The History of Hermes - Know Your Designer

Image of Hermes and the history of hermes.
Buying and wearing high-end fashion is about more than just clothing and accessories. Fashion styles and trends can have many personal meanings, from a political statement to the nostalgia of a historic time and place. Many designers come from humble beginnings or began their careers in other fields, creating a rich tapestry of meaning and history woven throughout a brand.

Understanding a brands history is a good way to know your designer and wear their pieces appropriately. In this article, we will delve into Hermès history, a lesson in vintage Parisian fashion fit for the Gods and worn by the bourgeoisie.

The name Hermes dates far back to Greek religion and mythology, it originates from an Olympian God, the son of Zeus. Hermes was the representative and the messenger of the Gods.

Image of Hermes son of greek god.

He was as also known as “the divine trickster” and “the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries, the patron of herdsmen, thieves, graves, and heralds.” Hermes is defined as moving freely between the moral and divine worlds, he was the conductor of souls into the afterlife. He was also viewed as the protector and patron of roads and travelers.

Hermès is a brand steeped in history and tradition, dating back to its establishment in 1873 by Thierry Hermès. Born in Germany to a French father and German mother, Hermès moved to France in 1828 with his family where he would later establish the Hermès brand. While today Hermès is recognized as a French fashion luxury goods manufacturer specializing in leather, lifestyle accessories, home furnishings, perfume, jewelry, and watches, the brand was originally a supplier of horse-drawn carriage accessories.  

When Hermès began, he first created a harness shop in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris.

There he was dedicated to serving European noblemen. Hermès created quality wrought bridles and harnesses in his shop for the horse carriage industry. For his work, he won many awards such as the first prize in its class at the Expositions Universelles in Paris in 1855 and again in 1867.
Vintage image of Poster for hermes

In 1880, Charles-Émile, Hermès’ son, took charge of management and moved the store to 24 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where it still remains today. Charles-Émile introduced saddlery to the industry with the help of his sons, Adolphe and Émile-Maurice, and began selling their products in retail. At the time, the company catered to the elite of Europe, Russia, Asia, North Africa, and the Americas.

In 1900, the company began to offer bags specially designed for riders to carry their saddles in with them. The first bag was the now famous Haut à Courroies bag. This is how the company came to design and manufacture bags for the fashion industry.

After Charles-Émile Hermès retired, his sons took over leadership and renamed the company Hermès Frères. Soon thereafter, Émile-Maurice began to provide saddles to the czar of Russia. Great success followed and by 1914, Hermès employed up to 80 saddle craftsman. This was followed by Émile-Maurice being granted the sole rights to the zipper, using it for clothing and leather goods. He became the first designer to introduce the zipper device in France and further laying down a foundation for the brands' fashion future. Among the first fashion trends introduced was the first leather gold jacket with a zipper, made exclusively for Edward the Prince of Wales. Due to Émile-Maurice’s exclusive rights on the zipper, it became known in France as the fermeture Hermès (Hermès fastener).

Following the success of the zipper, Émile-Maurice was the sole head of the company throughout the 1920’s.

He added accessories and clothing collections to his now famous saddlebags. After Émile-Maurice's wife had complained about not being able to find a bag to her liking, he developed the first leather handbags that were introduced to the market in 1922. Émile-Maurice saw this as an opportunity and created the handbag collection himself, making handbag history.
Image of vintage poster of the Hermes zipper

Continuing on the historical trend and enormous success, Hermès then established a presence overseas in the United States by opening two shops in 1924. Riding the wave of success, the team previewed the first woman’s couture apparel collection in 1929 in Paris, ushering in new styles and trends that would eventually lead to the vintage Hermès bag.

To add to their collection of accessories, Hermès employed Universal Genève, a Swiss watchmaker, in the mid-1930s to be the brand’s exclusive timepiece designer. The company produced a line of men’s wrist chronographs (manufactured in stainless steel or 18K gold) and a woman’s Art Déco cuff watch in steel, 18K gold, or platinum. Either male and female models contained dials signed either “Hermès” or "Hermès Universal Genève", while the watch movements were signed Universal Genève S.A." The Hermès/Universal partnership lasted up until the 1950s.

Other famous bags followed in the 1930’s, such as the leather "Sac à dépêches" bag in 1935 (later renamed the "Kelly bag” after Grace Kelly) and the Hermès carrés (square scarves) in 1937. In 1956, Life magazine featured a photograph of Grace Kelly carrying the "Sac à dépêches" bag. She had allegedly held it in front of herself to disguise her pregnancy. Thus, the public began calling it the "Kelly" bag and Hermès subsequently adopted the name for the bag and it became hugely successful.
Image of Kelly with Hermes and using the Kelly Bag.

These are among the most recognizable Hermès items in the collection and for good reason; they are original and timeless. The Hermès scarves became integrated into French culture and later, the Hermès shoulder bag would also reach such status, paving the way for Hermès as a high-end luxury brand the world over.

The "Chaîne d'ancre" bracelet and riding jacket soon joined the classic collection by 1938, adding more fame to the brand and fortune to the company. Another step forward came in the 1930s when Hermès entered the US market by selling products in a Neiman Marcus department store in New York.

In 1949 "Eau d'Hermès" was produced, along with the launch of the Hermès silk tie and the first perfume. The Hermès logo was redesigned a few years later, it is of a Duc carriage with horse. This is the logo we are all familiar with today.

After the death of Émile-Maurice in 1951, Robert Dumas-Hermès succeeded him and worked closely with his brother-in-law Jean-René Guerrand. Dumas was not a biological family member, so when he joined he became the first person not directly descended from Hermès père. His connection to the company was through marriage alone. This is why he incorporated the Hermès name into his own, Dumas-Hermès.  

Dumas was a formidable force to the company, he introduced original handbags, Hermès vintage jewelry, and accessories. He was also interested in designing silk scarves, but scarf production diminished in the mid-20th century.

Later, Hermès entered the fragrance business in 1961.

The perfume line was introduced with the famous "Calèche" scent, which was named after a popular hooded horse carriage featuring four-wheels, which has been Hèrmes’ logo since the 1950’s. Continuing the Hermès tradition and success, Jean-Claude Ellena became the in-house perfumer in 2004 and has since created many successful perfume scents, including the famous Hermessence line.

During the 1970s, Hermès established multiple shops worldwide, but the company also began to decline compared to its competitors. Industry experts have attributed the result to Hermès’ relentless insistence on only using natural materials in its products, unlike competitors who were using man-made materials. At one point, Hermès workrooms were silent due to a two-week lapse in orders. Despite this decline, Hermès’ fragrances were a hit and helped reestablish Hermès’ scents as a big player in the marketplace.

To offset this decline, Dumas brought in two designers, Eric Bergère and Bernard Sanz, to help revamp the apparel collection. They added unusual yet snazzy items such as ostrich-skin jeans and python motorcycle jackets. With this face-lift, annual sales went from $50 million in 1978 to $460 million by 1990.

Over the years, Hermès expanded into new markets.

In the 1980’s, Hermès introduced tableware, which became a strong contender for the company. Hermès’ goods expanded even further in 1990 and would eventually include over 30,000 pieces. Hermès kept with tradition and began using new materials in the collection including crystal and porcelain.

By 1993, Hermès went public on the Paris stock exchange (Bourse). They also relocated their workshops and design studios just outside of Paris, in Pantin. Looking back, the changes created a sense of excitement, but there was more to the public offering. Dumas explained to Forbes magazine that the sale of company equity was meant to help lessen tensions between family members, allowing for some to liquidate their shares without "squabbling over share valuations among themselves." Even with the public offering, the Hermès family still retained the majority of stocks, a total of about 80%, putting Jean-Louis Dumas and the entire Hermès family on the Forbes list of billionaires.
Image of Jean-Louis Dumas

Jean-Louis Dumas retired in 2006 after 28 years as the head of the company. He left behind a legacy, known for his charm and as one of Europe’s highest authorities on fashion and luxury. He, unfortunately, died in 2010 after a long illness he endured. Patrick Thomas who had worked with Jean-Louis in 2005 as the co-CEO replaced Dumas. Thomas became the first non-Hermès family member to head the company.

Hermès has made many announcements throughout the year; the last big announcement was in 2015 with an increase of its turnover of 9.7%, representing more than $7 billion in sales.
Hermès has stood the test of time and introduced many fashion trends we wear and love today.

Émile-Maurice summarized the Hermès philosophy during his leadership as "leather, sport, and a tradition of refined elegance."


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