Last month, fashion executive Bob Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès U.S., shared his insights and experience at the Savannah College of Art and Design for the class of 2019 where attendees totaled 9,000, and included SCAD graduates, professors, friends and family members. The SCAD Class of 2019 is the largest in the university’s history, and this year, SCAD achieved record enrollment of nearly 15,000 students across all of its international locations.
SCAD’s president and cofounder, Paula Wallace, said Chavez and his brand embody “many SCAD ideals: a storied history rooted in France, the finest accoutrements of equitation, and [the knack to design] perhaps the most iconic accessory of the last 200 years” — the classic Hermès scarf. SCAD noted that it helped codesign a limited-edition collection of Hermès scarves a few years ago, for a special brand collaboration.
Chavez began his role as ceo of Hermès U.S. in 2000, and has opened 28 new Stateside Hermès stores in only two decades, introducing two generations — both Millennials and Gen Z — to the 182-year-old heritage brand. Here, Wallace and Chavez discuss the state of luxury, Chavez’s personal story and their perspectives on the future of fashion retail.
Paula Wallace: Welcome to SCAD. You showed us the true meaning of luxury at commencement. Thank you for encouraging our students to take the “road less traveled.”
Bob Chavez: You know I never leave home without my Robert Frost.
P.W.: Speaking of Frost, I’m thinking of your own first encounter with luxury — at the legendary Frost Brothers store. Can you share that story?
B.C.: When I was in high school in San Antonio, we used to go to the movies at North Star Mall. After the movie I would linger behind and slip away to Frost Brothers, the high-end luxury store.
P.W.: Fashion and film make a beautiful couple.
B.C.: Back then, Frost Brothers was heaven. From the moment I walked in, I tried to absorb everything. I stopped at the men’s fragrance counter and spritzed myself with Aramis, the most fantastic fragrance. Frost Brothers was known for that personal touch inherent in a true luxury experience. There was just something so alluring to me about that kind of luxury. I wanted to be a part of it.
P.W.: Your destiny was calling to you, even then.
B.C.: Most definitely. I didn’t know it, but yes.
P.W.: You described how you grew up in San Antonio, Texas — which sounds so distant from the world of 19th-century French couture in which Hermès was born. How does your Texas upbringing inform your leadership of one of the world’s elite brands?
B.C.: Great question. When I interviewed with the Dumas family, who are the leaders of the Hermès brand, they instantly put me at ease. We talked about art, fashion, literature — everything except my work qualifications. The leadership of Hermès is very down-to-earth, and they care deeply about their people. That reminded me of my own family.
Our parents taught us discipline and respect, as well as kindness and openness toward others. To this day, I maintain those lessons learned and do my best to listen to, learn from, and respect all of the people I am fortunate to work with. Hermès prides itself on its familial, friendly work environment. From the many times I heard “SCAD family” during commencement, I know this university holds itself to the same standard. That’s special.
P.W.: SCAD is family. That means all ages, all eras, and needing to stay relevant on all fronts. On that note, what’s your perception of how high fashion has evolved as we’ve moved into the digital era? What advice would you give to the new generation of designers, entrepreneurs and influencers?
B.C.: The scope of media platforms and the advent of social influencers have changed the landscape significantly. There are so many opportunities for brands to tell their story and to engage directly with audiences via mobile and social media.
P.W.: You know, any graduate from our B.F.A. in social strategy and management might be the perfect candidate to help extend Hermès’ engagement with customers on social.
B.C.: Social is key.
P.W.: The history of Hermès is epic — spanning nearly two centuries. What’s your take on the evolution of luxury retail looking ahead toward the next 10 to 20 years?
B.C.: What remains constant across time and media is the need for a distinct point of view, consistency and commitment to quality. Hermès [ready-to-wear] aims to create timeless pieces that transcend fashion trends, leveraging the best quality materials and hand-crafted details.
P.W.: Any predictions?
B.C.: Well, first, I believe in-store retailing is here for a while. Hermès has over 300 boutiques worldwide, but we use a limited distribution strategy so that guests who take the trip to visit feel that they’re approaching something rare, something special.
Something we’ve introduced recently are pop-up showcases, which feature a specific facet of our brand. We’ve done a silk pop-up, a footwear pop-up, and they’ve done quite well. The pop-up exhibits travel from city to city and feature interactive modules. In one we did, guests could watch our artisans at their craft, pose for a sketch portrait, and step into special telephone booths where they listened to the history and secrets behind the Hermès brand. This new kind of luxury experience has been wildly popular, and always attracts new clientele.
P.W.: Our students are very into the pop-up concept. They’ve designed several pop-up experiences with clients at SCADpro.
B.C.: The students I’ve met are fantastic. So much energy. So many great ideas.
P.W.: Our graduates love you. They were cheering you on during the ceremony. I especially loved hearing how you invited one of your former high school teachers to your own college graduation.
B.C.: It was such a wonderful moment to be able to share my college graduation with my high school advisor who pushed me to go further. I am the ceo of Hermès USA, but as a student I had no particular ambition to be in luxury or fashion. My main goal in high school was to become a third-grade school teacher.
P.W.: Same. That was my goal, too. I taught elementary school for a decade before I created SCAD.
B.C.: I loved educators and wanted to be one. And one educator stepped in and guided me to that divergent path we mentioned earlier. Perhaps somehow he saw that part of me I didn’t yet recognize myself — the young man who gazed at finery and misted with Aramis. And just like he promised, he came to my graduation from the university I never thought I could attend.
P.W.: The best teachers stay with us, forever. It’s a heroic profession. What you do for students echoes across their lives.
B.C.: I have tried to do the same for so many of the talented people I have been fortunate enough to work with throughout my career. Encourage, support and inspire. So, in that way, I still get to be an educator; and I think I would have told a young Bob that same thing when I was just beginning. If you have a heart for teaching, you can always be an educator.
P.W.: Hear, hear. I like to remind our staff that everyone at SCAD is an educator, not only the professors. Our organizations share much in common. Education is forever, and Hermès is timeless, too. Some values never go out of vogue.
B.C.: Hermès will remain committed to longstanding traditions of hand-craftsmanship and making high-quality products that stand the test of time. The strength and longevity of Hermès is rooted in creativity and artistry, which allows collections to evolve with the needs and desires of new generations of discerning clients.
P.W.: The best of your brand’s history endures for tomorrow’s customers. Beautifully said. Thank you again for being a part of the SCAD story today.
B.C.: I love it here. When can I come back?
Paula Wallace is the president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, a private, nonprofit, accredited university with more than 100 academic degree programs. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, SCAD has more than 55,000 alumni and students from its locations in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; Hong Kong; Lacoste, France; and online via SCAD eLearning. Wallace conceived and created the SCAD Museum of Art, SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, and signature events including the SCAD Savannah Film Festival and SCAD FASHWKND. Her publications include children’s books, interior design books, and two full-length nonfiction books, The Bee and the Acorn: A Memoir, and SCAD: The Architecture of a University.