How Hermès Became a Fashion Powerhouse

Their scarves are considered collector’s pieces.  Their handbags have waiting lists that last for years.  Their saddles are coveted by equestrians the world over.  They’ve remained “in the family” for nearly two centuries.

Thierry HermesYet when Thierry Hermès (pronouced tee-airy air-mehz) moved from Germany to France in 1828, he had no illusions of grandeur.  No, he was just trying to feed his family.  He set up a shop on the Grand Boulevard quarter of Paris in 1837 doing what he did best:  making bridles and harnesses for the carriage trade.  Word of his expertise spread quickly.  By 1855, he was earning prizes, and in 1867, he won a first class metal at the Exposition Universelles in Paris (where Tiffany & Company also had their first big win).

Thierry’s son Charles-Emile took over management in the 1870’s and expanded the line to include beautifully hand-crafted saddles.  Charles-Emile also moved the shop to 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in 1880 (where it remains today) and started actively courting the European elite.  By the turn of the century, along with his sons Adolphe and Emile-Maurice, they were making saddles for kings, presidents, and the Czar of Russia.

Hermes Haute  CourroiesAfter a trip to Argentina in 1892 in which he saw gauchos carrying their equipment in tote bags,  Emile-Maurice introduced a tote-style bag to the line which he called the Haute à Courroies (pronounced oat a cur oo wah) (aka HAC), which loosely translated means “High Belts,” referring to the belt straps that are used to close the bag.  The bag is still one of their best sellers, and has been produced in various sizes over the years, from 40-60 cm.  It’s used primarily as a travel bag.

After Charles-Emile retired and his two sons took over the business in the early 1900’s, they renamed it Hermès Frères (Hermès Brothers) and began to introduce more accessories and apparel into the product line.  Emile-Maurice became smitten with the new-fangled “clasp locker” – later known as the zipper – on his travels, and immediately secured the exclusive rights to use zippers on leather goods and clothing.  He called is the Hermès fermature  (Hermès fastener), and introduced the first leather golf jacket with a zipper in 1918.  Edward, Prince of Wales, was among the first to buy one.

When Emile-Maurice’s wife complained about not being able to find a suitable handbag, Emile-Maurice launched Hermès first handbag collection in 1922.  They introduced scarves in 1928, women’s couture apparel in 1929, the riding jacket in 1938, and both silk ties and perfumes in 1949.

They enjoyed some runaway hits along the way.

First were the scarves.  Like all things Hermès, les carres (the scarves) are meticulously hand-crafted.  Woven from the silk of 250 mulberry moth cocoons – which makes the scarves heavier yet softer than other scarves – each new scarf design takes up to 800 hours to complete.  A new engraving screen is required for each layer of color in the design (up to 36 colors), and each  layer of paint has to dry completely before the next is added.  The scarves are printed side by side on 100 meter-long sheets of silk.  Once the last color layer has dried, the sheets are washed, ironed, and cut out.  One by one, the edges are hand-rolled toward the design and hand-stitched by a seamstress, which takes about 40 minutes per scarf.  The scarves are then scented before packing.

Hermès giraffe scarf Hermès horse scarf Hermès elephant scarf

Because of the artistry of the designs and the detail to craftsmanship, the scarves became a French icon almost immediately.  They’ve become a rite of passage for women who can afford them, and they’re handed down from generation to generation.  25,000 different designs have been produced over the years, and an Hermès scarf is sold somewhere in the world every 25 seconds.

Then there’s the HAC.

Hermes Kelly BagThe gaucho-inspired tote was a hit from the start, but soon, women were asking for it in a smaller size. Emile-Maurice listened, and in 1935 came out with a smaller (32 cm) version with a single strap and called it the Petit Sac Haut a Courroies.  It enjoyed modest success until the fall of 1956, when Grace Kelly was photographed carrying it to hide her pregnancy.  Once the pictures were splashed across the pages of Life Magazine, Hermès was inundated with phone orders for the “Kelly Bag.”  It’s been a top seller ever since.

Hermès Birkin BagThen there’s the Birkin bag, which is also a modified HAC.  The story goes that when singer Jane Birkin found herself sitting on a flight next to Emile-Maurice’s grandson, and CEO of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas, in 1981, she complained that the HAC was not suitable for women’s travel, as it was too big and didn’t have shoulder straps.  Jean-Louis listened, went back to his workshop, and created a smaller version with longer straps.  Like the Kelly bag, the Birkin bag has enjoyed success ever since.

So what about the rumors that there’s a 5 year wait list for bags?  Well, since each bag is made by hand, and it takes a craftsman 70 hours to make each one, yes, there is a waiting list.  The bags are double saddle-stitched, which means that if one stitch breaks, the ones surrounding it can pick up the slack and the bag won’t fall apart.  That’s what quality workmanship is all about, and why Hermès bags – like  Hermès scarves and saddles – are handed down for generations.

With a nod to their beginnings as a harness shop, Hermès adopted their duc-carriage-with horse logo in the early 1950’s, and started using their signature orange boxes.  They continued to expand their product line throughout the 50’s and 60’s, yet for all their apparent success, they were on the verge of collapse in the mid-70’s.  Their competitors blamed their insistence on using natural fibers (silk and leather) as the culprit.

But Hermès refused to compromise. “Quality above quantity” has always been their motto, and instead of watering down their merchandise, they decided to beef up their marketing.

When Jean-Louis Dumas became Chairman and CEO in 1978, he was the 5th generation to run the family firm.  He’d been a part of the business since the mid-sixties, and was determined to make his mark.  When the company began struggling in the mid-70’s he entered into the Bloomingdale’s buyer-training program to learn how people consumed luxury goods.  As soon as he was installed as chairman, the changes began.

Hipper styles.  Eye-catching ads.  Hermès for a new generation.

Hermès scarves Hermès winter ad Hermès summer ad Hermès doll

All ads courtesy of Hermes

They added watches, jewelry, and tableware.  They bought companies, they reduced franchises.  They became a world player.  Annual sales went from US$50 million in 1978 to US$460 million by 1990, mostly due to Jean-Louis’ strategy.  He retired in 2006.  (Sales for 2010 were US$3.4 billion.)

Today,  Hermès continues to enjoy amazing success, selling 30,000 items in 14 categories from leather goods to perfume to stationery.  They continue to keep tight control over all their merchandise, and still manufacture everything themselves.  They have no licensing agreements.

It’s worked for them.  While many family-owned business have come and gone over the years, Hermès remains strong after 175 years.  Like Tiffany & Company, who began the same year (1837), their dedication to quality has dazzled generations of buyers.  No doubt they’ll continue to do so for many more.

To learn more about the company and buy their goods online, visit the Hermès site.


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and creator of Signature Style Blueprint, an ecourse that shows women how to create a signature style using their best features and favorite accessories.  Want to be as memorable as Audrey Hepburn or Jacqueline Kennedy?  Signature Style Blueprint will show you how.

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