Hermès: A Brief History

Hermès: A Brief History

The history of Hermès can be traced back to the early 19th century. Thierry Hermès was born in 1801 in the French town of Crefeld (now known as Krefeld, in present-day Germany); at the time, Crefeld was encompassed under the Napoleonic empire, and so Hermès was born with French citizenship. Interestingly, the town of Krefeld is now known as 'Stadt wie Samt und Seide', translated to English as ‘the City of Velvet and Silk,’ derived from its history in textiles and fabrics. Thierry was the sixth child of innkeeper parents: French father, Thierry Hermès, and German mother, Agnes Kuhnen. 



Having lost his parents and much of his family to disease and war, Thierry moved to France as an orphan at the age of 20. 

Making use of his talent in leather craft, he took on work as a harness-maker in Paris. 16 years later at the age of 36, Thierry Hermès opened the house of Hermès in Paris in 1837. The house of Hermès began manufacturing equestrian leather goods (such as horse harnesses and saddles) from its location on the Rue Basse du Rempart, within the Grands Boulevards neighborhood in Paris. At this point in time, horses were somewhat of a luxury, which could only be afforded by the wealthy. Hermès’ products were squarely directed toward the European nobility. Hermès distinguished himself from the conception of his business in that he took great pride in understanding his customers’ desires, specifically their penchant for simplicity and lightness in their leather goods. 


His high-quality wrought harnesses and bridles for the carriage trade were particularly popular, and won him several awards, including the first prize from the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. Word spread of his products’ remarkable style and quality, and soon Paris’ high society were among his most loyal customer base. Notable patrons include Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. 


In catering to his equestrian clients, balancing aesthetics with durability, Hermès went on to outperform his competitors in winning the Universal Exhibition for the second time in 1867. On this occasion, visitors exceeded 15,000,000 and some notable inventions exhibited at the event included the hydraulic elevator and reinforced concrete. Consequently, Hermès’ accomplishment in winning the First Class Medal of the Exposition for his harnesses garnered popularity and esteem for his products within France. One key differentiator of Hermès products was the insistence on use of the traditional saddle stitching method which could only be performed by hand. This saddle stitching resulted in more durable stitches and products with much greater attention to detail. 


It was 11 years on from the Universal Exhibition win that Hermès changed hands. Upon the passing of Thierry Hermès, his son Charles-Emile Hermès inherited the company. Charles’s major contributions include the move of the Hermès shop to its current location, where it stands 141 years on: 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris. Charles continued in his fathers’ footsteps, perfecting the sellier trade and focusing on further expanding retail sales internationally to elite clients in Europe, Russia, Asia, and the Americas. 


Charles-Emile also worked with his sons, Adolphe and Emile-Maurice to introduce the innovative Haut A Courroies bag, which was marketed toward equestrian riders — a bag to carry their saddles. This product marked a shift which would become more apparent in coming years: the expansion of Hermès’ leather goods collection. Charles decided in 1902 to retire from overseeing the company, passing it down to his two sons (Adolphe and Emile), who changed the name to Hermès Frères (Hermès Brothers). 16 years after Charles Hermès’ departure, the company saw another product innovation that would markedly change its trajectory: the creation of the first leather golf jacket with a zipper, which was made for Edward, Prince of Wales. 


Around this time, the brothers oversaw the decline of the saddlery industry, prompting Adolphe’s decision to separate from the company. Emile, on the other hand, had faith that the business could forge a new path, so he purchased his brother’s shares in the company. 


As a cause of the creation of the iconic leather golf jacket with a zipper in 1918 and Hermès’ exclusive rights agreement, the zipper became synonymous with the Hermès brand. Colloquially known as the “fermeture Hermès,” and translated to English as the “Hermès fastener,” this unique feature presented an opportunity for Hermès to expand their product collection. In widening their range of offerings, Emile focused on the needs of the French upper class — taking inspiration from his wife’s complaint that she could not find a leather bag to her liking. In 1922, Emile created a smaller version of the Haut à Courroies, which included the patented zipper design. Shortly thereafter, Hermès went on to introduce jewelry to their offerings in 1927, sandals in 1928, and the first women’s couture apparel (which includes bathing suits) in Paris in 1929. 


The next major product innovation came 8 years later in 1937 with the creation of the Hermès silk scarf. To this day, this is one of the most iconic products of the brand, with an Hermès scarf being sold every 20 seconds. Its notoriety is not just recent: immediately upon release, the scarf was an instant hit with celebrities, being sported by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, perpetuating its perceived exclusivity and allure. 


From 1938 to 1951, Hermès continued its brand expansion by launching its perfume division, riding jacket, and Chaine d’Ancre bracelet. 


While experiencing a shortage of cream-coloured boxes in 1942, the packaging supplier for Hermès resorted to sending Hermès some leftover orange boxes. Hermès’ iconic packaging remains orange to this day. 


Around this time, the business then changed hands again, as Emile-Maurice Hermès passed away after an incredible 49 years driving the company’s international growth, recognition, and product innovations. Emile’s departure marked the passing of the company to his son-in-law, Robert Dumas Hermès (husband of Jacqueline Hermès). Dumas would go on to be responsible for several iconic products, like the Kelly bag.


After this succession took place, Hermès found themselves at the centre of further controversy. In 1956 the princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, was pictured carrying the Hermès Sac à Dépêches to cover her pregnant stomach. After this photo was released, hundreds of women flooded into Hermès stores all over the world asking for ‘the Kelly Bag’ - and as such it became known. The Kelly bag, made of Epsom leather and crafted with a single rolled leather top handle (with an optional shoulder strap), now comes in three sizes, and is not to be confused with the similarly popular Birkin bag (named after British actress Jane Birkin) which has two handles. The Epsom leather (used for the Kelly bag) was characterized by a scratch resistant exterior, a fine grain that is easy to clean, and a light-weight feel. 


A decline in business plagued the House in the 1970s. A pivotal time for the brand, Hermès struggled to match the demand that its competitors enjoyed. Some argue this was because of Hermès’ insistence on using natural materials (versus man-made) for its products — allowing for less product innovation and increasing production times. This lull in business culminated in an instance of a two-week lapse in orders, in which Hermès workrooms were entirely silent. In 1978, the company saw Jean-Louis Dumas (son of Robert Dumas-Hermès) become chairman of the company, and he decided to concentrate on silk, leather goods, and ready-to-wear products. Dumas hired designers like Eric Bergére and Bernard Sanza to revive the apparel collections (resulting in the python motorcycle jacket and ostrich-skin jeans), while he also took this opportunity for the brand to launch its watch subsidiary, La Montre Hermès. 


The early 1980’s brought the introduction of the Birkin bag, which was conceived during a chance encounter between then CEO Jean-Louis Dumas and Jane Birkin on an Air France flight when Jane accidentally spilled the contents of her bag. She complained how difficult it is to find a quality, everyday leather handbag. In collaboration with Birkin, Dumas created the Birkin bag. Like the Kelly, the Birkin also comes in a variety of sizes and variations. The 25cm. 30cm. And 35cm. sizes are most common. 40cm. And larger variants are generally considered to be travel bags, the largest of which are Haut à Courroies (HAC) Birkins. On the other end of the spectrum we have the 15cm. “Micro” Birkin. Unlike the Kelly, it is meant to be carried in the crook of the arm, as a chic tote bag. The Birkin is the most exclusive of all the Hermès bags, with only a limited amount in circulation, in addition to an average waitlist period of 6 years. Not only is the waitlist extensive, but the process to reserve a spot on the waitlist requires an extensive relationship with Hermès, often requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in retail spending. Each Birkin is entirely crafted by hand by a single Hermès artisan, requiring a minimum of 18 hours of the artisan’s time per bag. Since their creation, Hermès Birkin bags have been widely considered to be the the most desirable of leather goods — the ultimate handbag. In May 2017, Christie’s in Hong Kong again broke the world record for the most expensive bag ever sold at auction when a white crocodile Hermès Himalaya encrusted with 10.23 carats of diamonds realised £293,000.



Jean-Louis Dumas’ strong leadership continued into the 1980s. During this time, Hermès also acquired major stakes in prestigious French glassware, silverware, and tableware manufacturers, such as St. Louis, Perigord, and Puiforcat. These acquisitions (in addition to expanded product ranges with leading designers), meant by 1990 the Hermès catalog included 30,000 pieces, with materials like porcelain and crystal now included in the business’ inventory. This product expansion placed Hermès in a strong position for the coming decade, in which tableware would feature as a leading segment of their business. 


In 1993, Hermès officially went public on the Paris Bourse (Parisian stock exchange). 425,000 shares were floated at 300 Francs (US $55). 


Four years later, Jean-Louis hired Belgian designer Martin Margiela to supervise women’s ready-to-wear. Margiela was known for his iconoclastic beliefs, and so at first the partnership seemed counterintuitive to critics. But Margiela and Hermès shared one unifying belief: they would create clothes that worked for the women who purchased them, not just to create friction (and generate press) on the runway. Margiela’s radical deigns included seamless sweaters that could be worn inside out, coats that had removable collars and closures. Margiela focused on creating a timeless wardrobe for Hermès customers, emphasizing quality and timelessness over fast-fashion consumption. Margiela’s revival of the ready-to-wear collection breathed a youthful vibrancy into the storied House of Hermès.


 In 1999, Hermès disrupted the luxury fashion industry once again by purchasing a 35% equity stake in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fashion house. In 2003, Gaultier took over from Margiela as artistic director of Hermès, and held that position until 2010, when he named Christopher Lemaire (then creative director of Lacoste) as his successor. 


During the 2000’s, Bernard Arnault of LVMH began to purchase a stake in Hermès via subsidiaries of the LVMH. By the turn of the decade, Arnault had amassed a 22.6% stake in Hermès, eliciting a response from French financial services watchdog, Autorité des marchés financiers (“AMF”), which subsequently announced investigation of LVMH’s covert investment in Hermès. Following AMF investigations and French court cases, LVMH distributed its shares in Hermès to shareholders to avoid further legal troubles. Arnault and his family now own less than 10 percent of Hermès


Fast-forwarding to the present day, the sixth generation of the Hermès family retains control of the company. Approximately 75% of shares are privately held by family members. Axel Dumas was named CEO of Hermès in 2012 and holds that same seat today.


Unsurprisingly, Hermès has no plans to slow or halt their expansion. Since Charles-Emile’s move to Rue Faubourg back in the late 19th century, the family has additionally purchased 26 Rue Faubourg (in 1978), as well as 28 Rue Faubourg in 2007. More innovative than ever, Hermès partnered with Apple to create the Apple Watch Hermès: this product combines Apple’s smartwatch with Hermès’ specially crafted single tour, double tour, and cuff watch bands. The 2015 partnership marked the beginning of the brands’ collaboration in the creation of luxury tech accessories. 


The recent expansion of the Hermès flagship store in Paris is both symbolic and reflective of the ongoing success of the House. Hermès scarves and bags are consistently and increasingly sought after, attracting a new cohort of celebrities and elite patrons including Drake, Victoria Beckham, Pharrell Williams, Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez.


Hermès products epitomize the pinnacle of luxury leather goods. Considering their unwavering commitment to quality and heritage, the House appears well-positioned to continue delivering exquisite leather goods to their loyal patrons for decades to come. 


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