Hermes's Pierre-Alexis Dumas on the future of fashion: 'There needs to be a new paradigm'

As Hermes prepares to bring its Carre Club exhibition to Dubai, the label's artistic director talks about radical reinvention

At surface level, it is the epitome of simplicity. An unassuming square of silk that sits at the neck.

But the Hermès scarf, or Carré, is anything but simple. In the hands of the maison's craftspeople and designers, this silk square becomes a multifaceted thing.

It is imbued with tradition and history, and acts as a canvas upon which generations of artists and illustrators have unleashed their creativity. It is, says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of the historic French maison, a book on which stories can be written; and can even serve as a reflection of the world we live in.

Both old and endlessly new

“The Hermès scarf is a window into the world and a mirror of our current contemporary culture, year after year,” Dumas tells me. “If you buy a scarf today, 20 years from now it will be a testimony to this moment in time.”

The Carré is both old and endlessly new. “Though it was first made in 1937, it is still, perhaps, our most contemporary product, because we keep developing new designs and working with young designers,” says Dumas, who is a sixth generation member of the Hermès family and has spent the last 26 years working with the luxury brand.

Over the decades, the Carré has taken on myriad manifestations, as countless artists, illustrators and designers have made their mark on this diminutive fashion icon. It has been rendered in endless hues, and emblazoned with everything from Amazonian scenes and intricate cityscapes to fantastical beings and abstract forms.

“Silk is a very vibrant métier at Hermès, because there are a lot of different crafts involved in making a silk scarf. We feel that, especially in the last 20 years, there’s been a growing general thirst for knowledge and a quest for meaning around luxury products,” says Dumas.

Carre Club comes to Dubai

This desire for knowledge is one reason Hermès is bringing its Carré Club to Dubai in January. Having already made an appearance in Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, Hangzhou and Toronto, this interactive exhibition will be in situ at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue over a six-day period from Friday to Wednesday, January 15 to 20.

Free to the public, the event offers a rare opportunity for visitors to fully immerse themselves in the magical, colourful, whimsical world of Hermès silks. In the Carré Studio, you can meet some of the illustrious artists behind Hermès’s most distinctive creations and watch them as they work in real time; you can appreciate the intricate art of scarf knotting at Carré Knot; learn the tales behind some of the pieces in Carré Stories; watch the skateboarders at Carré Park; sing along to your favourite tunes at Carré OK; capture a memento of your experience at Carré Click; or simply relax at Carré Cafe.

“Carré Club reunites the community of silk lovers and allows people who do not know a lot about this culture to step into it, with a very important notion for us: a twist. And that twist is that anyone who goes to Carré Club should have fun.

“It’s an immersive experience, it’s engaging and there are lots of surprises. You will feel special and you will engage with an accessory that you might just take for granted, where in fact it is a fascinating piece of history, culture and fashion,” says Dumas.

A 'secret passion' for silk

Having started his creative journey at Hermès in the silks department, Dumas admits to having “a secret passion” for the material. “My grandfather started the Hermès scarves in 1937, but we were already selling silk accessories as early as the late 1920s, so that was almost a century ago,” he says.

“Silk has incredible properties. It is delicate, it is light. But my grandfather told me this and I will always remember: ‘The best property of silk is that it is the ideal screen on which to project an image.’”

When pressed to say why he thinks the Hermès Carré has enjoyed such longevity, Dumas offers a two-pronged answer that is immensely practical on the one hand, and inherently philosophical on the other, which, in many ways, sums up the Hermès ethos.

“First of all, you have to go back to very basic facts. We did not invent the scarf. There was a tradition of scarves in many cultures, for a very specific reason – to protect our throats and our heads in our changing seasons. I think that explains why we are still buying scarves today.”

But also: “We serve beauty at Hermès, and we try to create a feeling of beauty, which is the most difficult thing to do. What creates desire, overall, today, is not only that the object gives you a feeling of elegance, but also that it is meaningful. This implies that when you buy an object like a Carré, for instance, you know everything about it: it is like a book, it has a history and a soul.”

But how do you imbue material objects – whether a silk scarf or a leather bag or a paperweight – with a soul? To answer this question, you must first consider Dumas’s singular definition of luxury.

“If I wanted to be philosophical, I would say that today, luxury is how you spend your time and how you use your brain. I think that taking the time to think, reading a book and taking notes, or reading a book with a critical mind, or taking the time to have a proper conversation with someone, are moments that are rare,” he suggests.

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<span>If I wanted to be philosophical, I would say that today, luxury is how you spend your time and how you use your brain</span>

By extension, objects become meaningful when they are the result of critical thought, and when they are the expression of a well-considered idea. “At Hermès, we try to make objects with judgement,” says Dumas. “We are also fashionable, making objects you will use hopefully every day. But everything we make is a reflection of our ideas. Everything is discussed at Hermès, nothing is taken for granted.

“This is something I learned from my father and from my grandfather: every object at Hermès has a name, because this gives the product a soul. All the products we create are like our children, and we care for them and we design them so that they can then take good care of our clients.”

A new paradigm

In 1922, Hermès Freres, which for the best part of a century had been making equestrian equipment, was faced with a future where the automobile would become the primary mode of transport. Famously, Dumas’s great-grandfather, Emile Hermès, was ready to embrace the future and diversify the company.

His elder brother took a more pessimistic view. “His brother, who was then my current age, told him: ‘Our business is dead, we have to sell before it is too late.’ And my great-grandfather answered back: ‘No, if you want to sell then I will buy your shares and I will reinvent the company.’”

He did, and Hermès in its current iteration was born. Dumas believes the company is now on the verge of a similar shift – but not because of Covid-19.

“There needs to be a new paradigm, or ‘paradigma’, which in Greek means an example, or to be exemplary. But that idea of a new paradigm didn’t come in 2020, it came in the year 2000. We knew that the impact of human activity on the planet, on biodiversity and on the climate was serious and that we needed to change. This is not new. The pandemic has just accelerated that, because the consciousness is worldwide.

“The only positive thing about this pandemic is that it will help us to maybe altogether change our habits. And there are many answers to many issues, it just takes time,” says Dumas.

Pierre-Alexis Dumas

He believes that many answers for this new “paradigma” can be found in craft culture. “Craft is our ability as human beings to work with our hands and our minds together and engage with reality. There’s a lot of wisdom in craft culture, because a craftsman knows that qualitative products are rare, so you have to use them sparingly.

“There is a sense of responsibility, in the sense that, if you are going to make objects out of wood and are going to cut down a forest to do so, you need to make sure that you replant that forest so you are able to balance your consumption of wood with your creativity. I think the craft tradition, and Hermès in particular, are very representative of that mindset, and I think that they have a strong contribution to make in a post-industrial world.”

Dumas is more than ready to lead the company on a path of radical reinvention, much like his great-grandfather. “Sometimes you have to make some radical changes, and that is very strong in the Hermès culture. We do not glorify the past, we are not a traditional house. If we have to change because the world is changing, we will change.” 

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