The Unusual Luxury of Hermès — Part 1

Hermès window display
Image credit: Pikrepo

If you’re in search of the height of luxury and exclusivity, you need look no further than Hermès. As Alexander Fury put it last year in the Financial Times, chez Hermès is ‘a fashion house with which the word luxury is not only synonymous but for which it might have been invented’. 

Just how exclusive is it, I hear you ask? Consider the case of the Birkin Bag, the brand’s most famous product and the holy grail of handbags. If you’re in the market to purchase such a bag, these are some points to consider:

  • Firstly, you will need, at minimum, around £7 000, and for that you’ll be getting the most basic, entry-level model, which, if you’re looking to cop a Birkin, is surely not what you’re after. Really, we’re talking 5 to 6 figures. And, in case you’re thinking you might just pop on eBay to try lowballing some reseller, Birkins only get pricier in aftermarket sales. They are the rare fashion item that appreciates in value the minute you get it, with the most expensive ones cresting the $500 000 mark.
  • But, OK, so you have a few hundred thousand kicking around and you’re set to get your Birkin. That’s fine, but could I perhaps first interest you in purchasing a family home or a couple of Ivy League educations instead? I mention this only because, even if you have the money, you cannot simply walk into an Hermès store and buy a Birkin bag. Nor can you do the equivalent online. There used to be a waiting list (which was always full anyway), but even that’s been done away with.
  • In order to buy your Birkin, you’ll have to embark on a long, rigorous, and ultimately mysterious quest that will require a great deal of patience, research, and resilience. It will likely involve rejection, some pretty serious vetting, and a truly eye-watering amount of money. You will have to prove yourself worthy of such a bag, demonstrate that you are a person of substance (and means) who will not diminish the Hermès brand by virtue of your ownership of their most covetable product. You will likely have to look the part, demonstrate an extensive history of prior Hermès purchases, and get to know the right sales associate. And, should you reach the point of actually buying a bag, do not under any circumstance actually ask for a Birkin or you might not get one, and, if you do actually get one, just don’t expect it to be the one you really wanted.
Hermès ostrich Birkin bag
The highly coveted Birkin bag
Image credit: Wen-Cheng Liu / CC BY-SA 2.0

Does that sound fancy enough? Whether it’s your kind of thing or not, what is undeniable is the remarkable brand equity that Hermès has managed to cultivate over the course of its 184-year history.

The company was founded in 1837 by a Parisian harness-maker by the name of Thierry Hermès (It is, therefore, named for its founder, rather than the Greek god of trade, wealth, and luck, though it would have been only fitting given the brand’s success). From its original headquarters on the rue Basse-du-Rempart, the company spent five decades making upmarket equestrian wares for a noble clientele. In 1880, with Thierry’s son Charles-Émile Hermès having taken over the reins, the operation moved to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which remains the label’s flagship store to this day. 

Vintage Hermès ad 1923
A print advertisement from 1923 depicting Hermès luxury leather goods and longtime flagship address
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In 1922, a novel piece of equipment made for a significant change in the company’s fortunes. Émile Hermès, the founder’s grandson, was travelling in Canada when he came across a device used to open and close the hood of an automobile. He cannily obtained the exclusive rights for its use in France. The mechanism in question was originally known as a ‘universal fastener’, though these days it’s simply called a zip. It allowed Hermès to expand to a range of other métiers, including luggage, although it was initially put to use in a golf jacket in 1925, which was also the brand’s first ready-to-wear item.

From here many other innovations would follow: Their iconic silk scarves first appeared in 1937; their ties arrived in 1949. The 1940s also saw the advent of the horse-and-carriage emblem, designed by Alfred de Dreux and known as the Duc attelé, groom à l’attente. Ditto their unmistakable packaging, which was born from a wartime shortage of cream packaging, resulting in Hermès’ supplier simply sending the only colour they had left: orange.

Orange Hermès logo and packaging
Hermès iconic citrus packaging
Image is my own / All rights reserved

In 1951, the next generation would again assume leadership of the business, this time in the form of Robert Dumas, Émile Hermès’ sons-in-law. He, along with his son Jean-Louis who took over in 1978, would oversee the company’s expansion to include ample new lines and products (including the famous Birkin and Kelly bags), the acquisition of several other manufacturers (like the bootmaker John Lobb), and the opening of Hermès stores across the globe. 

Today the company is in its sixth generation of leadership from within the same family and numbers among the most elite and reputable luxury brands in the world. And just how much is a brand worth that can sell a handbag for as much as it costs to rear a child from birth to adulthood? The answer today is somewhere north of €130 billion. I was about to work out how many Birkins that could get you, but why buy them when you can just make your own? Some people have all the luck. 

For more on Hermès, stay tuned until later this week for the second article in this series.