Like so many things about Hermès, such statements may once have seemed quaint—but today they appear prescient, now that Gucci and Louis Vuitton are running advertising campaigns declaring their devotion to craftsmanship. And at a time when the fashion industry is still reeling from John Galliano’s scandal-scarred dismissal from Dior, Hermès’s insistence on working with several different creative directors, including Nichanian, Hardy, and now Lemaire, rather than one omnipotent figure, as Galliano once appeared to be, seems sage.
So does its refusal to engage with the frenzied, irreverent culture of Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere that many of its rivals are struggling—and mostly failing—to tame. “There has always been a feeling of secrecy about Hermès,” said Le Figaro’s Mouzat. “It comes from the family—low key, low profile, Calvinist. And today that makes it seem almost sacred in the luxury landscape.”
Still, Hermès, like the rest of the luxury industry, faces the challenge of a volatile market, where growth is driven increasingly by ingenue consumers in Asia, whose tastes in expensive clothes and bags tend to be closer to Kim Kardashian’s than Christine Lagarde’s. Earlier this summer I spotted a wealthy Chinese tourist looking at bags in the Hermès flagship on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The sales assistant brought over a pretty, pale blue clutch for her to inspect, only for the woman to ask: “Don’t you have anything blingier?” “Perhaps Madame should try another store,” purred the assistant.
Madame could have popped into the watch department, where she would have found a couple of surprisingly “un-Hermès” diamond-encrusted watches, such as a Cape Cod in rose gold with an alligatorskin band that sells for $17,200 in the U.S. But these are exceptions. Sixth-generation Hermès has mostly held its nerve and resisted the temptation to bling-ify.
The new furniture line, which was unveiled at the Milan furniture fair this past April, is very old-school Hermès. Each piece is exquisitely fabricated and conservative in style—quite bon chic bon genre, as the French call their equivalent of preppies.
An intriguing glimpse of what could become new-school Hermès is Shang Xia, a recent collection of products including eggshell porcelain bowls and lacquered chairs based on Ming dynasty furniture-making techniques. It is cheaper than the main line, and has been developed for sale in China, using the skills of local craftsmen. Another is the stunning rue de Sèvres store, where a series of latticed ashwood “huts,” designed by Rena Dumas’s collaborator, Denis Montel, perch on the immaculately restored mosaic tiles of an old swimming pool.
The latest women’s wear collection sits somewhere between the old and new schools. Commercially, it will not make or break Hermès: Women’s wear contributes less than 10 percent of its annual turnover, and the brand has been robust enough to embrace two very different designers in the ascetic Margiela and flamboyant Gaultier. But women’s wear has huge symbolic significance, given the intense media scrutiny of fashion. And Lemaire’s first show, held amid the latticed huts of the rue de Sèvres store and accompanied by a Chinese zither player, was seen as a declaration of intent for Pierre-Alexis’s vision.