Pierre-Alexis Dumas’ favourite piece in Hermès’ new Prince’s Building boutique is a vivid blue and white foosball table made from maple wood and saddle-stitched calfskin. It features handmade jockeys wearing matching jerseys, all lined up in a row. Fun and irreverent, it seems worlds apart from the brand’s more serious best-selling creations like the Kelly or Birkin bags, but according to Dumas it perfectly sums up the creative essence of the house.
“It’s all about playing and having fun. We just need to make sure customers wear gloves when they use it,” he says with a laugh.
Dumas is in Hong Kong to celebrate the store’s opening, and the trip is also a homecoming of sorts for the sixth-generation member of the Hermès family. Shortly after joining the group in 1993, he was based in Hong Kong for several years managing its subsidiaries in Greater China, so the city holds a special place in his heart.
“At the time we had just opened the Galleria boutique [formerly on Queen’s Road Central], which we were – and still are – very proud of. Since then we have really evolved – we may have a 180-year-old history, but our growth has only happened in the past 40 years. We have been dreaming of a flagship, so this store is a fantasy come true for us,” he says.
As artistic director for the coveted brand since 2011, Dumas is in the business of making dreams a reality. His unique role sees him exert creative control over all Hermès’ product lines – or métiers, as they’re called in-house – meaning that he is responsible for the creation of every single item you see in the store. To date, he has overseen 30 collections, which have helped propel the house into the successful global business that it is today. Under his tenure, the company’s revenue has reached record highs.
“When my father [Jean-Louis] became president [of the brand] in 1978 we had only 80 craftsmen. Today the number has grown to 3,000. People complain because they have to wait a long time for our products but to get to this number requires training, recruiting and building facilities.
“My father was really driven by two visions – to build Hermès stores around the world while creating a modern-day manufacturer. What he meant by this was ensuring that one craftsman created one object from A to Z within a proper space. Today we have achieved this,” he explains.
But Dumas’ tenure as artistic director hasn’t come without challenges. He has witnessed many changes, including the advent of new technology – something he has wholeheartedly embraced. Technology has dramatically changed the creative process, as tools such as 3D printing have streamlined and improved the design process. It has also allowed Hermès to digitalise the brand’s archives and create an intelligent system that adapts to a designer’s preferences the more it is used.
Of course, along with the good has come some bad. “The biggest challenge, not only for Hermès but for everyone today, is the fact that this virtual world is constantly interfering with the present through social media, emails and the phone. It affects our attention span, so we need to educate ourselves and know when to disconnect. Humans have a wonderful ability called concentration, which allows us to compress time and create all these wonderful things. If you break this process you are stifled,” he says.
The frequent interruptions posed by technology have meant that Dumas is constantly working to keep his creative teams inspired. About two years ago he devised an internal message or theme, “Let’s Play,” as a guiding principle for all of the design team and staff. This principle, he believes, has encouraged them to flex their imaginations unlike ever before.
“For Hermès, it’s really important to celebrate playing and playfulness. I always tell everyone that it’s important to be child-like, which means having incredible curiosity and enthusiasm. I love when someone comes to the studio and has fun with colour or material.
“If I have to go back to the essentials of our creative process, it’s the excitement of making something beautiful. The moment we do collection after collection without any pleasure, then we have lost. In a way, a house like Hermès is fragile because every season we need to renew our capacity to surprise ourselves,” he says.
While the imagination plays a vital role at Hermès, so does craftsmanship, which is revered to a whole other level. Dumas founded the Hermès Foundation in 2008 with the sole mission to support the creative arts through a series of educational and mentoring programmes that go beyond the brand’s hallowed walls.
“The foundation is as complex as Hermès because it promotes the values we believe in. When you have a company this successful, you need to develop a structure that allows you to push your values outside the commercial sector. For me, it was a moral obligation. I presented to my family, and they approved. It keeps evolving and transforming,” he says.
To date, the foundation has eight programmes including Manufacto, which works with schools to expose primary and secondary students in certain regions in France to the importance and value of artisan skills. Equally ambitious is the Skills Academy, where 20 creators from various fields are invited to participate in a programme that challenges them to develop their skills while introducing them to other sectors, including design and engineering. The Artists’ Residencies invites aspiring artists to complete a three-month stint at the Hermès workshops where they can study and explore new skills while experimenting alongside other artisans.
Dumas sees the foundation as just one chapter in a much bigger story he is hoping to write during his time at Hermès.
“The idea of legacy has been on my mind since I turned 50. I’m obsessed with the idea of transmission and education. For the past 15 years, I focused my energy on the creative process, pushing everyone to design and design. It’s great and will continue,” Dumas says. “Now it’s about passing on everything I have learnt and ensuring our transmission process is strong because one of the treasures of Hermès is its history. We’ve only tapped the beginning because our history is as dense as the future. I want to make the history and education part of the creative process.”