What is lightness? Is it a sensation—the lightness of your skin against my skin—a pair of lovers, their bodies entangled in a passionate embrace, floating through the clouds? Is it an idea—the lightness hidden in the circus of the imagination—horses balancing on a tightrope, falling down only to get back up again, as a nod to perseverance? Or is it an emotion—the lightness of communal joie de vivre—140 guests laughing in unison at a quartet of singing Hermès Kelly bags, performing at the Paris Opera?
We are gathered in a studio north of Paris, witnessing the various mises en scène of a live performance, ‘Pegasus and the Quest for the seven forms of lightness’, dreamt up by director Jaco Van Dormael and choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey; an imaginary tale of seven young horses learning how to fly as an expression of the Hermès theme of ‘lightness’ for 2022. In the show notes, amid the galloping text on the different types of levity, these words float off the page: “Lightness is when the everyday becomes wondrous.”
Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès, was handed the reins of creating an annual theme for the maison by his father, Jean-Louis Dumas, in 2003. “He told me that if you want to invent the future, you have to explore the past,” shares Pierre-Alexis. “The theme is an invitation to look at Hermès and rethink Hermès and never take it for granted.” And, since then, he has guided the metiers of the house with annual themes such as ‘In the pursuit of dreams’ (2019), ‘Innovation in the making’ (2020) and ‘An odyssey’ (2021)— each imagined two years in advance.
Wearing a knit sweater over straight-cut blue jeans, Pierre-Alexis is sporting a tight crew cut and a genteel smile when we meet, the day before the performance. Characteristically, he exudes none of the pomp and ceremony that one might associate with the great grandson of Émile Hermès; the sixth generation of the storied Hermès family.
Instead, he is generous with his warm affectations, but not indulgently so. And as he speaks, eyes moving from his hands—mimicking the elongated gestures of a saddle stitch, accentuating the tactility of leather with his fingertips— to mine—flipping through the pages of Vogue Singapore to propose the similarities of his role to that of an editor, curating and editing ideas—you feel the camaraderie of his creative curiosity. Pierre-Alexis is, as self-confessed, a dreamer.
“In the middle of COVID when I was thinking of the theme for 2022, there was a general aspiration for light-heartedness. Lightness is much more than the theme, it is more like a mission, for what we have always sought to lighten the lives of those who come to Hermès. I think one of the wonderful responsibilities of Hermès is that we bring comfort. Light-heartedness is something that you can nurture, and I like to think of Hermès as a great manufacturer of light-heartedness.”
Lightness in the making
“I can’t imagine making a handbag, printing silk, making any object at Hermès without that fundamental notion of being extremely light with your hands, with your fingers,” says Pierre-Alexis, tapping his forefingers and thumbs together. “It’s about sensitivity. We are human beings. We have that ability to somehow achieve beauty, and without that lightness at the tip of your finger, I don’t think you’ll be able to do this.”
He looks at my black felt fedora with its stiff broad brim. “If the hat you’re wearing is not perfectly adjusted and does not fit, if it’s not perfect, you’re just not going to use it.” I concur. I’ve had poorly fitted hats that have given me headaches in the name of vanity.
“The notion of care is fundamental,” continues Pierre-Alexis. “It has always been there at Hermès, since the 19th century when Thierry Hermès rejected all useless ornaments to free the movements of the horse. In lightness, there is a sense of care and empathy for the other.”
Lightness as movement
Almost by default, to think about lightness at Hermès, one gravitates to the buoyancy of its famed silk creations, or more recently, the heralded release of its Plein Air beauty range—a collection of complexion balms in 12 skin-matching tones, complete with SPF 30 protection and hyaluronic acid, to celebrate “natural beauty in the open air”. As with all things born from this house, the prose is poetic and magnetic.
“Reality is about constant movement, constant change,” explains Pierre-Alexis. “If we were still just making harnesses, we would not be having this discussion right now. The change at Hermès is very subtle if you only look from one season to the next. But if you look over 10, 20 or 50 years, it is radical.”
From dressing horses, to dressing your skin, radical it surely is. But change also acts as a catalyst for innovation.
“We have the responsibility to continue and to transmit our traditions. If I wish for the craftspeople to not only maintain but develop their skills and pass it on, they need to have new models to work on because a new bag would always imply a new way to push the boundaries of our know-how. Our tradition is to constantly create.”
Lightness as sincerity
Our conversation meanders to new ideas—“if I don’t listen to the world, I’m not true to Hermès”—but Pierre-Alexis really lights up when we talk about the etymology of ‘sincerity’. As he explains, Romans used to engage the Grecian workshops to create marble busts of their forefathers. The Greeks realised they could save costs if they created the busts in two parts: standard shoulders with the custom heads affixed with marble powder mixed with wax. In Latin, wax is cera. But the Romans wanted the bust in one piece, sine cera, without wax. Sine cera is the root word of ‘sincere’.
“Imagine how relevant this word is today?” asks Pierre-Alexis. “It’s about being honest with your manufacturing process. If I have one religion at Hermès, it is sincerity. I believe that the objects we make influence the way people behave and their well-being. I am obsessed with the impact of what we do. What can they generate? What emotions, feelings and behaviour? And my belief is that if you sell objects that are well-made and made with care, with sincerity, there is something in that object that will benefit you beyond its usage. Something that will make you feel good. I really believe that.”
“If you sell objects that are well-made and made with care, with sincerity, there is something in that object that will benefit you beyond its usage.”
After the performance of ‘Pegasus and the Quest for the seven forms of lightness’, dinner is served family style on long communal tables sequestered like stables at the far end of the studio. In the background, the brass band Les Vilains Chicots is trumpeting its spritely tune; seated next to me, Catherine Fulconis, the executive vice president of leather, is showing me the beautiful patina on her well-loved Hermès box leather Verrou bag; and in my hand, a flute of champagne that has remained cold in the cool of the Parisian night.
“I like the idea that Hermès is a large community which brings together people who share the same values, so altogether there is a sense of freedom in our obligation to be sincere,” offers Pierre-Alexis at the end of our meeting. What a concept: lightness as freedom. Birthed by the mind, ignited by our senses and realised in the heart—is there anything more wondrous?