PARIS — Hermès International surprised markets on Monday by revealing it was parting ways with designer Christophe Lemaire, but analysts said the decision carried little risk as the brand’s image is strongly tied to timeless products like its Birkin bag.
Lemaire, the brand’s artistic director of women’s ready-to-wear since June 2010, will show his last collection for Hermès in Paris on Oct. 1. The French luxury house is expected to make an announcement regarding his successor as early as this week.
Lemaire suggested that he wanted to dedicate more time to his namesake label.
“Working for Hermès has been a great pleasure: a profoundly enriching experience on both a human and professional level. I am proud of what we have built together. My own label is growing in an important way and I now really want and need to dedicate myself to it fully,” the 49-year-old designer said.
Hermès’ chief executive officer Axel Dumas wished him well.
“I am very grateful to Christophe for the passion with which he has addressed and enriched the expression of our house in women’s ready-to-wear. Under his artistic direction, the métier has renewed its aesthetic and produced very satisfactory financial results,” Dumas said.
Both parties declined further comment.
Mario Ortelli, senior research analyst covering European luxury goods at Bernstein Research, said Hermès is less exposed to the risk of brand value being impacted by the departure of its marquee designer than rivals such as Prada and Burberry.
“It’s a non-news event and I think it’s more of an opportunity for Hermès rather than a risk, because Hermès is a brand with a strong heritage, an image of timeless elegance and a focus on craftsmanship, so it’s quite independent from the designer,” he said, noting the majority of its customers did not know Lemaire’s name.
“Ready-to-wear in any case is not a significant chunk of the revenues of Hermès. So all in all, I do not expect that there will be any impact,” Ortelli added.
The sentiment was echoed by Rogerio Fujimori, luxury analyst at Crédit Suisse. “I think the impact will be relatively modest, because the brand is not that fashion-oriented. It has a very traditional positioning,” he said.
Known for his precise tailoring and oversize outerwear, Lemaire had a relatively low profile before taking over at Hermès, where he showed his first collection in March 2011 to generally positive reviews.
Lemaire started his career with internships at Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler, becoming an assistant to Christian Lacroix before founding his own label in 1991. He joined Lacoste as artistic director in 2000, winning critical acclaim for revamping the brand is famous for crocodile-logo polo shirts.
Hermès has regularly touted the strong progression of sales of rtw and fashion accessories under Lemaire’s tenure, though it doesn’t give any breakdown between sales of garments and other items such as H-logo belts and sandals.
In the first half of 2014, the division’s revenues were up 11.4 percent in reported terms and 15.8 percent at constant exchange rates. This compared with an overall sales rise of 7.9 percent in reported terms and 12 percent at constant exchange rates.
The segment, which includes belts, accessory jewelry, gloves, hats and shoes, accounted for 23 percent of sales at Hermès in the first six months of the year.
Ortelli estimated that rtw makes up around half of the category.
The company has been training the spotlight on its women’s offerings, holding an event in New York City in May that drew guests including Jodie Foster, Martha Stewart and Phillip Lim.
Conceived by Bali Barret, artistic director of Hermès’ women’s universe, the “All About Women” event celebrated the fall rtw collection and luxury products such as fine jewelry, scarves, handbags, footwear, small leather goods and fragrances — all presented in colorful and imaginatively designed environments.
Lemaire’s departure has set the rumor mill spinning on a possible replacement.
“There is the opportunity for the brand to appoint a creative director that is more known and creates a buzz,” said Ortelli, noting that major luxury brands have been opting recently for highly creative designers, such as Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton, Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent.
“I would take the opportunity to go back to what the image was before, having a great name, one of the darlings of the fashionistas, to give the idea that you’ve got an excellent track record in craftsmanship, in elegance and so forth, but you are also really contemporary, you invest in real creativity,” he said.
However, sources told WWD that Hermès was likely to tap a lesser-known talent without a signature collection, rather than a designer well known in the media.
Twice winner of the ANDAM Fashion Award, Lemaire said he felt he had reached a certain maturity and consistency in his career on taking over at Hermès. “I feel a little bit like a wine, actually,” he told WWD in 2010. “For a long time, I was a too-young wine, and I am improving with age.”
Succeeding Jean Paul Gaultier, Lemaire brought to Hermès a sense of minimalist luxury and ease. His women’s looks are sensual but never overtly sexy — in line with his signature collection, characterized by an East meets West aesthetic, with shades of early-Eighties sporty chic.
“I think that it’s time to go back to a more honest vision of fashion, and that there is room for a simpler, more pared-down wardrobe that is better suited to everyday life,” he said. “I have always campaigned to bring quality and, if possible, poetry to everyday life. You don’t change your wardrobe every six months. You build it up over time.”
Lemaire put his own label on hold between 2003 and 2007, returning with the opening of a stand-alone boutique on Rue de Poitou in the Marais district of Paris. He resumed showing on the catwalk in July 2010 on the sidelines of couture week, and has since joined the rtw calendar.