Hermès’ artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, stood on the fourth floor of the French luxury house’s new flagship store a few weeks before the official opening and spoke in hushed tones with his assistant, who was crouching over a large painting by Antoine Carbonne. , gently rub the edge with a cloth. Mr. Dumas had personally curated all the works of art that hung on the walls of the store, some from the company archives, others more recent acquisitions, all intended to tell the story of Hermès.
But with this painting there was a problem.
“I didn’t realize the huge signature – it’s really absurd,” said Mr Dumas, 56, referring to the way Mr Carbonne had written his name on the side of the painting. Mr. Dumas’ assistant was carefully removing the bright white paint from the signature. “We’ll contain it,” said Mr. Dumas. “He agreed that we could gently make it less.”
The four floors of the store — or maison, as those in the Hermès universe prefer to call a flagship, located at Madison Avenue and 63rd Street — were haphazardly covered in piles of the brand’s signature orange boxes, many still wrapped in plastic. Employees were busy helping unpack the array of merchandise — perfumes, wallets, lipsticks, bracelets, collars, belts, ties, scarves and more — that had just arrived from France and elsewhere. Special items were created exclusively for this location, including several Kelly bags and a wooden bicycle with 706 Madison, the store’s address, painted over the frame. 85 Hermès family members and 150 employees would fly in to cut the ribbon. A Broadway-style musical called “Love Around the Block” was ordered for the opening party.
Dressed in navy trousers, sweater and blazer with leather pockets, Mr. Dumas has been with his family’s legendary company for 30 years and has accompanied its rapid expansion over the decades with categories such as beauty and travel. In 2006, he became Artistic Director, replacing his father, Jean-Louis Dumas, who had led both the creative and business sides of the company for 28 years, first transforming the Paris heritage brand into a more internationally oriented company. When Pierre-Alexis started, he said there were about 2,000 employees. At the beginning of this year there were 18,428. His cousin, Axel Dumas, became CEO of Hermès in 2013, succeeding Patrick Thomas, the businessman who served as CEO from 2003 to 2014. Both Pierre-Alexis and Axel are descendants of Thierry Hermès, the harness and saddle maker who founded the company in founded in 1837. .
Every year, in a custom that started with Mr. Dumas’ father, Hermès announces a theme that designers of different departments (women’s wear, men’s wear, silk, fragrance, etc.) interpret as they see fit. “Lightness” was the company’s theme for 2022. Past themes have included “Innovation in the Making”, “In Pursuit of Hermès Dreams” and “Let’s Play!”
Mr. Dumas, who selects each theme two years in advance, said his method of choosing it was “not to think.” He prefers to rely on his intuition to guide him.
Mr. Dumas rises early and his mornings are sacred. He likes to walk, either the 45 minutes to his office in Paris or on the coast in Normandy, where he has a second home. “When you walk, your brain takes in more oxygen,” he said. He can only write a word once a day. When a theme idea feels right, Mr. Dumas often takes it to the house philosopher, Adrien Barrot (“I told him, ‘It’s your job to sit in that chair and read books.'”) and other members of his inner circle, and they discuss its potential.
While a Hermès flagship, now closed, already existed a block away, this one — eight and a half years in the making — is not only bigger and better at 45,000 square feet, but softer and more varied.
“Texture and material are coming back,” Mr. Dumas said, running his fingers over the custom jacquard wall fabric in the women’s jewelry department. “After years of conceptual art where it was all about ideas and not about material, everyone is suddenly rediscovering material and craft.” Indeed, for a brand that prides itself on meticulous craftsmanship, no detail has been overlooked here, from the inlaid terrazzo floors to the grand limestone staircase to the roof garden filled only with native New England plants and designed by landscape architect Miranda. Brooks, to the white Birkin bag with small hand-sewn windows, made to resemble the original Hermès flagship, at 24 Rue du Faubourg, on a snowy day.
“We’re not working against nature,” said Mr. Dumas, as he elaborated on what he believes drives the 200 or so creatives in his employ. “We work with the nature of materials. And it’s a golden rule. I have three golden rules.”
He paused and forced his interlocutor to ask what the other two were.
“Golden Rule #2: We make objects that have a purpose,” he said, referring to his great-great-grandfather’s roots in designing equestrian accessories: “Function is sacred. We say, ‘May the horse be happy.’”
He continued: “The third is to have genuine empathy. Don’t underestimate what an object or architecture will do to your mind, your sensations, your nervous system. We are transformed by the elevator we use, by the stairs we use, by the bicycle we use. That is sacred and must be talked about. It is the human body.”
On the night of the opening, hundreds of guests, including Martha Stewart, Tory Burch and Nicky Rothschild, toured the new store. Without a break, cocktails, wine and champagne were served. Sixty-third Street on both sides of Madison Avenue was closed off, as were the neighboring restaurants, but several food trucks were on hand with a wide variety of dining options: tacos, Junior’s cheesecake, pies, pretzels, Kobe beef burgers, hot dogs, fries, dumplings, and Falafel. The guests had arrived in their finest Hermès pieces. The three-part musical was followed by a DJ dancing in the now former flagship, which had been transformed into an orange speakeasy.
“I’ve never seen so many Birkins near so much falafel,” said London-based interior designer Charlotte Rey, a guest who had flown in for the extravaganza.
That morning, before the festivities, Mr. Dumas had sat in a small side room on the main floor of the flagship, where files of fabric samples had been meticulously arranged on a wooden bookshelf. An artwork depicting horses hung on the adjacent wall. A perfect looking butterfly orchid sat on the coffee table. The finishing touches were put to the shop.
He explained the etymology of the word ‘desire’. “It was the desire to see the distant star that will guide you through the night,” he said. “What it means to us today is that more than ever, people want objects to give meaning to their lives, as opposed to instant gratification that somehow makes you depressed once you’ve consumed.”
Opening a store in New York City was a bit “traumatic” for Hermès, Mr. Dumas said. His grandfather had done so in 1930, but had to close the site the following year because of the Great Depression. It was not until 1983 that the brand tried a free-standing location again. Although this year was marred by global inflation and fears of an impending recession, Hermès didn’t seem to have cold feet this time.
Chloe Wise, a New York-based artist who attended the party, wondered, “Who has that much money to throw a party, not during Fashion Week or Art Basel? This is insane!”