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HERITAGE HERMES

FROM GENERATIONS AGO, EMILE HERMES'PASSION FOR UNUSUAL, WELL-CRAFTED OBJECTS HAS TRAVELLED THROUGH TIME AND HIS COLLECTION IS NOW BOTH RESOURCE AND REPOSITORY FOR THE HOUSE OF HERMES.

BY GEOFFREY EU

PIERRE-ALEXIS Dumas learned to appreciate the intrinsic value of well-crafted objects at an early age. As a sixth-generation scion of the house of Hermes - a brand whose signature products are among the most desired luxury items in the world - he had a privileged upbringing and the sort of in-house education that money can't buy.

At 11, Dumas went to see his grandfather Robert Dumas - who at the time was head of the family-owned firm - and asked to be trained in the fine art of leather-making. "I wanted to work with my hands, to learn how to make a handbag," says Dumas, 47, artistic director of the company founded as a harness and saddle-making workshop by Thierry Hermes in 1837.

"My grandfather allowed me to go to the workshop once a week so for four years on every Wednesday afternoon I would be there, learning the craft of leather-making, assembly, polishing, cutting and stitching - eventually I was the only one making belts, wallets, small objects," says Dumas.

It was an invaluable apprenticeship for young Dumas, both in terms of developing his skills and instilling a strong sense of pride in his work. "I learned how to look at objects differently," he says. "When you are 12 and you make a belt it's physically challenging, and I was very aware of the craft behind an object, the spirit inside it, the patina, the feeling of time inside it.

"This is collectively what we're trying to do at Hermes: beautiful objects that will age well, not bling-bling which will shine for a while and then fade - under the shiny surfaces there is no soul." He adds: "Objects have this strange ability to travel through time. They always come from the past - someone made it - and you can always pass them on."

The flagship Hermes store at 24, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore - known among aficionados as The Mothership - was both workplace and playground of sorts for Dumas. Not the boutique on the lower floors where immaculately displayed handbags, silk scarves, leather accessories and fine jewellery attract a constant stream of customers daily nor the leather workshop on the upper floor, but on the quieter third floor, where the office of his great-grandfather Emile-Maurice Hermes (1871-1951) was located.

Emile Hermes was a die-hard collector whose passion for unusual, well-crafted objects - especially things associated with horses, transport and the art of travel - was realised in the form of a large collection of everyday items, personal effects, toys, paintings and objets d'art. As a child, Dumas would head to the third floor and spend time exploring the rooms and playing with anything that caught his fancy, blissfully unaware that many of the items were irreplaceable. "It was a world of wonder for me - for me, these objects are timeless," he says.

Now, the private Hermes Museum, comprising several art- and artifact-filled rooms and resembling a well-stocked, multigenerational period home, is a repository for the family heritage as well as a constant reminder to Dumas that the company's raison d'etre - a tradition of refined elegance, as defined by his great-grandfather - must continue unabated.

Dumas never knew the man, but Emile Hermes (1871-1951) was a beacon of inspiration nevertheless. "As a teen, he would buy objects with his savings, objects that fascinated him," says Dumas. "It was the beginning of a lifelong passion - all his life he bought beautiful, unusual things because the intrinsic properties of the objects interested him."

Among Hermes' earliest acquisitions was an umbrella made of pheasant feathers, but the bulk of his collection had to do with transport and travel. A rocking horse that belonged to his wife became a family mascot and a symbol of the company headquarters. He bought many equine-themed works by French painter Alfred de Dreux (1810- 1860), including the drawing of a harnessed carriage that served as the inspiration for the company logo. "Emile saw how an object can influence the style of a company - that's when he realised that his collection was an inspiration for his work," says Dumas.

The collection is still being added to and complemented by a collection of contemporary photographs. "We're always looking for unusual objects that will fit the spirit of the collection," says Dumas. "They are generally horse-related, like drawings, paintings and sculptures or functional objects related to horse-riding and travel." Interesting items include a travelling bed for a British army officer, dating to the late-18th century.

Company designers in search of ideas and inspiration have access to the collection anytime they want - a search engine can locate any of the more than 30,000 pieces in it. "I don't want people to copy, I want them to push the idea further, to invent, create, respect," says Dumas. "The great danger of a company like Hermes is to become banal. People are focusing on the idea that expensive equals luxury - what is rare can be luxury, but not necessarily expensive."

He adds: "Something is wrong if you make something that is considered rare in such high quantities so that it is not rare anymore. Quality is about being fundamentally honest in what you make so that the objects you make are unique. We at Hermes, in honour of our predecessors, we need to reinvent ourselves and to look into our collection to push creativity further and try to make beautiful objects.

"It's about somehow continuing to build a unique position where people can judge for themselves. I know that we are unique in what we do - with 40 workshops and 3,000 craftsmen in France. Every morning, my grandfather (Robert Dumas, 1898-1978) went to the workshop to greet everybody before going to his office - this is what Hermes is about," says Dumas.

He adds that his father (Jean-Louis Dumas, 1938-2010) also liked to quote family friend (and fashion designer) Jean Patou when reinforcing the family's attitude towards the Hermes brand. "He said, don't make anything ugly - someone may buy it."

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