Lemaire was not a fashionable choice to join Hermès when he was appointed last summer to succeed Jean Paul Gaultier, the postmodernist prankster and creator of Madonna’s conical bras. The fashionisti were rooting for a young hotshot or a suitably cerebral heir to Gaultier’s predecessor, the superpurist Martin Margiela. The firm favorite for that slot was Helmut Lang, whom Hermès was known to have courted, but he refused (for the umpteenth time) to forsake his new career as an artist for a return to fashion. Lemaire, who had spent the past decade as creative director of the French sportswear brand Lacoste, was an unexpected and, to some, underwhelming appointee. Unveiling his fall collection at the Hermès show in Paris this past March was his chance to win over his critics.
The verdict was mixed. Some editors were unimpressed. “Perhaps the collection suffered from too-muchness, a heaviness,” wrote Cathy Horyn in The New York Times. But others approved, including Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, who praised it as “a fine effort for a first season.” Another admirer is Virginie Mouzat, fashion director of the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. “I loved it!” she said. “The quality is irreproachable. Simple cuts. Wonderful fabrics. Beautiful silks and leathers. Seasonless outfits. It isn’t sexy, loud, or in your face, and for some people that can be boring. It’s a very slow, discreet, low-key notion of luxury—more style than fashion.”
And that is why Hermès hired Lemaire. “Christophe is very Hermès in his thinking,” said his new boss, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, 45, Hermès’s group artistic director and one of the sixth generation of the founding family. “He shares the values we believe in—quality of craftsmanship, attention to detail, absolute comfort, timeless elegance, and ensuring that everything we make is impeccable. I believe in Christophe and think he will surprise all of us.”
The stakes are high. Lemaire’s appointment is one of the most important decisions Pierre-Alexis has made since assuming responsibility for design and communications at Hermès from his father, its visionary and charismatic former chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas, who died last year. The latest women’s wear collection is one of a raft of new projects—including the opening of a Paris homewares store in an old swimming pool on rue de Sèvres and the launch of a furniture line—that will set the tone for Hermès’s future under this generation. The current CEO, Patrick Thomas, is not part of the family, but several of Pierre-Alexis’s cousins have been given senior roles, including Axel Dumas and Julie Guerrand, former investment bankers who are now chief operating officer and head of corporate development, respectively.