The crown jewel of the €362 billion global personal luxury goods industry, Hermès has thrived in large part due to its controlling family’s penchant for doing things in quaint ways that hark back to its nearly two-century-old heritage. Its top leather bags, which can go for anywhere between about $8,000 to well in the tens of thousands of dollars for a model with exotic skin like crocodile, are all handmade in ateliers dotting France.
Also, unlike competitors, the maison echews the bling of famous models and social media influencers, like Kendall Jenner at Gucci or actress Kristen Stewart for Chanel. When stars wear creations from Christian Dior or Balenciaga at red carpet events, the brands are quick to publicize it. Not Hermès. In a world of celebrity excess, Hermès’ advertising is conspicuously free of recognizable faces — something that’s spared them the turmoil when such personalities fall out of favor. Yet customers have been known to wait months — and sometimes years — for its Birkin and Kelly bags, which are nevertheless named after famous actresses.
“We don’t look too much at the competition because we might be influenced,” Dumas quipped during the July results presentation. When he listed the firm’s four core values, “independence” came first.
Created in 1837 by harness-maker Thierry Hermès — a Protestant in mostly Catholic France — the company has always been independent, run for the most part by family members. Known across Europe from its very early days for the exquisite craftsmanship of its creations, Hermès was passed down from son to son as it expanded from harnesses to saddles and other leather goods, sumptuous silk scarves and watches.
In 1951, Robert Dumas, a son-in-law of the third-generation Émile Hermès — who only had daughters — took the helm, and is credited with many of the company’s successes, including the Kelly bag — created almost 100 years ago, but made famous after Grace Kelly was shown carrying it in a photo on the cover of Life magazine. Robert’s son, Jean-Louis Dumas, followed him in 1978, and was the creator of the Birkin bag, inspired by the late British actress and singer Jane Birkin, who sat next to him on a flight and complained that she couldn’t find a handbag she liked. By then the company’s horse-drawn-carriage logo and signature orange boxes had become emblems of high fashion and class.