Byline: Bridget Foley / with contributions from Teena Hammond

LOS ANGELES — “My kingdom for a horse.” Forget “Richard III.” Shakespeare might have been foreshadowing the kingdom of Hermes, a domain begun by saddling horses, and where the animal is still regarded with reverence, awe and wit.
Take, for example, the recent opening of the formidable new Hermes store at 434 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Hermes chairman and chief executive officer Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes told 1,600 guests gathered outside that he wanted a horse to be the first customer. After all, what would Hermes be without horses? Enter a central casting equine who, like any Hollywood pro worth his oats, knew how to take a cue, trotting inside across the signature Hermes mosaic tiles. And if the best shot the gathered photographers could get was of Trigger’s behind, so be it; the point was made. A symbol of Hermes’s past had walked into its future.
That ongoing relationship between past and future is a recurring theme of Dumas-Hermes’s conversation, which he relates with philosophical-romantic vigor. “How rooted Hermes is in the past,” he says, guiding a visitor through the store, still bustling with workers just hours before the opening. “How lively it is in the moment, and what a great potential for the future.” He speaks with a passion apparently undimmed by time and familiarity, despite a lifetime immersed in Hermes lore and legacy. But then, this fifth-generation chairman argues that in fact, no danger exists of excessive familiarity.
“Hermes is not just the handbag; it is the hand of the lady searching inside this handbag, the handbag safeguarding her personal world. Hermes is a jewel box, a shelter for dreams.” Of course, a good ceo knows that dreams can be quantified. “It is my hope,” he says, “that people will turn those dreams into so many orange shopping bags, they won’t know why God only gave them two hands.”
Positioned on the former site of Elizabeth Arden between Giorgio Armani and the Art Michael Gallery, it was designed by architect Rena Dumas, Dumas-Hermes’s wife, and replaces the much smaller 1,700-square-foot store that opened in 1972 down the street. At 17,000 square feet, it is the second largest Hermes store in the world, barely smaller than the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore flagship.
“The architecture was so important,” Dumas-Hermes says. “It had to have a simplicity and lightness so that it is not complete without the customer. It is not a place to own, but to share, a place in which to unify the energy coming from the object and coming from the self.”
According to Rena Dumas, capturing the natural California light was a priority. Three archways mark the facade of the four-story structure designed around an atrium with a sliding glass roof. Wire sculptures of horses by artist Marie Christophe are suspended within, casting dramatic shadows that change with the light.
The first floor contains handbags, fragrances, silks, jewelry and watches, equestrian items, men’s clothing — including a made-to-measure area — and shoes, both Hermes and John Lobb, which is fully owned by Hermes and housed in a separate boutique with distinct woodwork and fixtures.
A stone staircase with iron posts and a gold “H” carriage logo leads to the second floor, housing women’s ready-to-wear, shoes, tabletop and the Pippa furniture collection by Rena Dumas, as well as boutiques for Saint-Louis crystal and Puiforcat silver, both also owned by Hermes. Dumas contrasted the prevailing sleek cherrywood cabinetry and furniture with different woodwork and fixtures for the separate boutiques.
The third and fourth floors house a gallery and office space, respectively. The gallery will feature rotating art exhibitions as well as demonstrations by craftsmen and leather workshops for children. The current installation, an exhibition of photographs by Hilton McConnico, pairs photos of musicians with those of Hermes craftsmen, each mirroring the other’s body language. A roof garden blooms with juniper trees and lavender bushes.
Presiding over it all is the youthful presence of King Louis XV, whose grand, gilt-framed portrait astride a feisty horse hangs in the atrium. “An extraordinary painting,” Dumas-Hermes says of the 1727 work by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo and Charles Parrocel. (It’s one of three such portraits, one of which hangs at Versailles.) “We crossed paths last June. What could have been in the head of that young king? He was maybe 14, 15 years old at the time. Maybe that he would somehow find his way to Beverly Hills?”
That’s doubtful, but still, Louis is decked to the nines for that equestrian frolic captured on canvas, making him the perfect poster boy for the horsey French luxury house. When a full-size photo of the painting was brought in during construction, the workers took a liking to him. “The hard hats were calling him Loo-ie; he became Loo-ie the mascot,” Dumas-Hermes recalls. “And Loo-ie has brought us good luck.”
And for the purist Dumas-Hermes, so steadfast in heralding his firm’s craftsmanship, Louis — in all his steel-armored, silk-embroidered, silver-buckled glory — also brought with him an irresistible challenge.
Could Hermes recreate the teen king’s finery today? As part of the opening celebration, Dumas-Hermes enlisted 40 Hermes craftsmen in eight different areas to recreate some of Louis’s exquisite accessories, from his breastplate and shoe buckles to his horse’s bridle. While hundreds of hours of labor went into the various components, the entire project was completed in a month. And finally, six craftsmen made the trip to L.A., where they took up residence on the third floor for a week, giving partiers and shoppers an inside look at their work. One young woman deftly handled a scalpel-type knife, gently scratching the surface of a silk scarf to make velvet. Another embroidered a leather glove with thread thin as an eyelash.
“Why?” Dumas-Hermes posed the question himself. “Just a challenge. At the time of Louis XV, were the craftsmen as skilled, were their tools as sophisticated? I am not so sure, perhaps our work is superior.”
The craftsmen on view were only a part of the opening extravaganza, for which the entire block was closed off. Hermes also had two musical groups, a jazz quintet inside and swing band outside, and in keeping with the horse motif, commissioned “Horses in Hollywood,” a short film directed by Chuck Workman, with more than 100 clips from films and television shows.
Because of its interest in the preservation of artistic crafts, Hermes made a contribution to the Film Foundation, which works to restore historic films. That organization in turn co-hosted the party, represented by Robert Altman.
About 40 Hermes family members flew in from around the world, including Laurent Mommeja-Hermes, president of Hermes in the U.S., Xavier Guerrand-Hermes, who was the firm’s U.S. director when the first Rodeo Drive store opened 25 years ago, and his mother, Aline Hermes, soon to turn 90 and still working the sales floor in Paris.
Dumas-Hermes declines to speak hypothetically about where tomorrow may take Hermes. “Hope, I don’t disclose,” he says. “Knowledge is a different matter.” Regarding retail expansion, he would rather talk square footage than number of doors; a recent renovation increased the selling space of the Paris flagship by 30 percent. But the glossy new West Coast opening is not an isolated event. In August, Hermes opened in the South Coast Plaza, and larger digs on Madison Avenue are a possibility, although Dumas-Hermes says “not yet,” noting among other factors, the difficulty in finding space. But it was more than an available lot that made Rodeo Drive so strategic.
“We have a 25-year presence in Beverly Hills; we have built a strong understanding of life here,” Dumas-Hermes says. “But by expanding here, we are connecting with visitors also, especially from Asia. People from Japan, Taiwan, Korea are very much aware of what Hermes stands for. Here, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, we are on the east coast of Asia, not only on the west coast of America.”
Hermes’s interest in Asia will surface in a different way next month, when the firm sponsors the largest exhibition on the horse ever seen in China. “Heavenly Horses,” featuring works from numerous Chinese museums, opens on Oct. 23 in Hong Kong and then moves on to Beijing.
But perhaps the biggest news at Hermes is in women’s ready-to-wear. Now among the fastest growing of Hermes’s “14 metiers,” women’s ready-to-wear has doubled in five years, with increases of about 20 percent each year. Soon, it will undergo a major change: Martin Margiela will take over as designer, starting with the fall collection, replacing Claude Brouet, who is retiring after more than 20 years. (Veronique Nichanian continues to design the men’s collection, which she has done for 10 years.)
It should be fascinating to watch the Margiela era unfold at Hermes, as throughout the fashion world new designer hysteria shows no signs of letting up. One cannot overstate the hype surrounding Bernard Arnault’s various appointments, and Chloe’s Stella McCartney is the fashion media’s current It Girl.
But it’s almost impossible to imagine Margiela, a true iconoclast and notoriously press wary, playing to the frenzy and posing for the casual photo op. Yet in such a media-centric age, it is equally hard to imagine a major house not wanting — not expecting — that kind of attention.
But according to Dumas-Hermes, grandstanding is simply not the culture of his house. “We didn’t do it for shock, coinciding with the big hiring of so many stars,” he says. “No, we are who we are. And this is not a couture house — we are not looking for a show that doesn’t mean anything, and then have some assistant to design some ready-to-wear.
“The customer is moved by art, design, sensuality. In the middle are the craftsmen. Margiela will be a member of that family — he is a craftsman at heart. We are not asking him to contradict himself. We think his personality is at home with us. We will see.
“Hermes is 160 years old. We are young but we’re also of a certain age. We are not just waiting for a headline to make a success. We are very happy to answer to the press, but we are not looking for starification.
“It comes back to the horse,” Dumas-Hermes continues. “The horse can’t read the papers, but the horse knows damn well when the saddle is badly fitting.”