Heritage and Hermès: A Conversation with Pierre-Alexis Dumas
The artistic director of Hermès, whose family has run the luxury powerhouse for six generations, describes his circuitous route back to the family business.
Photography by Christoph Wohlfahrt
A sixth-generation descendant of Thierry Hermès, who founded his namesake design house in 1837, Pierre-Alexis Dumas has established himself as the artistic director of the prestigious French luxury group. While Dumas maintains a discreet presence in the media, the passionate painter and sculptor continues to build upon the family venture that began almost two centuries ago. Yet it was a role that he never envisioned for himself growing up. How did his personal journey become entwined with his ancestral story? And how does he manage the saddle of patrimonial transmission? From his bright office filled with curious objects, Dumas talks about his relationship with the house of Hermès, memories of his childhood and why an empirical mindset is at odds with his work.
AVA DJAMSHIDI How important is it to pass Hermès’s know-how down through the generations?
PIERRE-ALEXIS DUMAS It’s essential. It’s at the heart of everything I have learned, everything I have built and especially everything I do. Today, my only obsession is to pass on the exciting, joyful and very special Hermès culture. This is a delicate subject. Throughout the first part of my professional life at Hermès, I struggled with the fact that I was the “son of.” The transmission of knowledge is seen from the outside in a certain way and is experienced very differently from the inside. At Hermès, all of our know-how has been passed on for six generations, at all levels and in all professions. It is the foundation of the training in our workshops. Many other values stem from it, such as listening and caring. I have been with Hermès for 30 years, but my apprenticeship probably began much earlier. In 1978, when my father, Jean-Louis Dumas, took over the company’s management – at the time, we didn’t call it a group – there were 300 employees. It was a medium-sized enterprise. When I joined in 1992, there were 2,000 employees. Now there are nearly 18,000. This tremendous growth is about people and could not have taken place without the ongoing transmission of skills. The house of Hermès is an elegant elderly lady who is 185 years old but still faces the challenges of a start-up.
The house of Hermès is an elegant elderly lady who is 185 years old but still faces the challenges of a start-up. Pierre-Alexis Dumas
AD How was Hermès integrated into your personal journey? What memories do you have of your childhood?
PAD Very happy memories! When I was a child, all of Hermès could be found at 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré – a happy place, full of life. I remember the extremely friendly people: salespeople and artisans but also colorful characters, like a wonderful designer of Hungarian origin, who I thought for a long time was a distant aunt, and a night watchman who impressed me with his enormous bunch of keys and his lantern. Then there are the sensory memories: the very particular smell of leather and the sounds in the workshops. All the leather production was done there at the time. That is probably the source of my taste and my intimate knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. When I see a bag, I see everything that went into making it. It’s very moving, very powerful.
AD As a child, did you think you would work there one day?
PAD No, I really didn’t. I wanted to be an astrophysicist, an
astrophysics engineer. I had a lot of imagination. I was interested in images, composition, form and color, but it took me a while to realize it. In high school, I was more interested in the sciences. Then I went to the United States to study computer science – that’s how wrong you can be about yourself – but soon transferred to the visual arts. I devoured science fiction and dreamed of going into space.
AD What connects your childhood memories and adolescent aspirations with your arrival at Hermès?
PAD I wanted to go into space, but most of all, I didn’t want to do what my parents were doing. My enthusiastic father and my mother, who worked with him in her interior design firm, would talk about Hermès every night. I wanted to travel abroad, to do and see other things. Yet, when I was 11 years old, I asked my grandfather if I could learn to sew and work with leather in the workshop, so for six years, every Wednesday, when my friends were playing soccer, I was at Hermès. I was trained by two extraordinary people, Claude Kermann and Francis Cornet, artisans who had started working very young. I was intimidated by them. They taught me to sew with knitting needles. I took to it and practiced it with great enjoyment until I was 17.
We are at the service of beauty, which means that we seek to make it visible and give it form through the objects we make and wear. Pierre-Alexis Dumas
AD In what way do you think Hermès stands out in the luxury industry?
PAD It’s an incredibly principled company that has chosen to work collectively, with my cousin Axel Dumas at its head. It’s a true workshop culture. I think that at Hermès, there is a strong feeling of serving something greater than oneself. I call this philosophy “beauty.” We are at the service of beauty, which means that we seek to make it visible and give it form through the objects we make and wear. It’s the reflection of childhood sensations, of what we all feel when faced with the miracle of nature and life.
AD How do you reinvent yourselves, year after year?
PAD I use a tool that my father passed on to me and that he invented in 1987: the theme. Every year, after defining a theme two years in advance, I take the company’s creative team in a particular direction, using it as a guideline to design Hermès objects with an ever-changing perspective. One example: in 2020, I decided that the theme for the year 2022 would be lightness, which seemed appropriate after the lethargy of the pandemic. That’s how our collections come about.
AD What does the term “empire” mean to you?
PAD The first word that comes to mind is “resistance” because I associate the term “empire” with a thirst for power and domination. It’s the opposite of the mindset I was raised with and the mindset of Hermès, with its fierce independence and culture that allows individuality to express itself.
AD Are you still able to experience wonder?
PAD Constantly. I was raised by someone who was a bit tiresome because he was always saying, “Be amazed.” Everything was a source of wonder for my father. My sister and I still laugh about it. Now I realize that I have become just as tiresome with my own children! They laugh at me.
This interview was first published in Mastermind 11, May 2022, available for purchase here.