It was retail theater of the highest order.
With acrobats descending the building's Rodeo Drive facade and trumpets blaring, Hermès reopened its Beverly Hills store Tuesday night after an 18-month renovation. For an after-party, the French fashion house took over a soundstage in Culver City for a Hollywood-level production, complete with a water ballet performance, an opportunity for guests to star in their own short films, and lots of archival celebrity-owned Hermès pieces to ogle, including Alfred Hitchcock's anchor-print bathing trunks, Lauren Bacall's leather flask and Humphrey Bogart's "Haut a Courroies" traveling bag, which was the precursor to the Birkin.
For all the fanfare, the moment was also a sentimental one for members of the family-run Hermès business, which began as an equestrian harness-making workshop in Paris in 1837 and has since grown into a global luxury brand, perhaps best known for its coveted Birkin bags, which start at $9,200 and are the handbags of choice among many a celebrity, including Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga and Sofia Vergara.
"It's very emotional for me to come here and follow in the footsteps of my parents," said sixth-generation family member Pierre-Alexis Dumas, who is Hermès' artistic director. "When my father [Jean-Louis Dumas] was appointed general manager in 1972, the first big decision he made was to open a freestanding store on Rodeo Drive. My grandfather had to close the first U.S. Hermès store in New York in 1928 because of the Depression and was reluctant to invest overseas again. But one generation has always been there to challenge another. And eventually, my grandfather said, 'Just do it.' Now my parents are gone, but we continue.'
When Hermès first opened in 1972 at 343 Rodeo Drive, it catered to an already-robust Hollywood clientele. Greta Garbo came in to buy handbags, and Sammy Davis Jr. to order a custom traveling bar lined in red leather, not unlike the Pacific blue leather wine case created as part of a special collection of exquisite products commemorating the Beverly Hills reopening.
Now located at 434 Rodeo Drive, the newly renovated 12,000-square-foot flagship is recognizable by its distinctive white marble facade — looking something like an ice cube tray — which fits in nicely with the neighboring retail edifices along the luxury shopping strip.
The store was designed by Paris-based firm RDAI (Rena Dumas Architecture Interieure), which was founded by Pierre-Alexis' late mother Rena, who designed all the Hermès boutiques, beginning with Beverly Hills in 1972. The interior is airy and light, with a white marble spiral staircase reminiscent of a giant seashell, leading to a skylight that brings to mind a Skyspace by artist James Turrell.
The entire Hermès product universe is represented, including luxe cashmere men's hats ($590), brighly colored Kelly Picnic wicker handbags ($13,200), leather saddles ($8,500), candy-colored enamel bracelets ($420 and up) and fluttering silk scarves, one designed especially for Beverly Hills ($410) featuring palm trees reflected in a shimmering swimming pool. On the second floor is fine jewelry, watches and apparel, including a men's bespoke suit department with more than 3,000 fabrications to choose from (black crocodile is one option, and prices start at $10,000). And on the third floor is the largest offering of Hermès home products found anywhere in the U.S., including tabletop items, fur-trimmed bed linens, wallpaper and upholstery fabric and furniture (a leather valet for $45,000 from Les Necessaires collection is incredible).
Dumas gave the space his personal touch by curating all the artwork, beginning with the store windows.
He tapped Paris-based artists Lucie Thomas and Thibault Zimmermann (known as Zim & Zou) to create a colorful paper art wonderland reflecting the flora and fauna of Southern California, as well as its skyline, including a miniature Staples Center.
To hang above a workstation where craftsmen will complete leathergoods repairs, Dumas found a wonderful 1956 photograph of Grace Kelly cleaning her Kelly bag, taken by Magnum photographer Dennis Stock. "The bond that woman had with that bag is real," Dumas said.
In the menswear department is a small oil painting by contemporary British artist Peter Slater, an aristocratic-looking portrait titled "Oberon" that's anything but traditional. It depicts a horseless rider. Dumas likes the surreal, tongue-in-cheek humor of the subject. And, indeed, it's walking that line between the past and the future, reverence and reinvention, that seems to drive him in his role overseeing Hermès nearly 3,400 craftsmen, who work in silk, leather, wood and more.
"You have to challenge tradition in order to enrich it," says Dumas, who first came to Southern Calfornia as a young exchange student, living with a host family in Santa Barbara.
Initially, he didn't have much interest in going into his own family's business.
But as a college student at Brown University, he gained an appreciation for the visual arts, thanks to the guidance of one extraordinary professor, which led to an internship at the Italian textile firm Ratti, where he learned all aspects of textile design, and eventually back home to Hermès. Dumas spent a decade learning the ropes on the retail side and in public relations, working first in Hong Kong, then in London, before moving to Paris to work with his father on the artistic side.
In the two years Dumas has been artistic director, the results have been impressive. Quarter after quarter, Hermès has exceeded financial expectations. As reported in July, second-quarter revenue increased 16%. And revenue from clothing rose 23%, thanks to strong collections from women's wear designer Christophe Lemaire, and menswear designer Vèronique Nichanian. Earlier this year, Hermes added two new workshops to meet the demand for its coveted leathergoods, including the Birkin bag, each of which is made by a single craftsperson and takes 20 hours to complete by hand.
Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury-goods maker, has been slowly raising its stake in the brand and now owns about 22.6% in an encroachment that Hermes executives have characterized as hostile and a clash of cultures. Hermes does not use assembly lines, instead employing artisans in France to hand-sew its leathergoods and weave its scarves in Lyon. An in-house nose creates perfume near Grasse in the South of France.
"What keeps me going is the deep belief I'm serving a purpose that's greater than myself. The ownership of Hermès is family, but the culture of Hermes is really a universal legacy," Dumas says. "Hermes is defending the idea of craft, which started 100,000 years ago when human beings managed to develop tools to make fire. Craft is the result of thousands of years of evolution, of experimentation, practice, innovation, practice, transmission and more practice. Craft is fundamental to the humane side of our human nature."
It's fitting then that Dumas' definition of luxury isn't a $10,000 bag, but the story and process behind it. "For me, the ulitimate luxury is to learn," he says. "People ask, 'What's so special about this object?' And the more you learn about the craft, the rarity and the uniqueness, the more you appreciate it. It's knowledge. It's not just a price point."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times