Jean-Louis Dumas, Former Hermès CEO, Dies

Charismatic executive Jean-Louis Dumas was chief executive officer at Hermès International from 1978 to 2006.

PARIS — Jean-Louis Dumas, chief executive officer at Hermès International from 1978 until his retirement in 2006, died Saturday morning after a long illness, an Hermès spokeswoman confirmed. He was 72 years old.

This story first appeared in the May 3, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

An official cause of death has yet to be revealed, but it was widely known that Dumas suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

A fifth generation descendent of the company’s founder, Thierry Hermès, Dumas helmed one of the world’s most admired luxury brands for almost three decades, steering it through a period of rapid growth and global expansion.

A charismatic executive with a playful streak, Dumas was also artistic director of the French brand and ensured product categories ranging from leather goods, scarves, tableware and jewelry were infused with the brand’s much-admired style.

Dumas was also an enthusiastic sketch artist, forever with a notebook at hand to scribble whimsical drawings. At the last shareholders’ meeting before his retirement, Dumas inserted in each annual report a sketch of himself riding a bicycle off into the horizon.

He also shined as an amateur photographer and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie here mounted an exhibition of his work in 2008.

“He was very open creatively, and at the same he was a brilliant businessman,” Jean Paul Gaultier, the designer of women’s ready-to-wear at Hermès since 2004, said Sunday. “He was someone of brilliance.”

Gaultier recalled that when Hermès took a 35 percent stake in his company in 1999, it was at the time when the designer’s reputation as a “wild child,” as the maker of skirts for men and cone-bra dresses for women, was running full-throttle. In a sign of what Gaultier described as his healthy sense of humor, Dumas draped a signature Gaultier sailor sweater over his sweater, while the designer sported, uncharacteristically, an Hermès necktie.

Similarly, when iconoclastic Belgian designer Martin Margiela decided not to renew his contract as women’s rtw designer at Hermès in 2003, Dumas called Gaultier for advice on possible successors. Initially, Gaultier said he gave names such as Ann Demeulemeester and Hussein Chalayan as potential candidates, before realizing he was interested in the job himself.

He organized a meeting with Dumas to deliver the suggestion. “He flashed a big smile,” Gaultier recalled, praising Dumas for his unwavering commitment to quality, to rarity, to intelligent design and to esteem for others.

“We love tradition, but we are not tradition bound,” Dumas said at the time of Gaultier’s appointment. “The challenge is to create a continuation of the Hermès style, which has the quality of being fashion and nonfashion at the same time.”

Born on Feb. 2, 1938 in Paris to Robert Dumas and Jacqueline Hermès, Dumas studied law and political science at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies.

In 1963, Dumas joined Bloomingdale’s in New York as an assistant buyer. A year later, he joined the family business, and in 1971 became general manager. He assumed the role of ceo following the death of his father and then-chairman, Robert Dumas, in 1978, when revenues stood at around $50 million.

Once at the helm, Dumas spied many areas of potential in the company, established in 1837 as a maker of fine harnesses and saddles for the carriage trade. He knew he needed to develop the business internationally and create new products while maintaining harmony with existing ones.

Dumas accomplished this by opening flagships worldwide, including the company’s prized Tokyo tower. From 1986 to 1996, the company’s annual sales increased by an average of 24 percent.

Last year, Hermès posted sales of 1.91 billion euros, or $2.67 billion, up 8.5 percent. The firm is slated to disclose first-quarter sales on Thursday.

Dumas was very involved in developing the house’s women’s rtw collection, having hired Eric Bergère in the early Eighties to wake up the company’s quiet fashion line.

In 1988, Dumas surprised the fashion world by hiring Claude Brouet, long-time fashion and beauty editor at French Marie Claire, as Hermès’ women’s fashion director. Charged with developing a full fashion collection while still honoring the company’s trademark equestrian looks, Brouet hired a team of designers rather than pursuing a single, or “star” designer, as other luxury houses were doing.

One of those designers was Tomas Maier, currently creative director of Bottega Veneta. At Hermès, Maier was a principal designer for women’s rtw from 1988 until 1997.

Maier described his tenure beside Dumas as a “wonderful and enriching experience. I learned many things from him, but the most valuable lesson was that creating new design takes both passion and a great deal of patience. Timeless design is not always understood immediately. It requires patience to allow people time to understand it. This is something that has always stuck with me.”

Rather than pursue an acquisitions spree in the Nineties, as other European luxury players did, Dumas made selective investments in suppliers. The company purchased holdings in Saint-Louis Crystal and Puiforcat, a silver company, and acquired British luxury shoemaker John Lobb.

He characterized the stake in Gaultier, along with a 31.5 percent shareholding in German camera firm Leica in 2000, as a means to engage in “investment fraternity” and learn from others.

Hermès went public in 1993, but the family still maintains control of about three-quarters of the company’s shares. “The main idea is that yesterday’s ship is ancestral and it is our duty to conserve it even though we did not build it. Today, every family member is responsible for one of the oars,” Dumas once said.

“Independence is the key word,” Dumas told WWD in 2002. “We are surrounded by big groups. They have their achievements and they have their problems. We try to stay at a distance. Independence has always been the legacy of my family.”

Several members of the three family branches — Dumas, Puech and Guerrand — work in the company today in various capacities. Dumas’ son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, assumed the reins as artistic director following his father’s retirement, with his niece, Pascale Mussard, serving as joint artistic director for a brief period.

Pierre-Alexis Dumas once described his father as “a man absolutely driven by creativity. That’s why he [couldn’t] help putting his nose in every aspect of the business.”

Dumas established a tradition of dedicating every year at Hermès to a certain theme: 2002 was the Year of the Hand, for example. This tradition continues to this day.

“We are in the business of quality, but the [kind of] quality you can feel and look at and sense — and not only intellectually because the product is expensive,” he said in a 2002 interview.

Indeed, Dumas glorified the artisans at Hermès, keeping the ateliers for custom saddles above its flagship on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, for example. “The hand is the rival of the mind,” he once declared.

“I loved him. He was the most incredible man I ever met in a company,” said Pierre Hardy, artistic director of Hermès’ footwear and, since 2002, fine jewelry lines. “He was so quick-minded and you could never predict where he was coming from. That was his main quality: His point of view was always unexpected. For example, it was Dumas who came up with the idea for me to design a jewelry line for Hermès. I got a call from him one day proposing the idea, thought about it for, like, two seconds and said yes, and the decision was made. That was typically him. His decisions were ironclad, but light at the same time.”

Dumas handed over the reins to current ceo Patrick Thomas, a non-family member.

“He was a man who had an extraordinary talent for both creation and commerce, he was a poet and a grocer at the same time,” said Thomas, who added that Dumas was never without his sketchbook. “He put artisanal luxury back on the map. He had a true passion for creation and unequaled perseverance. He made Hermès what it is today.

Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, said, “He certainly was the most experienced executive, but at the same time a brilliant, extremely generous, unique man.”

Dumas was pre-deceased by his wife Rena, an architect whom he married in 1962 and who was responsible for the design off Hermès stores around the world. She died last year.

Dumas was decorated as a commander of the Legion of Honor and as an officer des Arts et des Lettres. He once served as president of the men’s wear section of the Chambre Syndicale and was also a member of the French Automobile Club and Maxim’s Business Club.

Dumas is survived by his two children, Sandrine, an actress and director, and Pierre-Alexis Dumas.

Details about services were not available at press time.