Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes, whose 153-year-old company makes the Kelly bags, scarves, watches and appointment books that Japanese teenagers named in a poll as their favorite status objects (after the Rolex watch), is reclining on the floor of his latest branch of luxe, the Hermes boutique at Fairfax Square. Mild, pre-opening-day chaos hovers above his balding head and silk pocket square. Hammers tap, pictures go up. Shelves are stocked. And the chairman is stretched out on a $195 Hermes beach towel like it was high season at Cannes.

"Come, come. Sit. We'll talk," beckons Dumas, for a nanosecond sounding like Joan Rivers. "So, now we're on the beach carpet. We never call it a beach towel." The chairman makes a face. "It's a tapis du bain. Very nice, don't you think? They say that on the beach at Cannes you can't see the sand. Only Hermes." He grins, pleased by the picture of thousands of semi-nude people sunbathing on his rugs. His patrons!

"It's really the finest terry I've ever seen," interjects Chrysler Fisher, kicking the proverbial sand on the beach scene. With Fisher, the Oklahoma-born president of Hermes-U.S.A., everything is business. He spits out demographics, percentages of sales and target figures faster than a Frenchman can say "authorized distributor of retail." It was Fisher who instigated half a dozen small luncheons -- "focus groups" -- for 100 or so well-heeled Washington women this month as part of Hermes' invasion. In "Sesame Street" terms, he is Bert, playing the earnest straight man to Dumas's Ernie, the ultimate cutup.

Last night, though, at a gala benefit by the Friends of the First Ladies, the chairman was decidedly upright as he moved among the 280 guests like the consummate social swimmer that he is.

"He's charming. Sexy," gushed Evelyn Brandt, wearing a beaded Galanos gown and emeralds. "There's something special about Frenchmen. They can do no wrong." Brandt was chairman of the gala at Fairfax Square, which raised $40,000 toward a 1992 exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on First Ladies and other women connected to the presidency.

There was a formidable glint of diamonds in the crowd at the Hermes store last night, and some familiar faces: Samuel Skinner, the secretary of transportation; French Ambassador Jacques Andreani; Marvin and Margaret Bush; Doro Bush LeBlond; Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and his wife, Debbie, who didn't mind saying she bought her dress at Loehmann's. Cary Euwer Jr., president of Metropolitan Partnership, the developer of Fairfax Square, addressed the cummerbund issue: in Hermes, naturally. "When I was in Paris negotiating the deal with Chrys {Fisher}, they twisted my arm and I bought it," says Euwer.

Phillip Thomas, a Middleburg real estate salesman, was looking down at the gold foxes stitched on his patent-leather evening pumps. "Do you think it's a bit much?" he asked, sounding troubled.

In Middleburg, probably not. Even Dumas, who attended a brunch yesterday at the Wind Fields Farm of former ambassador Robert McKinney,

was smitten by its horsey charm. "The brunch was filled with people who know Hermes for many years," he said, "the kind of people who don't buy Hermes for the name but for the products."

Flying in Friday from Tokyo via Dallas, Dumas hit Washington and never stopped running. There was the buffet supper (game pie, chutney and salad) that night at Raymond and Pamela Howar's house in Kalorama. "Here, I fixed a plate for you," said Dumas gallantly to a reporter. By evening's end he had met everyone, admired his hostess's taste in paintings and chocolate cake (decorated with an edible Hermes shopping bag), and compared Hermes watches with a man who bought his in 1955 for $800. Rare was the man who didn't wear an Hermes tie.

"I'm wearing an English shirt, so I thought I'd better wear a French tie," noted the host.

Then there was the luncheon on Saturday at Mount Vernon, followed by a tour of the White House, a cocktail party at the home of the French ambassador and a private dinner afterward. At Mount Vernon, Dumas entertained guests with animated descriptions of French fireworks, complete with popping sound effects. Carew Lee, hostess and vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, looked helplessly across the table.

"Is the rest of the family like him?" she laughed.

Actually, no.

More than any of the 21 family members, mostly cousins, who control Hermes, and maybe even more than the scarves and Kelly bags and hand-stitched chewing-gum cases that will contribute to anticipated sales of $540 million this year, Dumas is the man behind the name, the ultimate patron of refinement ("don't say luxury," he grimaces) in a Big Mac world.

As head of a house that outfitted horses before people back in the days when the phrase "carriage trade" had real meaning, Dumas is part salesman, part impresario. Put a silk scarf in his hands and he'll tell a story about food shortages during the Second World War. "I was 7 years old before I ate a banana," he says, ruminating over the pink gateaux on a silk scarf designed in 1943 by his father, Robert, to remember "the glory of French cuisine." Point to a saddle buck in the middle of the Fairfax store and he jumps on it like a fair-weather cowboy in handmade shoes. Give him another second and he'll be seaside in Cannes.

What he isn't is aloof, smug or -- for a man whose company can make his-and-hers golf bags in red crocodile or line the interior of a private jet in leather -- particularly elitist. The family, as he points out, doesn't own a single castle or Trump-size boat. His idea of fun is a walking holiday in the Sahara. "You must go sometime, but not in a Range Rover," he says. For a long time his house in Greece didn't have running water or electricity. And wherever he is -- Tokyo, London, the Sahara -- he carries in his right breast pocket a little red diary. He has boxes of them. In each book he has recorded his thoughts, in tiny penmanship, with illustrations and pasted snapshots. He opens to a page with a blue-penciled drawing of a view of the sea from his house in Greece.

He looks almost serene. "Ah, happiness is ... ." And then he shuts the diary quickly, as if his privacy had suddenly been invaded.

"At my age, he had no ambition to work in the business," says Dumas's son, Pierre-Alexis, a senior at Brown University. Pierre-Alexis, who also spent the weekend in Washington, shares that ambivalence. "I could go back to Paris and join the company, but I don't want to take the easy way out," he says. Rather, he plans to go to Venice after graduation to study painting. "I think my father understands that."

As for his father: "He's a man who's absolutely driven by creativity. That's why he can't help putting his nose in every aspect of the business."

A few years back, not long after Jean-Louis Dumas was elected chairman by his relatives in 1978, an Hermes ad featured a chic model in bluejeans and a classic scarf. "It was the real key that opened the door," recalls Dumas. What this insouciant statement offered was a new way to market a once-staid label. And before the status mania of the '80s peaked, young women were tying Hermes scarves in their hair and showing off their Kelly bags, the $2,800 pocketbook that Grace Kelly made famous in the '50s, just because she happened to like it.

Since that turning point, Hermes has been on the move. "There was a time when a very rich customer would come to us in Paris and put her name down at the store, 'Mrs. Smith, Hotel Crillon,' " says Dumas. "Now there are fewer of those people, and we don't want to miss one of them. So we go where they are."

In 1983 Fisher joined the company, and if his gung-ho corporate style seems slightly at odds with Dumas's more heartfelt passions, the two seem to complement each other. "We happen to get along very well," says Fisher, who, in spite of his double-barrel automotive name, is only

distantly related to the Chryslers. In any case, it's their strategy, more than their friendship, that accounts for Hermes' rapid expansion: from 150 stores in 1985 to more than 250 in 1990.

In some ways, Dumas is a one-man publicity machine. He is frequently described as debonair, charming, a bon vivant dynamo who "can turn his concentration on whatever he's doing at that moment," says his Greek-born wife, Rena, who designs Hermes stores. If one keeps up with magazines, one knows, for instance, that he refers to his stores as "homes" and his customers as "patrons"; that he expresses distaste for words such as "luxury" and "status"; that everything at Hermes is made by hand; that it takes at least two crocodile skins to make one Kelly bag; and that the Queen of England wears an Hermes scarf on one of her country's postage stamps.

Dumas often speaks in metaphors, comparing a good wine to an Hermes bag, a refrigerator to an Hermes store ("A refrigerator is never as good as the first day," he says, "but an Hermes store always gets better with age") and a duck to an artist. "Can you make an egg?" And all along, he insists that the real credit for Hermes' phenomenal success belongs to the craftsman who gives substance to other people's dreams, be it a scarf or a leather-lined Learjet.

"If you are different, then we will be different for you," he says, eyes aglow, amid the buzz of drills at Fairfax Square. "Be what you want to be, and we'll polish your shoes. We'll enhance your personality. We're here to put just the right touch." He snaps his fingers. "But it's the way you use a beautiful object that makes it a luxury."

Yet even Dumas, for all his genuine humility and egg homilies, seems to acknowledge that the kind of luxury life that Hermes stands for is an anachronism. "Let's face it," he says, "our century is one of the poorest in the last five centuries as far as applied arts. If Hermes is unique today, a century ago it was not unique."

And so, like a politician stumping on the chicken-dinner circuit, Dumas is out there on a mission of quality, appealing to those who know how to drink a good wine, hear the silence of the desert or wear a beautiful scarf. Or, more importantly, want to.