PARIS — It started with a parking lot in Brussels — and ended with a network of impressive exhibitions dotting the globe.

That’s how Stephane Wargnier, corporate communications director at Hermès, relates the luxury firm’s whisper-quiet entry into the art world. About five years ago, Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas and his wife, Rena, had remarked what a pity it was that the Brussels store had such a large space behind it — replete with an impressive glass ceiling —sheltering cars.

“They said, ‘Okay, let’s do a gallery,’” Wargnier recalled. Today, La Verriere, as the gallery is known, is gearing up for its 13th exhibition, opening Jan. 23 and showcasing the work of French artists Anne and Patrick Poirier.

Taking a grassroots, step-by-step approach, Hermès went on to invite art-related proposals from its stores around the world. The end result is galleries, prizes or other art projects in locales as diverse as New York, Tokyo, London, Seoul and Santiago, Chile. In fact, when a Singapore Hermès location bows this spring, it will boast a gallery with its debut exhibition by local art students interpreting the luxury house’s symbols.

“It’s less of a strategy, and more of a desire to create local interest,” Wargnier said of Hermès’ far-flung art activities. “It’s sort of an extra gift for people to see art. And Jean-Louis [Dumas] likes to add life to his stores.”

For example, the Bruce Davidson exhibition of subway photos bowing next week in New York is bound to attract people who otherwise would not “push on the door of Hermès,” he said. “Who knows if they will also look around the store?”

At La Verriere in Brussels, devoted to contemporary and even avant-garde art, director Alice Morgaine confessed that some visitors are surprised when they encounter the former parking lot.

“Sometimes, it’s just customers of the stores who come, while waiting for someone to try something on or for a package to be wrapped,” said Morgaine. “Suddenly, they are startled by something they wouldn’t expect to see at Hermès.”

Among artists featured at La Varriere since it opened four years ago are Daniel Buren, Marin Kasimir and Eric Duyckaerts. Most of them contributed site-specific works.

This story first appeared in the January 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Characterizing Hermès’ sponsorship as a “free act,” Morgaine described its sponsorship of art, without expectation of material benefit, as unique in the fashion world.

Still, she allowed that La Varriere’s contemporary works might foster a broader view of the Hermès aesthetic and values. For her, contemporary, avant-garde or abstract art is not new turf for the firm, which has long collaborated with challenging artists, even in the fashion department, recently with the Belgian designer Martin Margiela and, come fall 2004, with iconoclast Jean Paul Gaultier at the head of women’s ready-to-wear.

Indeed, Dumas has long commissioned artists to do projects within the company, sensing a close link to craftsmanship, and believing art can help push the creative envelope.

“Art is a way to open your eyes,” Wargnier notes. “It’s not always something easy.”