Golden Years: Journey Of The Iconic Luxury Brand Hermes
Hermes is one of the oldest fashion houses out there. Discover the years in the making of this luxury brand and how they live up to its name.
The French luxury brand, Hermes has been around for a long time. Back in 1837, it started as a harness and bridle workshop. Over the years, it has extended its arms into several niches such as leather goods, lifestyle accessories, home furnishings, fragrances, jewellery, watches, and ready-to-wear items. Out of these, the leather goods segment drives the most revenue with a share of 43%, followed by ready-to-wear and accessories (27%), and silk and textiles (7%).
With so many product verticals, does their quality suffer? Well, no and that’s what makes this luxury boutique a force to be reckoned with. Their craftsmanship is second to none and they follow rigid quality control measures too. In fact, the fashion brand is infamous for burning any imperfect Birkin Bags. We sure are awe-struck by their dedication because it takes more than a day to produce just one.
Speaking of which, you must have heard of Birkin Bags, right? Well, their legacy is unmissable such that any dilettante of fashion would have heard of their name. It is because they have a cohesive brand philosophy that enables them to churn out classic after classic.
The Hermes brand’s goal of creating classics allows them to withstand the pressures of time and trends. While other fashion brands have given into fleeting fads, Hermes has stuck to its roots. Such is their traditionalism that they rarely change and alter the construction of their goods. Also, it is the oldest fashion house in operation, and runs primarily through family ownership; it is quite rare for
We’ll talk about the years in the making of this fashion brand and its strict brand ethos that drives it towards perfection. Discover the story of Hermes, the quintessential luxury brand.
History of Hermes
1801–1900: Initial Years of a Luxury brand
In 1801, Thierry Hermes, was born in Krefeld, Germany to a French father and a German mother. The soon-to-be founder of the luxury brand was the youngest of six children. Thierry lost his entire family to disease and war, and in 1821, he was forced to move to France.
In 1837, he opened a workshop in Basse-du-Rempart, serving European noblemen. And the master created a name for himself creating sturdy and high-quality saddlery. The renowned durability of his wrought harnesses and bridles was due to his use of the saddle stitch. For his work, he received several awards at the ‘Expositions Universelles’ in the years, 1855 and 1867.
Thierry Hermes passed away in 1878, leaving his business to his son Charles-Emile Hermès, and grandsons, Adolphe Hermès and Emile-Maurice. It wasn’t until his successors carried the baton forward that Hermes expanded into other markets.
In 1880, Charles-Emile took over management of the atelier and moved the place to 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, where it still trades today. At this now-famous address, harnesses and saddles were made to measure for the rich Paris elite.
This period lasted from 1880 to 1900, and the luxury boutique sold its products to retail stores. In 1900, the company offered the Haut a Courroies bag which was meant for equestrians to tote their saddles around in it.
1900–1949: Hermes Enters a New Luxury Market
After Charles-Emile Hermes retired, his sons carried on the torch and renamed the company, Hermes Freres. But Adolphe decided that the company did not have a bright future, and his brother Emile Hermes was left in charge. Shortly after, Emile Hermes began furnishing the tsar, Nicholas II, with saddles. By 1914, 80 saddle craftsmen were hired. In 1918, the Hermes brand introduced the first leather golf jacket with zipper, made for Edward, Prince of Wales.
From hereon, we enter the interwar period, where lifestyles changed and the house ventured into new territory. In the 1920s, accessories and clothing were introduced into the product portfolio. Emile Hermes focused on items that met society’s needs, from saddlery and harnesses to leather goods. He got inspired by a simple idea that altered the course of the family business.
During a trip to Canada, he was taken by the American “close-all” opening and closing system on the hood of a military car. Emile Hermes realized that the business of harnesses and saddlery would decline.
In 1922, he obtained exclusive rights to the zipper. With a two-year patent secured on the zipper which was known as the Hermes Fastener, the brand launched into various clothing lines. In the same year, the first leather handbags were introduced after Emile’s wife complained of not finding one to her liking. Emile Hermes created the handbag collection himself.
In 1924, Hermes established a brand presence in the United States and opened two shops outside of Paris. In 1925, the first men’s ready-to-wear garment, a golf jacket, was created. The Hermes brand’s travel bags introduced, that year, were a global success.
Following up on these releases, Hermes introduced more luxury goods segments like jewellery in 1927, succeeded by watches and sandals in 1928. In 1929, the first women’s couture apparel collection was previewed in Paris.
During the 1930s, the modern Hermes as we know it today introduced some of its most iconic and recognizable product lines. From the mid-1930s, Hermes enlisted the services of Swiss watchmaker Universal Geneve as the brand’s first and exclusive designer of timepieces, launching a line of men’s wrist chronographs and women’s Art Deco cuff watches. Both models came with dials signed with either “Hermes” or “Hermes Universal Geneve”, while the movements were signed “Universal Geneve S.A.”. This partnership lasted until the 1950s.
In 1935, the leather Sac a Depeches, now famously known as the Kelly Bag, was introduced. Two years later, the Hermes carres (scarves) were born, the first of a long series created by Robert Dumas, Emile Hermes’ son-in-law. The scarves became an integral part of French culture. In fact, even today the popularity of the silk scarf is such that one is sold every 20 seconds. It’s surprising considering a signature scarf can run into excess of USD 1200.
In 1938, the “Chaine d’ancre” bracelet and riding jacket joined the quintessential collection. By this point, the company’s designers drew inspiration from paintings, books, and objets d’art. The 1930s also saw Hermes usher into the United States market with an initial tie-up with a Neiman Marcus department store in New York; it later withdrew from there.
In 1949, two products were released; both had quite an impact on the luxury market. The Hermes brand created the legendary silk tie and their first of many fragrances, “Eau d’Hermes.” Emile summed up the Hermes brand philosophy as “leather, sport, and a tradition of refined elegance.”
1951–1960: The Release of New Luxury Goods
In 1951, Emile Hermes passed away and was succeeded by Robert Dumas-Hermes, who closely collaborated with brother-in-law Jean-Rene Guerrand. Dumas became the first man not directly descended from the founding fathers of Hermes because his connection to the family was through marriage. Thus, he imbibed the Hermes name into his own, Dumas-Hermes.
By this time, Robert Dumas had contributed significantly to the Hermes brand. He was the man behind many of the house’s major successes, including the first silk scarf, the Kelly bag, and the Chaine d’ancre bracelet, which he got the idea for while observing boats moored in Normandy.
The company also acquired its Ducal horse-drawn carriage logo and instantly recognizable orange paper boxes in the early 1950s. But in 1955, something unexpected happened that altered the brand’s history. The young American actress, Grace Kelly was in Paris, and she discovered the Hermes store on 24 rue du Faubourg Saint Honore. She bought the Sac a Depeches.
The next year, in 1956, Life magazine featured a photograph of her, who had then become the new Princess of Monaco, carrying this bag. Apparently, she held it in front of herself to disguise her pregnancy. Thus, it became popularly known as the Kelly bag, and the house named the bag Kelly in her honour.
1961–1967: Search to Find Its Creativity
In 1961, the perfume business, run by Jean Guerrand, became a subsidiary of the Hermes brand. And the designer brand came out with the Caleche scent which was their first perfume for women. It was created by perfumer Guy Robert.
At the beginning of the 1960s, French-Tunisian designer Leila Menchari worked with the head of windows, Annie Beaumel, to design the famed flagship store’s window displays. The intricate designs garnered so much praise that World Tempus, a Web portal dedicated to watchmaking, stated:
Brought to life by the magic wand of Annie Beaumel, the windows of the store on the [rue du] Faubourg Saint-Honoré became a theatre of enchantment and [established the store as] a Parisian meeting-place for international celebrities.
In 1964, Jean-Louis Dumas, the great-great grandson of Thierry Hermes joined Hermes as the head of manufacturing. In 1967, the French-Hungarian designer Catherine Karolyi was entrusted with designs for the women’s wardrobe. Until 1980, she designed accessories like bags, belts, squares, some of which became timeless pieces, like the H belt buckle.
1970s: Hermes’ Makes a Meteoric Rise
This decade is an eventful phase in the brand’s history. Despite, multiple shops being established worldwide, Hermes declined relative to its competitors. Industry experts pointed this decline to the brand’s philosophy of using natural materials rather than using new, synthetic materials that were flooding the luxury market. During this time, the company’s 5% annual sales growth rate trailed France’s 15% inflation rate. At one point, the company’s workshops — known familiarly as the beehive — fell silent during a two-week lapse in orders.
Soon, a market shift from artificial ingredients back to natural materials reinjected demand for Hermes’ fragrances in the luxury market. Thus, the company’s prospects brightened and a comeback was well within reach. By 1971, Jean-Louis Dumas had become managing director. Two years afterwards, the first issue of the Hermes brand journal came out in Germany under the name Die Welt von Hermes.
In 1976, Hermes entered into an arrangement with British luxury shoemaker John Lobb, wherein it was allowed to use its name in return for extending the distribution reach of the brand. The Le Monde d’Hermes was published in France two years later in 1978.
From hereon, after Robert Dumas was inducted as chairman; he brought the house of Hermes into a new era. Around the same time, Leila Menchari was appointed by him to be in charge of the saddler’s display windows and director of decoration for the brand. In the same year, the company established a watch subsidiary La Montre Hermes in Bienne, Switzerland.
During this year, the head of Hermes brought in designers, fresh from fashion school, Eric Bergere and Bernard Sanz to revamp the apparel collection and, in collaboration, added two unusual novelties. These included the python motorcycle jackets and the snazzy ostrich-skin jeans.
Basically, Jean-Louis Dumas was a visionary, curious about all things and loved exploring various cultures. He diversified the portfolio and scaled the business to new heights, globalizing its presence. He concentrated the firm on silk, leather goods, and ready-to-wear, applying the traditional techniques to new product lines.
And the growth of the luxury boutique was unmissable. Annual sales in 1978, when Jean-Louis became chairman, were reported at USD 50 million. By 1990, those same numbers were USD 460 million, mainly due to his brand strategy. In fact, it was Dumas, who sanctioned the entry of belts and bags to the brand, but he never lost sight of the brand’s tradition.
Dumas never wanted to speed up the slow and precise handwork of leather goods, especially not the weeks of careful selection of skins along with their sewing. But he did want younger, chic customers, and more of them. So, he quizzed a friend who worked at the ad agency Eldorado what he thought, and the friend answered: “Hermes wasn’t for anybody who was considered a trendsetter.” Change the image, replied Dumas, and so the ad agency did.
In 1979, Dumas tried to reinvent the brand image with an ad campaign that featured a young woman clad in a denim jacket with a Hermes scarf as a complementary item. However, this repositioning of the brand completely blindsided those within and outside the firm, resulting in outrage.
1980s: The Brand’s Impactful Innovations
From the 1980s, tableware became a robust segment of the firm. Hermes acquired tableware manufacturers like Puiforcat, Saint Louis, and Perigord, consolidating its position in these segments of the luxury market. In 1980, he gave 19-year-old Eric Bergere, a senior job.
Finally, in 1981, Jean-Louis Dumas chanced upon French actress, Jane Birkin, in a meeting that is the stuff of legend. The story goes that Jane Birkin at the time carried a wicker basket. She onboarded a flight and dropped her basket, spilling her Hermes diary too. Jean-Louis Dumas remarked that she buy a bag with pockets.
To which she responded that: when Hermes makes a handbag that is large enough to carry women’s belongings, she’d abandon her wicker basket. And so, they went ahead and started drawing the design for her ideal bag on an airplane sick bag.
In 1984, the Birkin Bag was born after much ideation; it was elegant and spacious. In fact, this ladies’ handbag has a waitlist of 6 years, the longest time for an accessory.
By this year, Hermes had also created and launched a complete home line, bed and bath linens, furniture, silverware, crystal and porcelain, baby gifts, and office accessories.
In 1987, Hermes celebrated its 150th anniversary with a memorable fireworks display over the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris. This celebration became the first annual theme in a tradition that has carried on till now. A new age of Hermes was underway now.
1990s: Big Moves at the Luxury Boutique
The number of Hermes-owned stores quadrupled from 15 in 1978 to 60 in the early 1990s. The total number of outlets stood at 225 and the Hermes brand had merchandise consisting of 30,000 items. Two years later, the leather workshops moved from the first floor of 24 rue Faubourg Saint-Honore to Pantin, on the northern edge of Paris. The architecture of the new site helped bring brighter and more spacious workspaces for the artisans.
By June 1993, Hermes had gone public on the Paris Bourse. Dumas told Forbes magazine that the equity sale would help ease family tensions by allowing some members to liquidate their holdings without “squabbling over share valuations among themselves.
The company was still retaining strong promoter holding of about 80% in stocks, placing Jean-Louis Dumas and the entire family on the Forbes list of billionaires at the helm of Hermes.
Perfume was one of the few ventures struggling to keep up. The business segment had been launched in 1951 with the introduction of Eau d’Hermes. The business was later elevated to subsidiary status in 1961 with the introduction of the Caleche perfume. By 1993, the Comptoir Nouveau de la Perfumerie subsidiary was generating about USD 40 million in annual sales. While the company’s line of fresh fragrances captured 7% of global perfume sales, its annual losses kept mounting.
By the mid-1990s, Dumas slashed Hermes franchises from 250 to 200 and ramped up company-owned stores from 60 to 100 to consolidate and control sales of its products. This move would cost the company 200 million in the short term, but long-term profitability was within reach.
Among the company’s new targets was China, where the company opened its first store in Beijing in 1996. In 1997, Dumas made the innovative move to hire Martin Margiela, a Belgian modernist designer, to spearhead women’s ready-to-wear operations at the luxury boutique.
In the late 1990s, Hermes charted the course of reducing the number of franchisees. In 1999, the company bought franchises in Marseilles, Padua, and Berlin, while inaugurating new brand-owned stores, including locations in Las Vegas and Atlanta. In the same year, Hermes raised several questions and eyebrows when it paid a hefty sum for a 35% stake in the Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion house. It is nonetheless a positive development for both fashion houses.
2000s: A New Century, A New Face
In 2003, Martin Margiela exited Hermes, and Dumas hired Jean-Paul Gaultier as the head designer, debuting his first ready-to-wear collection for fall/winter 2004–05. After almost three decades as the head of the luxury goods brand, Jean-Louis Dumas retired in January 2006.
He had brought the company from severe economic lows to over USD 1 billion in revenue. In place of him, Patrick Thomas, his right-hand man took charge and helped transition between the two generations, Jean-Louis Dumas and his nephew Axel Dumas.
The Brand Philosophy of Hermes
Today Hermes has 311 stores across the globe and has over 15,000 employees. It is one of the largest and most admired luxury goods markers in the world with revenues in excess of USD 8.3 billion and profits of over USD 1.8 billion as of 2019.
The success of the brand can be pinpointed to its strong belief in its brand philosophy. It is deeply entrenched in quality and refinement. According to the brand, each and every product having the Hermes name should reflect the artisan’s hard work that goes into it.
Even today, Creative Director Pierre-Alexis Dumas signs off on every single product leaving the workshop. It displays the company’s unwavering dedication to providing the highest quality. According to the present CEO Axel Dumas, the main pillar of strength for the Hermes brand is the love for craftsmanship.
The essential aspect of these values is that they have stayed relevant in the company and driven through years and years of growth and evolution. Multiple individuals have been at the helm of the Hermes brand but the principles have never been compromised.
All Hermes products are constructed entirely in France in workshops known as Ateliers Hermes, which showcases the company’s search for quality in every process. Also, the brand claims that one product is hand-made by a single craftsman. Thus, it also showcases the uniqueness of its products.
The spirit that drives the pillars of quality and uniqueness is the intense desire of the luxury brand to remain exclusive. This mark of exclusivity is crucial for the company because it helps position them not as mass-market luxury or even premium luxury. Instead, the brand philosophy has always strived for retaining the “ultra-premium luxury” status. Something which can be afforded by the very few.
Of course, the company does not have a marketing department. Its core drivers of the business engine are intuition and creativity. And they rely on the work, history, and legacy to speak for their brand. It is often said that everyone in Hermes is responsible for marketing.