For a man who's in charge of one of the world's most coveted, not to mention, mysterious luxury brands, Hermès CEO Axel Dumas is refreshingly candid about his family owned company. Here's what he had to say when he spoke to Miroslava Duma in an exclusive Buro 24/7 interview:
Your background is in banking. How did you then decide to finally join the family business? It might have seemed like an obvious step by others, but maybe not by you?
To be frank, I had never imagined myself working for Hermès. It was mostly the work of my uncle, who was the CEO, and the work of my mother, who was the managing director of production. It was their thing and quite frankly it took up a lot of family time already! [laughs] My first step at Hermès was when I was fourteen; I tried to learn how to stitch. I couldn't even stitch in a line.
So you were like an intern?
Yes, an intern. I'm very bad at stitching you know. I can't stitch to save my life, but I can polish pretty well [laughs]. After I finished studying political science I really wanted to go to China. I applied for a lot of jobs in China and the only one for me was banking.
Why did you want to spend time in China in particular?
I wanted something different from New York or London, something a little bit more exotic. I went to China for two years, then I worked in Paris for a bank. Afterwards I spent four years in New York. When I was in New York, my uncle Jean-Louis Dumas, who was then CEO, came to see me. He was starting to get sick and he asked me if I would like to join the company. I have to admit that I was quite surprised but I said yes.
It was a great achievement to keep Hermès independent. How did the company and the team manage to do that?
Let's look at things in perspective: I'm the sixth generation of the family, so Hermès has been part of the family for almost 180 years. Why is it important that it's a family-owned company? It's probably because we want to keep the values of Hermès alive and true - that craftsmanship, that quality and that spirit that exists at Hermès. There is no marketing department, there's freedom of buying and there are a lot of things which are a little bit crazy. That's why we were fighting for Hermès' independence in terms of shareholding. Also we knew that we didn't want to depend on banks so we tried to be cautious.
In your view, what are the most important things when managing a company like Hermès?
I think there are two things that are the most important. The first is respecting and maintaining your heritage, which for us means retaining very strong craftsmanship and respecting our history. And the second thing is not to be afraid to change what needs to be changed in order to remain relevant in the contemporary world. We are over 180 years old, but we have always managed to change and reinvent ourselves.
The first person in the company who reinvented himself was Émile Hermès. When he was 27 years old he decided that Russia was a big market and he went there. It took him two years to go to St Petersburg and Moscow and then he started to sell to the Tsar - it was our first foreign success. The second thing, which was less good for our business, was that the car was replacing the horse. It was a big issue for Hermès, because we had been selling to the equestrian market for one hundred years. And Émile was the one who reinvented Hermès by keeping the craftsmanship and adding women's bags, silk, ties and ready-to-wear.
Hermès was one of the first to launch an e-commerce platform back in 2001, almost 15 years ago, when everybody was talking about the Internet as the future, but no one was really doing anything significant about it. How does Hermès find balance between tradition and innovation in technology?
It's always a fine line. But I think that digital is not a matter of innovation, it's a matter of looking where the world is going and trying to embrace it instead of resisting it. When we launched an e-commerce platform in 2001, it was the decision of my uncle. My cousin Pierre-Alexis and I were young, we were saying that we need to look at the Internet and what the others are doing. Everyone was pushing for the creation of a website to tell the Hermès story. And he would say: "I don't need to explain the story of Hermès, people need to live it and feel it. What I am is a merchant and we have a store, so what we are going to do is to open a store". We were the first ones to do it and we did it on a very small scale in the beginning - only in the US, selling perfume and ties.
What I find funny is that the discussion now is similar to what was happening in the 70s. At the time it was about 'should we go international or not?' And people were saying there was no need, because the world was coming to Paris, and it would be too risky. Fortunately for us the decision was 'Let's go'! And I think it is the same with digital. You can say that our stores are doing well, why should we go digital, is it a luxury experience? etc. But in 10 or 20 years people will want to have a relationship with you in the digital realm, be it for buying, for communication or just for information. So we need to do it now and do it with our own philosophy and style.
Can you tell us a little bit about the collaboration with Apple that everyone is talking about? I thought it was genius.
We have always had a lot of respect for Apple and, vice versa, Jonathan Ive has a lot of Hermès objects.
He is considered one of the greatest creative minds in history, so for him to collaborate with Hermès is a great compliment.
As a CEO I don't like collaboration and it was the same for Apple. When we met with Jonathan Ive we discussed our philosophies and views and they were very similar. So we decided to give it a try. I must say that the product itself is very beautiful, it combines the craftsmanship and the sharpness of Hermès design and Apple technology. That's how we launched it. It was not a worldwide master plan for global domination; it was about mutual respect and admiration, about making a product. What is important about Apple, and that's what we share, is that they care about objects and they make things that are quite addictive, especially to me, as you may have noticed [laughs]. If you spend 90 per cent of your day with an iPhone, it is important. They still care about typography and details.
We had a discussion with Jonathan Ive and with the craftsmen about changing the watch slightly. The sensor really needed to be on your wrist, but it didn't allow you to move as it's usually done. It was a very old craftsman, a lady, who found the best solution. I think we have many shared values with Apple. I respect them yet they're a very different company. The purpose was not to make something cool; it was to have fun and to try to create a beautiful product.
How important is social media to you?
I think for Hermès it's something that we can still improve on because we are always very cautious about having a very particular message. On social media communication is back and forth. You can't control it as much. Sometimes it can be a bit unsettling for a brand. We need to find our own way to communicate. A part of what we do is to add to the mystery. We don't show everything. My uncle says that you don't show the kitchen of a good restaurant. We need to find the right balance, but I do think with social media we still need to do better. We have an Instagram, which is much more visual, and we are a very visual company - this has opened a new avenue for us.
Once in the Hermès factory I saw some very talented craftsmen in white coats making Kelly bags and silver bracelets by hand. And I saw the film, which I thought was amazing. I think you need to show people because everybody understands that Hermès stands for the highest quality handmade products, but when you see it and witness it, you re-think the whole process and your perception of the brand changes.
I think we have three things that make us very different. The first one comes from Jean-Louis Dumas - it's the care we put into our manufacturing. His view was not to show it to anyone else. He said: "You need to have a beautiful setting to do beautiful things", and that's why we care a lot about the architecture of our buildings.
The second thing, is that we always try to keep it at a human scale. That's why we don't say that it's a factory but a manufactory. We try to keep the number of staff at 200-250 people, because we believe that if the manager doesn't know everyone by name it becomes something different.
And the third important thing: apart from the cutting, every bag is made by one craftsman only. Of course, we could have it a bit more standardised, with each craftsman doing his stage of the process. But for us it's very important that one person makes a bag and signs it at the end. It shows our respect for the craftsmen and it gives the product more soul. Some [craftspeople] get attached to their bag and they have to let it go. It's very funny when a bag comes back for polishing and they find that it's a bag that they've made - they get quite emotional. You cannot quantify that, but it's part of the magic of Hermès.
What you've created with the bags especially, is really amazing. The demand is astonishing.
Yes, but still when I [hear of people lining up], I cringe a little bit. At the time when huge demand for the bags began to appear, we were much smaller, so we were very excited. I remember I was quite young and there were no waiting list. It was done totally organically. While everyone was trying to deal with the issue, the waiting list was created on desirability, but it was not something planned at all. It's strange to see other companies launching bags and saying "there is a waiting list" from day one. We did not compromise on the product itself - people are ready to wait because when they have their bag, they will have a genuinely exceptional bag.