Hermes intends to impose its style in a country ‘with a tradition in beauty’

Hermes, the French luxury clothing and accessories firm – with branches around the world and 70 top-shelf designers which include Jean-Paul Gaultier and Veronique Nichanian – has opened its first store in Athens. «It’s taken us 168 years to open a store in Athens,» says Patrick Thomas, co-director of the company set up in 1837 in Paris by Thierry Hermes to make saddles and other products for horsemen. Run by Jean-Louis Dumas, Hermes enjoys sales around the globe, with just 19 percent of them in France, 17 percent in the rest of Europe, 30 percent in Japan, 16 percent in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, 15 percent in America and 3 percent elsewhere, including in-flight sales. Thomas, along with Gaultier, conducted the official opening of the Athens store at the Citylink shopping center. He told Kathimerini that priority is given to the creativity of designers, so price has little importance. Why do you not seek countries with lower production costs, like many European firms have in recent years? In our case, price does not matter so much. What really matters is value. Price is simply the translation of value. They say that a person without quality knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. People will pay a high price if the value of the product is exceptional. We do need to ensure our products are not overpriced, but the main ingredient of a Hermes object is the value it contains. This value consists of many things, the choice of raw materials, quality, know-how, finishing and design. As long as we insist on making these products different from everything else, I think we have no reason to seek cheaper production bases. It would actually be bad news for the company if we ever have to do that. We have no plans of relocating our production. How do you succeed in so many markets at the same time? Every market constitutes a separate opportunity for us. We try to avoid being merely exporters from France, but importers in each country separately: Japanese importers in Japan, American importers in the US, German importers in Germany and so on. This means we try to find the local features and choose those that are common between Hermes and each country. We also try to develop bonds that are stronger than the simple trade relations; we want a personal relationship with our customers through exhibitions, through contact via our stores. We actually do very little advertising; our main means of communication is personal contacts. How different and also how tough is it running such an enterprise where the role of designers, some of whom are real stars, is so important? Hermes is a creative machine. Creativity lies at the center of our philosophy. Without creativity, Hermes would not have got where it is today. This is the task of the artistic director, to coordinate and harmonize creations so that each product has the Hermes style. We have certain really beautiful creations which eventually never find their way to the shelves because they lack the Hermes style we have inherited from the past. Our customers will instantly recognize a Hermes product, it does not need to bear our logo. The hardest part of the artistic director’s job is to convey the Hermes philosophy and strategy to all those different designers. But how hard is it for managers to pass on their strategies to designers, who I guess have very strong views? Oh, yes, very strong views indeed. The answer is having people who are rational and instinctive at the same time. You cannot have true-bred managers as they will never understand designers. You need people who can combine rational thought with instinct, having an esprit de finesse. They must be able to accept decisions that are not always rational. We do not operate in a rational world. Since I came to Hermes, in 1989, I have found myself considering «they are mad» from time to time and then saying, eventually, «They are not so mad; they are ingenious.» You have opened your first store in Athens. How did you reach this decision and why has it taken you so long? This is a decision we have had in the back of our minds for many, many years. As you know, the name of the company, the surname of its founder, happens to be Greek. The wife of his descendant, Mssr Dumas, is Rena Dumas who is a Greek architect [and has designed the store in Greece]. Nevertheless, it has taken us 168 years to open a store in Athens. No one in the company – I can assure you, no one – can explain why it has taken us that long. Maybe the reason is that as Greece is a country of high culture with a tradition in beauty, Hermes considered it would not be easy to impress its Greek clientele, so it should tread carefully here.