Axel Dumas: A Man With a Clan
For Hermès’s new CEO, fashion is—and always will be—a family affair.
Plenty of chief executives like to say that their company is one big family, but Axel Dumas is more justified than most in making that claim. Dumas, who took over as CEO of Hermès International in February, is a great-great-great-grandson of the house’s founder, Thierry Hermès, and one of dozens of heirs with a controlling stake. In an era dominated by fashion conglomerates whose “luxury” products are often manufactured at the lowest possible cost, Hermès remains committed to centuries-old techniques. Each Kelly bag is still assembled by a single craftsman over the course of several days in a roomy, light-filled workshop. And even if the artisans aren’t treated to daily finger massages and foie gras lunches, one imagines that they are.
In May, when members of the Hermès family gathered in New York for the brand’s annual executive meeting and an extravagantly theatrical soirée for 700 guests, it was a reminder that the tradition-bound clan fully embraces its eccentric uncles and crazy cousins. Among the amusements dreamed up by Hermès women’s-universe artistic director Bali Barret were a horse racing game, a fortune-teller reading silk scarves, and a “dancing bags” spectacle in which a Brooklyn-based troupe showed off handbags from the fall collection.
The final tab? Not important, Dumas says, adding, “We never make any decision based on cost.” He recalls that in 2007, when the price of gold skyrocketed, some considered reducing the percentage of gold in the handbag closures. Then a senior craftsman told Dumas that in five years the cheaper clasps might not have the same patina as the classic ones. “That was it—we kept things the same,” Dumas says.
This quality-at-all-costs strategy has been especially successful of late. Last year, worldwide revenue hit $5 billion, up nearly eight percent. Still ongoing is Hermès’s tussle with LVMH, following the French luxury group’s aggressive purchases of the company’s public shares over the past several years. The family has since legally consolidated and protected its majority stake—a move, Dumas says, that was meant to send a “very strong message” to LVMH that Hermès “should not be meddled with.”
At the helm with Axel Dumas is another family scion, his cousin Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the house’s artistic director since 2009. His role, as he sees it, is “creating the right conditions for creativity to emerge” from a team that includes Christophe Lemaire (women’s wear), Pierre Hardy (shoes and jewelry), and Véronique Nichanian (men’s wear). A sense of familial duty is evident in both men, who remember playing together as children. Something else that Axel and Pierre-Alexis share is an obsession with continually renewing and refreshing Hermès, no matter how august its history. “I’m always proposing strange new things to them,” Barret says. “And they almost never say no.”