Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

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Hermès’ Pierre-Alexis Dumas shares thoughts on lasting legacy of fine artistry

By KATHY O’NEILL

The Cleveland Museum of Art looked spectacular in the sunshine to welcome Pierre-Alexis Dumas to Cleveland. As Hermès’ global artistic director, and a sixth-generation family member, he is the magician who adds the panache to Hermès worldwide. Tall, slender, and unimposing in a neutral V-neck sweater, Pierre-Alexis exuded intelligence, charm and class. His direct gaze and warm handshake let me know he was ready to answer any question and to laugh along the way.

We started out talking about luxury. He feels it is an overused word, where refinement might be a better descriptor. Spending a lot of money is not synonymous with luxury to him. Luxury is having something exquisitely made, aesthetically beautiful. That something should be long lasting; something that can be repaired and passed on to a loved one. Hermès is a statement not a souvenir of today’s style. The craftsmanship is the core value. Whether it is a watch or a tie, a saddle or a handbag, it must be perfect. Excellence in craftsmanship is difficult to maintain. Anything less than perfect is destroyed. There isn’t any outlet store or secret seconds online site for Hermès. You get the excellence for which you pay.

The workmanship is a skill a person acquires over time. It can take five years to learn stitching. For example, Pierre-Alexis went to Hermès workshops as a child. He mastered the saddle stitch at age 11! One of the artisans visiting Cleveland has been silk screening carres for 35 years! Quality is the consummate value. The ink colors for anything Hermès are unique. There are 75,000 ink samples that are available for any textile decision. One scarf can initially be printed in up to 40 different color combinations. That is narrowed down ultimately to maybe 12. Sometimes those decisions are based on cultural preference. Certain shades of red and blue are American favorites. Asian countries and Europe have other best sellers.

But when you are responsible for two collections a year globally, over a wide range of more than a thousand products, how can you keep the standards so high? Pierre-Alexis is a team player. Company administrative decisions are made by a group of Hermès cousins. Creative decisions like the scarf themes, the annual overall concept for the product lines and the look of Hermès are all his. Representatives from every country where Hermès operates come together each year to give Hermès feedback. They tell them what they want, what they will select out of the collections, what has been successful. So what you see in Shanghai is not necessarily what you will find in a Hermès store in London. That’s a lot of product development. Pierre-Alexis is looking at concept design for 2017.

He describes this process as a patient exploration of ideas. He keeps a notepad by his desk, by his bed, near the shower … tools to help him remember what comes into his mind in a dream, in a book, perhaps even in a museum! He thinks about it, savors it, fleshing it out as an idea, a look, perhaps, a shape. Then it becomes a mist, “like a fog.” With some refinement and a look at past collections, it is passed on to another team that helps make the magic the reality you see in the store. “It is in the detail, the workmanship, the color, the presentation, that we are brought in. Technology impinges on our ability to truly see and to appreciate.” The speed, the immediacy, the tangential nature of the online experience can create energy but is not the basis for a business plan. The web is a vehicle, though one that Hermès uses extensively. Pierre-Alexis wants the website to be playful, enticing, drawing you into their craft. It can educate you about the world, their global activities and how things are made. Still technology will never replace the lush experience of walking into a store and smelling fragrance, seeing the myriad of color, hearing the rustle of silk, and the feeling of quality of the item in your hand. This is the history of Hermès. This is why the thought behind it is so important.

Pierre-Alexis founded the Hermès Foundation in 2008 as the completion of a promise to his father. The foundation is the means by which Pierre-Alexis hopes to preserve the importance of excellence in craft. Hermès products are works of art, truly. However, the skills, the imagination and the execution of art are a people-infused creation. His mission is to encourage all kinds of artistic expression and entrepreneurship. That is to recognize the value that this energy makes the world in which we live a better place. Whether it is a Japanese artist or a village in Bangladesh, the Hermès Foundation is an extension of the family’s passionate desire to preserve the past but innovate and promote the new. Whether that is encouraging new artists across the world, or presenting that art in flagship stores like gallery installations, you are touched by the extended Hermès family. The more than 11,000 employees are encouraged to submit ideas for the Foundation’s philanthropy. There is a place for those suggestions next to every coffee pot everywhere! Last year, Hermès employees submitted more than 3,000 suggestions for Foundation support. It was exhausting to imagine Pierre-Alexis sorting through all those! Listening first hand to his devoted description of the importance of imagination, the creation of art, the development of talent and its impact made me realize, he really means what he says.

Pierre-Alexis is an artist himself. Not at work, but in a Parisian studio. He talked about the pleasure he gets from listening to music when he paints. The idea that some people can see color when they hear music, he finds fascinating. Initially a computer science major at Brown, he laughed saying he was actually really good at developing code! He lasted a year, transferring into visual arts. FYI, Hermès has made a tie and scarf reflecting computer code! The family gave him broad-based experience in Italy learning about silk as a textile and the engraving applications on silk twill. He developed new products at Orfevre Puiforcat, the silversmiths, and glass designs for Cristallarie St. Louis in France. Having learned the business, he headed the company’s Asian subsidiaries and then moved to the English group. He became the head of public relations and then global artistic director in 2005.

Pierre-Alexis is a sentimental man, who cherishes his family. He describes his father and mother, now deceased, differently than as a teenager. Then, it might have been standing under an all shading tree, now it is standing on the shoulders of giants. He and his sister are acutely aware of what each generation has brought to the business and what each family member has created that lives on today. Preserving that legacy is bound to his core. He works with them, embraces his employees as family, and tries to be genuine in all he does. Pierre-Alexis refers to a hope that he can be as good a parent to his children as he was parented. “You hold and nurture” and then like a concept, you wait and see.

He spent some time in the Museum. He said he was happy there. He has a special fondness for the Oriental galleries. The Gallery One may give him some ideas for the Hermès website. He thought it was very apropos that we talked in view of the Armor Court. “After all, horses are in Hermès history and respecting what they do changed the world. “ He said he wants to come back. There is much to see and to appreciate. My only hope is a few years from now we can all smile and recognize something from the Cleveland Museum of Art in the Hermès collections of 2017.

This amazing artistic demonstration at the Cleveland Museum of Art would not have been possible without the longstanding relationship between Cuffs Clothing in Chagrin Falls and Hermès over many decades. Rodger Kowall, the owner of Cuffs, had a friendship with Pierre-Alexis’ father. Twenty years ago, Pierre-Alexis’ mother, Rena Dumas, designed the Hermès boutique we enjoy today at Cuffs. Pierre-Alexis’ uncle visited Cuffs more than 10 years ago. The artistic community thanks Cuffs for its effort in making this textile art event possible. Cuffs Clothing, located at 18 E. Orange Street in Chagrin Falls, opened the first privately owned Hermès boutique in 1993, and is the only Hermès boutique in this region. Visit cuffsclothing.com or call 440.247.2828.

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