Hermès artistic director and sixth-generation family member Pierre-Alexis Dumas is not only late for his appointment with me, but he admonishes me for not taking the time to do what he’s just been doing. Despite this being the first appointment of a packed day at this year’s Baselworld fair, he’s crammed in a visit to the Museum of Cultures before arriving for our interview.
“I cannot come to Basel and just be here at the fair and at the hotel, I really can’t,” Dumas announces. “I’m saying this loud – this is a city of culture in Europe, it’s not just a place for trade, and the two are interlinked by the way.”
His priorities shouldn’t surprise. Hermès is an artisanal house dedicated to products that have that undeniable extra something, the referencing of beautiful objects their stock-in-trade. As such, the weft of a horse-whip can suggest a watch dial, bridles are reinvented as motifs for scarves, the wrought-iron scroll above a company lift can find its way into the design of a horological treat.
“It’s about connecting the dots and tapping into connected intelligence because we’re endowed with a magnificent brain each of us, and sensorial apparatus. We are designed to interconnect and it goes all the way to the objects we manufacture,” Dumas explains.
It’s clear that this won’t be an ordinary interview, the man across the table from me proceeding to float interesting hypotheses and range wide in the manner of a philosophy don engaging with a willing audience. Not that Dumas is all postulation and no performance: born into the firm, this 50-year-old has given Hermès its biggest sales ever in recent times, even if the company has warned that growth could slow in coming months, along with luxury in general.
Dumas was sent by his parents to study in America as preparation for his role at Hermès. He returned with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from Brown University. Such a background might explain why he’s dressed as no don could dream of: immaculate suit, tie and shirt with a stratospheric thread-count, on his wrist the Slim d’Hermès model released last year and upgraded this year with an optional, elegant enamel dial.
He refers to it fondly. “It’s an oxymoron to have enamel on a watch which is contemporary – it gives a special presence to the watch, a special light basically,” he says, showing me the watch. “I like yours by the way,” he adds, referring to the large un-Hermès-like confection on my wrist, a piece also in enamel and handmade by a watchmaker in Basel. “It makes me want to bite into it,” he says. “It’s expressive and fun, it’s playful.”
Returning to the Slim, he continues with his point about connecting the dots: “Making a watch is a process and the big lie is to associate one person with it. You have a lot of people involved before you end up with the finished object, and here the idea was to have a movement that would allow a very slim watch. We worked a lot on the crystal which is pushed to its limits, giving the impression of a bigger face than it is.”
It might have all started with the movement, but it was that face that brought the Slim to the attention of aficionados, something with which Dumas had a hands-on involvement.
“I said the typeface is going to be key to the success of this watch – the type can’t just look nice, it has to relate to the volume of the object and the idea we are trying to express.”
To accomplish this Dumas brought together the Slim’s designer, La Montres Hermès creative director Philippe Delhotal, and the French typographer Philippe Apeloig, a former artistic director of the Louvre and a man Dumas had previously worked with on a project. It was a stroke of genius given Apeloig’s stencil-like numerals define the watch.
“I thought that if we didn’t have specific numerals we were going to fail. I loved Philippe’s thought process and coherence of his thinking. I talked to him and he said, ‘A watch? I don’t know anything about watches.’ I said, ‘Good, good.’ But he understood the idea. If you look carefully at the numbers you can see how he played, the rigour of his concept. He tried to ‘thin’ the typography as much as possible so some numbers are unusual.”