The arrival of spring in Paris is marked by a number of key events: the planting of the tulips and crocuses in the Jardin de Luxembourg that appear almost overnight, in full bloom, as if by magic; the ash of bare ankles of those few daring Parisians eager to shed their wintry layers; and the annual Saut Hermès, an international show jumping competition that takes place in the Grand Palais. For one weekend, this soaring Beaux-Arts edifice, usually reserved for large scale exhibitions, spectacular fashion shows, and trade events, is utterly transformed. Tonnes of sand are trucked in, tidy bleachers are installed, and for three days, the comforting smell of horses and hay mingles in the air. The chatter of the attendees is punctuated by announcements of a new competition, and another rider enters the arena, their mount's hoof beats sounding like some distant drum.
In contrast to the cityscape just outside the immense doors, the scene feels somewhat surreal. Yet it is completely in keeping with the building's history. For almost six decades after opening in 1901, the Grand Palais hosted annual horse shows each spring. The great oval arena, with its glass ceilings that allow natural light to flood in, was indeed designed for such events, as were the sizeable stables concealed beneath it. It’s fitting then, that Hermès, a house dedicated to preserving tradition, chose this venue when they brought their equestrian event to the capital six years ago.
“I had the idea of doing a horse show here,"says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the Parisian maison’s current artistic director and a sixth generation Hermès, humbly. "And then 10 years ago we decided collectively as a family that it was time to value our heritage again, and to explore it in depth ... that is how this idea was born.” Hermès' relationship with the horse first as harness maker and then saddler – retains pride of place in the brand's identity today. Its presence is keenly felt, not only in the insignia, but also in the fact that the original saddlery atelier still stands in the centre of Paris. “If you take away this part of the business, however small or big it is, we will die,” says Dumas of their equestrian interests.
Dumas is a quietly spoken, philosophical man, but personable. The playful horse print tie he is wearing today adds an endearingly kitsch touch to his otherwise elegant attire. His calming presence suggests he has the luxury of time on his side – not in an idle sense, but rather in the unbridled way his answers often only serve to pose further questions, and end up a long way from where he started. His vision for the brand, however, is sharply focused.
In the 1920s – almost a century after Thierry Hermès opened his first harness atelier in Paris – his grandsons Émile and Adolf were faced with a quandary. The equestrian business was reeling from the industrial revolution; the advent of the motorcar meant that man’s trusty steed was no longer an essential part of daily life. Despite Adolf’s misgivings, Émile was determined to continue with the business. He acquired his brother’s shares, and went on to expand their offering to include leather goods and accessories for well to do clients. “But he never stopped manufacturing saddles,” Dumas points out. “We have always had our workshop and we have always made saddles. Émile was a real visionary. He knew that we had to change and adapt, but he never abandoned our core business.”
Since his appointment as artistic director in 2005, Dumas, along with his cousin, chief operating officer Axel Dumas, has stewarded the brand into its most successful chapter to date. They build on the legacy of Pierre-Alexis's father, Jean-Louis Dumas, who expanded manufacturing in the early 1990s from one single atelier to the 15 leather ateliers they now have scattered throughout France. Despite this rapid growth, the defining spirit of the house – craftsmanship – was never compromised. “He was driven by very simple ideas,” says Dumas of his father, who passed away in 2010. “His first idea was 'One Object, One Person.' Whoever makes an object takes complete responsibility and ownership of it. They don't just make component parts, and then hand them over to someone else,” he explains. “When you buy an object, you are buying something that has been made by someone. For us it is a source of pride. It is our essence.” This approach extends across almost every element of the business, from the famed Kelly and Birkin bags, to the meticulously handcrafted, buttery leather Cavale and Allegro saddles, used by the riders today at the Saut Hermès.
Dumas arrived to the family trade in a fittingly traditional way. He worked his way through various departments over a period of two decades, and already had the complete lay of the land when the mantle was eventually passed down from Jean-Louis. He carries on many of the traditions established by his father, including the task of setting an annual theme that serves as inspiration for the house’s various creative projects and events. For 2016, he chose Nature at Full Gallop. “I wanted to celebrate and to think collectively about our relationship with nature,” Dumas says. “First of all, what is the nature of Hermès? And what is our relationship to nature at a time when we face many challenges? Our civilisation will perhaps be remembered in a thousand years as the moment when human beings produced the largest amount of waste in history,” he offers, before adding: “We have to think about all that, really we do. I don’t have an answer for everybody, but we have to have as much integrity as possible.”