The French luxury house of Hermes dwells in an eclectic universe, which is beautifully and entirely untroubled by the vagaries of fashion. In this exquisite domain, it is entirely normal to take 150 friends, clients, team members, and press on magical adventures, which the maison dubs “moments”, not to celebrate a particular product or a new fashion collection, but a theme.
Each year, Hermes works to one esoteric idea, around which it loosely frames its women’s and men’s collections, silks, jewellery and even fragrances. And while the connection may be obscure to outsiders, it is the single thread that weaves everything together.
For 2023, that theme is “astonishing”, and to explain what that means, Hermes invited guests to the watery landscape of Camargue in southern France. A unique, protected wetland that sits near the city of Arles and the Mediterranean Sea, sandwiched between the arms of the Rhone River delta, it is a remote part of France famous for its unique, semi-wild horses.
The adventure unfurled in total secrecy, with guests given no indication of what to expect, or even where we were going. Told little in advance – save a cryptic request for our shoe size – we were summoned first to Paris, and then to Avignon by train, lugging giant suitcases that showed how little we knew. Told only that the event was outdoors and could be cold, collectively we had prepared for every scenario from a light breeze to snow flurries – both plausible for this region of France.
Such a sizeable group, we were scattered across the villages and towns around Arles – I ended up at the superb Le Saint-Remy hotel in Saint-Remy-de-Provence – where a pair of black wellington boots sat waiting in my room, along with an invitation that opened out into a landscape painting. More ominously, there was also a stick of mosquito repellent.
Still none the wiser, we boarded coaches to wind down increasingly narrow country lanes, still trying to guess our final destination. When a fallen tree brought the caravan to a halt, we climbed out, and were greeted by an 89-year-old rancher called Henri Laurent, astride a stocky white horse.
Then the penny dropped. Whatever Hermes had planned, it clearly started here.
Camargue has a low, flat terrain, where soil gives way to ponds, and hedgerows are replaced with shrubs, buckthorns, juniper and wild rosemary. The sky above is vast and uninterrupted. As we trundled over the next round of fields on the back of a tractor trailer – seated on chairs and benches – escorted by riders on horseback, it all suddenly made sense. A brand that began its journey in 1837 as a harness maker to the gentry of France, would of course want to bring us to see free-roaming wild horses in Europe.
Horses are central to everything Hermes does; even its logo is a horse and carriage, so a visit to see the fabled, ancient Equus would be perfectly in keeping with orahe low-key house eccentricity.
Suddenly, a glider appeared, as if it had crash-landed into the marshy terrain, with an ejected “passenger”, the German futurist folk singer Lyra Pramuk, who was dressed in a parachute and harness. With her were two dancers and a piper, the latter of which led us across another field, towards seating that rose up out of the water.
Through this surreal landscape we splashed, grateful for the supplied gumboots, as the music intensified, with Pramuk’s voice low and beautifully eerie. Using only sounds – she has a vocal range that belies her slight frame – her voice was twisted and manipulated electronically into slow, baleful refrains that drifted across the water.
As the sun began to set, the distant yells of riders signalled the arrival of the Camargue horses galloping en masse towards us. The herd was run past us several times, charging through the water at our feet and turning each time into the setting sun. It was an achingly beautiful experience.
The choir accompanying Pramuk then formed a human arena on the bank opposite us, around a troupe of horses called Hasta Luego. In something akin to ballet, the horses danced for us, before being replaced by acrobatic riders, who seemed devoid of fear. Swinging around and out of their saddles, dismounting and reseating at a cantor, the solo female rider hung upside down, her head inches from the clattering hooves. Coupled with ethereal music, this was becoming the stuff of surreal dreams.
The event was put together by a creative collective from Marseille called La Horde, who fuse dance, music and performance. Judging by the look on the faces of those around me, all of us – the Hermes team included – were equally transfixed.
Fascinatingly, there was not a single piece of branding on show, and as for the famous orange packaging, the only hint of the shade on show was the sky, the sun setting in waves of tangerine, coral and apricot as if on cue. If you had told me at this point that Hermes had pre-arranged the heavenly spectacle unfolding above our heads, I would not have been the slightest bit surprised.
As the fabled white horses were led through the water a final time, I felt transported. As if inside a magical film, surrounded by spectral music, it was an enchanted, mythical experience.
As it ended, and the gathering leapt to its feet in applause, I wiped away water – or was it tears? – realising I had witnessed something truly unique. It was Hermes’s artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas who summed it up best. At dinner later that evening, which was set up inside a bull ring, he explained that “astonishment is a human quality, it’s the ability to wonder”. Of the venue and the incredible talents shown, “we wanted to place the horse at the centre of this event. Especially as the Camargue has such astonishing horses,” Dumas said.
He explained that each year was an opportunity for Hermes to “surprise ourselves and to reinvent ourselves”, while diving deep into the values at its core. This year, he went on to say, was a clear continuation of that. “We are craftsmen who make products by hand and with care, and what is most surprising is that so many people want to buy them. That is astonishing.”
As we wandered home, slightly dazed, and still drifting in an empyrean scape, I was at a loss to describe what I had witnessed, explaining the sheer scale of what had unfurled in front of us.
Only later did the right word come to me. And the word? Astonishing.