Pierre-Alexis Dumas talks about a new Hermès store with the same passion you’d imagine he employs for a discussion about one of the French house’s blockbuster handbags. In Vancouver last fall to launch the brand’s latest Canadian location, he can’t help but sound endlessly proud of its sense of scale and proportion, the way its terrazzo façade is simultaneously monumental and welcoming and how the white oak interior projects a unique warmth. His attention to detail is impressive considering Hermès has between 30 and 45 store openings and renovations in the works each year.
Overseeing the design of its stores is just a small sliver of Dumas’s role as the brand’s artistic director. The great-great-great-grandson of company founder, Thierry Hermès, Dumas is also the son of former CEO Jean-Louis Dumas and Greek-born architect Rena Dumas. His family ties and a background in visual arts and textiles led him to start working at the company in 1992, and since 2011 he’s overseen an immeasurable list of studios, workshops and projects.
A key part of Dumas’s role is setting the creative tone for the brand and bringing collaborators into the fold to help bring that vision to life. While in Vancouver, he talked about the value design talent, a sense of curiosity and an empathy for history have for Hermès.
How important is it for Hermès to have someone like you at the centre of creative discussions?
Hermès needs a strong creative drive and I don’t have the monopoly on that. I think I’m a man of ideas, I know my family history quite well and the culture of the company, so I think I can bring what Hermès needs now. But, one day, it will be someone else, and I hope many other people. But whoever it is, I think it will have to be people interested in our culture.
I keep telling my team, know your art history, go out there and see archeological museums, art museums, read, explore, travel. It’s an endless task because you can spend your life learning. Learning takes time, but if you stop learning, I don’t think you can perform very well in your work.
Has your role changed since you started?
When I wanted to join Hermès, my father was a little bit nervous because he had a conflict. He really wanted me to work with him but he thought it was a problem because [he thought], “he’s my son, and I don’t want people to think that I’m giving him privileged treatment.” I was working for an Italian firm in textiles, and I told him, “I can see that everything is leading me to join Hermès and do product development. I’m in applied arts, I like textiles, I like design. I spent my youth stitching leather.”
He said, “why don’t you write me an essay on the aesthetic of leather at Hermès?” I spent two weeks behind my computer and gave him an 18-page paper. I heard that he erased my name and he gave it to all of his executive committee. He said to them, “tell me what you think of that essay.” And I think it was my aunt who said, “you know Jean-Louis, we all read the paper. It’s a very good paper. So when are you going to hire your son?”
I’m saying this because I was 25 years old and I put a lot of thinking in that paper and I realize that everything I’m doing today was already in me at the age of 25. When I was lucky to join Hermès, my real learning curve started. With work, you interact with people. You see exactly what works, what fails. Hermès has changed a lot. Hermès has grown a lot – changed in size. It’s improved its capacity to handle a lot of production without betraying its values.
What makes a person an ideal creative collaborator for the company?
I’m always looking for designers who have a strong point of view – who are daring to disappoint me. I’m also looking for designers who are genuinely curious about Hermès. They don’t want to use Hermès for themselves. A good example of that is Pierre Hardy. He designs our shoes and our jewellery. If you look at what we call the “haute bijouterie collection,” which are exceptional pieces, he’s really celebrating Hermès and its culture though very strong statements.
Are you ever surprised by how different designers interpret the annual themes you create?
The theme for me is very important. It’s like saying, “let’s go to the moon.” It’s impossible to go to the moon, or to Mars, or to Jupiter, but at least we have a direction and we all agree that we want to go, even if it’s impossible. It helps everybody to focus.
Human beings are creative. We are industrious, we make our own tools, we are playful, we are gossipers and we are creative. We don’t have the monopoly on creativity as designers. In the field of applied arts, I’m trying to gather the best creative people who are excited about Hermès and playful, and I’m always pleasantly surprised even when they show me a catastrophic design. It’s good to have wrong routes because it allows me to interact with them. At least we have a dialogue and can collectively build a strong collection season after season.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Globe and Mail Style Advisor travelled to Vancouver as a guest of Hermes. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.