hermès, was a regular at the store, as was his wife. Dumas liked Barret’s style. So he asked her to design a scarf. “You are free to create whatever you wish,” he told her. But he had one stipulation: “Anyone looking at the scarf should immediately know it is Hermès.”
Barret remembers taking a moment before saying yes. “My idea of Hermès was much more classic than what it was really,” she says, at a café in Paris’s Trocadéro neighborhood shortly before the fall runway show. “I didn’t know it so well."
You may find this surprising: An executive at a multi billion-dollar international luxury-goods company just pops by a small shop and says, “Hey, I like your style. Create us a scarf.” But that small exchange some 15 years ago is exactly what sets Hermès apart from other brands. In fact, it’s how in this age of devout brand tribalism Hermès stands alone as agnostic. For even when someone is in head-to-toe Hermès, it doesn’t read as a full-on look. “For us, the craftsman is more important than the fash—designer,” Barret says, swerving to avoid the word fashion altogether.
Two years after her first scarves, Barret was given control of all of silks (“the Hermès scarf temple!” she says), and then in 2009 she took over all of women’s, which includes ready-to-wear, belts, gloves, hats, shoes, jewelry, fashion jewelry, perfume, and, yes, the “temple.”
Hermès shows seasonal women’s collections in Paris, which since 2012 have been designed by Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski and bring together most of Barret’s ateliers. “The big job for me when I came into Hermès was the modernity,” Barret says, praising Vanhee-Cybulski’s recent shows.
Her official title is “deputy artistic director for women’s universe,” but she says she’s more of a therapist, as she floats between different teams, guiding them toward a collective sense of Hermèsness. Making sure the jewelry isn’t too blingy. That the leather goods reflect the house’s heritage as a saddlemaker. That the runway fashion isn’t too, well, fashion. “The designers at Hermès try to tease me—they call me Dr. Bali,” she says. “Creation is about sensibility, sensitivity, intuition, understanding. The psychology of people. You have to feel.”
Her brand of therapy works. Still controlled by the family (Axel Dumas is the fifth scion to lead the company), Hermès passed $5 billion in sales in 2015, and this year has already reported that sales are up 11 percent.
Keeping everyone on the same page requires some discernment, and Barret says no a lot, she acknowledges.
“But you know what? I am trying not to say no as much. I am trying to speak before the no.” But what she’s saying yes to is whatever is new, whatever will push Hermès forward toward innovation, from a new handbag shape to a glazed leather trench. “Hermès didn’t start with the ready-to-wear, and we are not organized around it like other brands,” she says. “We started with the harnesses, then the silks, and then the ready-to-wear came. My wish is not to make all we do super lean and coherent. I think the little mess we have is quite interesting.”
The Hermès Carré Club will be in Los Angeles November 8–11 and in Milan November 21–26.