“This is not a company, it’s a house. And one that has protected me since I was a very young man,” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès and the sixth generation of family owners. His office does indeed feel more like a fashionable studio apartment than the nerve centre of one of the most recognisable brands in fashion, the walls dotted with contemporary paintings and tear sheets. He’s sitting swaddled in a cashmere-felt blanket at a low table in the middle of the room as the in-house executive chef delivers us a breakfast of pancakes, fruit salad and goji berries.
“We’re just farming the land here. It was farmed before us and will be farmed after us. You can add your layer to the terroir but there’s no real sense of ownership,” Pierre-Alexis adds. He seems acutely aware of being one of the few great fashion houses remaining in family hands and the momentum built over generations from the same building above the flagship store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. “Sometimes I’m not sure if we manage the company, or if Hermès manages us,” agrees Axel Dumas, Pierre-Alexis’s cousin and Hermès’s chief operating officer.
The Dumas cousins grew up together, immersed in the ateliers from an early age and spending summer holidays with the sprawling families of Dumas, Guerrand and Puech – several of whom also hold senior roles at Hermès, the company that their forefather Thierry Hermès founded as a harness maker back in 1837.
The company of their childhood is a very different place to the one they co-manage today, however. Although one of France’s great heritage brands, Hermès’s real growth has been recent and meteoric. When Jean-Louis Dumas took over Hermès in 1978, it was a house of 400 employees – a workforce he could know by name. Today’s staff stands at 9,000 – a very large family indeed. “My uncle used to joke that Hermès was a Piper plane when he joined,” says Axel. “And today we’re more like a Boeing 747. It’s harder to know what’s happening at the front and the back.”
It’s not just the workforce that has grown. Having started out as a harness specialist, Hermès now has 16 product lines, from silk to fragrances and watches. How do the Dumas cousins achieve harmony across the métiers in this booming business? “Well, the answer is you work a lot,” says Pierre-Alexis. “I’m not looking around at what other people are doing because I don’t have time, to be honest. We have 175 years of history to dig into, so we develop according to internal creativity and intuition, not external trends or marketing gimmicks.” The commitment to staff also remains unchanged, investing years in training through apprenticeships and running the Club des Anciens for retired Hermès artisans.
“The Hermès family is not just people with the surname Dumas, Puech or Guerrand,” says Axel. “Some employees have worked here for generations; I knew their parents and they knew mine.” Despite Hermès being a booming international business, the Dumas cousins still manage with a sense of familiarity unusual in a company of this size. “Everyone has a different relationship to the brand but they’re all equally valid. I have to respect that.” With this in mind, the Dumas cousins have recently set up a committee of key employees across the metiers to cross fertilise thinking and help guide development.
Although Pierre-Alexis’s emphasis is on encouraging the artisans into bold new interpretations of the Hermès brand, he has a healthy respect for the “money men” in the business. “Facts and figures are important – they set your limits,” he says. “My job is to work closely with Axel and the financial team but to understand the special needs of our artisans and help them bring new visions to life.” Being able to shift speeds when working with different teams is key for both cousins.
This “slow luxury” approach distinguishes Hermès in a world of rapacious brand expansion, with holding groups such as Richemont and lvmh achieving double-figure growth across much of the brics world last year. These contrasting approaches to luxury came into conflict in 2010 when Bernard Arnault, owner of lvmh, announced he had accumulated 17 per cent of the Hermès stock, prompting outrage from family members. “I don’t think people really know what luxury means anymore,” says Pierre-Alexis, “and I’m very concerned by the disconnection from craft that we see happening today.”
Working with 33 ateliers and 3,000 craftsmen across France, manufacturing has always been a key part of the company’s branding, rather than something behind the scenes. Shows like “Leather Forever”, taking place in London this summer, help communicate the craft to an increasingly savvy consumer. “The danger is that everyone has caught on to this now and are making a mock-up of craft,” warns Axel. “It’s easy to talk in this way but very difficult to actually execute at the level we’re committed to.”
The Dumas cousins seem surprisingly comfortable with the challenge of balancing heritage, family and global growth, however. “I’m not a guardian of the brand – we have enough guardians in this building,” says Pierre-Alexis. “My job is to administer electric shocks to keep Hermès alive and evolving.” Rather than the family history being an inhibiting mantle, it appears to be a solid scaffold to approach the future. “We’re managing for the next generation,” says Axel. “It’s not just about our individual success or quarterly results but about the legacy.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
At 08.50. I never miss dropping my son off at school and he starts at 08.30.
Describe your management style.
I try to delegate as much as possible while focusing on making sure that everybody is aligned to our strategy. I talk a lot! Hopefully, to ensure that our values stay vibrant and not just a token to history.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
When someone stands to lose something, or when a choice is difficult, I feel it is better to do it oneself, rather than have someone else fall on the sword.
Do you read management books?
Yes and no. I dutifully buy management books, stock them next to my bedside table and eventually leave on holidays with novels or essays. I do read the ‘Harvard Business Review’.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
Always look for mentors. Mine were Stanley Marcus, Jean-Louis Dumas, Joseph Ettedgui and many more.
Describe your management style. Hands-on.
Would you prefer to be liked or respected?
I see myself as a dream-catcher.
What does your support team look like?
The Dream Team.
What would your key management advice be?
Always surround yourself with people greater than yourself.