Hermès inaugurated its CityCenterDC boutique with a grand, eccentric flourish befitting a nearly 180-year-old French luxury firm that was born as a harness-maker and grew into the purveyor of $10,000 Birkin handbags. At a seated dinner in the stately surroundings of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, 120 guests began their meal with a foie gras feuilleté and ended it with a white chocolate “flower pot” filled with raspberries and mousse — a dessert so finely executed it could have been a porcelain figurine.
Though the fine china upon which the pea-crusted lamb loin was artfully arranged came directly from the company’s stock, the dinner otherwise did very little to showcase the actual stuff of Hermès. But in the digital millennium, luxury is defined less by products than by experiences.
And so the company recently presented an evening of culinary theater choreographed and costumed by Belgian artist Charles Kaisin (who recently dazzled Hong Kong with a 35-foot golden goat constructed from 13,500 origami horses for Chinese New Year). Two sopranos trilled the “Flower Duet,” and 60 waiters imported from New York — one for every two guests, as if catering to a royal court — marched out in synchronized precision to deliver the meal. They changed costume with each course: silver origami masks, golden welding suits and, finally, white cumulus headdresses lit from within.
Hermès is the latest high-end brand to open at CityCenterDC, the gleaming mixed-used development newly built downtown. It joins Burberry, Loro Piana, Canali, Hugo Boss, Salvatore Ferragamo, Paul Stuart and Alexis Bittar, among others. This summer, Louis Vuitton will open; Dior is coming in the fall. And in June, Carolina Herrera will throw open the doors of a CH boutique — not quite as high-end, but perfumed by its association with her flagship line and the glamour of a Vogue-sponsored cocktail party.
Of all the brands, however, Hermès is arguably the most rarefied. It is a shop where a business-card case — two small rectangles of leather stitched together — costs $335. And the suitcase-size Birkin and Kelly bags stashed not so discreetly under the tables during the gala dinner each cost as much as a car.
The 6,000-square-foot Hermès shop, on Palmer Alley NW, replaces the company’s Tysons Corner store. While this new space might be light and airy, it is not a joltingly modern place with sales clerks toting mini iPads in side holsters. Immediately upon crossing the boutique’s threshold, there is a mosaic insignia embedded in the floor based on one found in the mother store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris — a reminder of Hermès history and tradition.
The mosaic drives home the point that Hermès traffics in slow fashion in an impatient, buy-it-off-the-runway, want-it-now culture. Babies are conceived and born in less time than it takes for a dedicated customer to acquire a Birkin handbag, which was introduced in 1984.
In many ways, Hermès violates all the rules of the modern retail environment, which is to make shopping as effortless as possible — including buying a $10,000 handbag while lounging at home in pajamas.
Yet shoppers want what Hermès is selling even if they have to go out of their way to get it. The company reported that its first-quarter revenue was up by 19 percent over last year, to $1.2 billion. That growth was fueled by Asia and Europe, as well as the United States — the No. 1 luxury market in the world. After years of luxury firms chasing consumers in China, Russia and South America, the United States is once again devouring high-priced clothes and accessories. Hermès has seven projects in the works in the country. Six, including Washington’s, are expansions in markets where the brand already had a footprint; the seventh is a dedicated perfumery in New York.
Hermès is one of the fastest-growing luxury companies in the world, according to a 2014 report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, with a Q rating — a measure of a brand’s resonance and value among consumers — that places it third among luxury brands. That’s ahead of Prada, Ralph Lauren and Burberry.
Hermès is so certain of its own mystique that since 2011 it has sold a monthly mystery box to customers starting at about $250, which includes a unisex trinket crafted from workroom scraps of leather, silk or the like. “They’re making money out of their waste,” marvels brand consultant Amy Shea, who has not worked with the company.
Hermès is a contrarian company. It has no Twitter followers because it is not on Twitter. The social media site is about personalities and celebrities, and Hermès is not.
Hermès maintains a Web site that resembles a charming old sketchbook sweetly animated. It is a pretty site, but a frustrating one. There are no high-definition photos sweeping, spinning or rocketing across the screen. The bags most closely identified with the brand — the Birkin and the Kelly — aren’t even represented. Ready-to-wear isn’t displayed on models, but on drawings of models. There is no technology to give a shopper a sense of how the garment might move. At a luxury conference this year, chief executive Axel Dumas, a sixth-generation descendant of founder Thierry Hermès, joked that the company wants its things to be difficult to find — even on the Web site.
Indeed, Hermès products — aside from its fragrances — are not officially sold anywhere online aside from the brand’s own site. On the site Bag, Borrow or Steal, customers can rent a Chanel or Saint Laurent handbag — but not a Hermès. At Rent the Runway, a shopper cannot get a loaner Birkin.
“Hermès is in a special place all to itself. They have coveted their rarity and they had to do it with all the temptations that a brand faces,” Shea says. “They didn’t know which way things were going to go [in the luxury market], but they knew who they were.”
The brand has no public face making the rounds at cocktail parties. It does not hire celebrities to be brand ambassadors. It does not make a splashy showing on red carpets — although it has been represented by Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The name most people might associate with the brand is Oprah Winfrey. Not because she is a devoted customer but because the Paris store once denied her after-hours shopping privileges. (The company later expressed regret.)
Last summer, Hermès announced the arrival of a new creative director: Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski. Her hiring was news in the fashion industry, but it meant little to the brand’s customers. For them, it’s the Hermès name that counts, not that of the person sketching the cashmere overcoats, which look an awful lot like the overcoats from previous years. The ready-to-wear “is timeless,” says Robert Chavez, the company’s U.S president. But that doesn’t give a fashion designer much room to experiment.
Vanhee-Cybulski arrived at Hermès with an impressive résumé, notable for its legacy of discretion. She has worked for some of the most restrained brands in the industry — the Row, Maison Margiela, Céline. She presented her first collection on the runway in March. It will arrive in stores for the fall season.
“I think she brings her own touch and imprint,” Chavez says. “It’s refined, in a modern way.” It is profoundly subtle and it looks very, very expensive, which is the definition of the Hermès brand.
Hermès fashion moves stealthily, changing millimeter by millimeter, but the company has excelled in the speed-of-light digital realm by keeping to its own quirky path, says Isabelle Harvie-Watt of the fashion and luxury consultancy Havas LuxHub.
In a recent speech, Harvie-Watt criticized luxury firms for failing to be more active in the digital realm. For most, their early response was a defensive crouch. And yet, she says, “I think Hermès is one of those that have merged technology quite well with their brand.” The Web site, in all of its obstinate inefficiency, speaks to the brand’s identity, she says, “even though it might not be the easiest thing to navigate.”
And while Hermès skips Twitter, it does use Instagram and Facebook to connect with customers. The Web site, which launched in 2002, has been the fastest-growing “boutique” within the company, Chavez says. “We have a presence in 14 states, but we ship to all 50 states. Early on, it was the classics, but now we sell bikes, place settings . . . ”
Like most of the retailers at CityCenterDC, Hermès defines itself as a luxury brand. But the term luxury has been bandied about so much that its meaning has turned murky. Longchamp, another shop at CityCenterDC, also considers itself a luxury brand, one with a legacy and point of view. The family-owned business recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its signature handbag, Le Pliage. A customer can buy a nylon version for less than $200 from a host of outlets.
Shea argues that “luxury” has been redefined — in Hermès’ favor — and it has nothing to do with price. “Expensive doesn’t equal luxury,” Shea says. “Luxury equals rarity.”
“The millennial group continues to covet” the Birkin, Shea says. Why? They are global citizens who have “been raised with incredible access to all thing via technology. It’s changed the consumption model in a way we’re still trying to understand.” The same motivation that has people choosing craft beers — small, independently owned, artisanal — attracts them to a brand such as Hermès.
Chavez says the craftspeople who construct the company’s handbags are core to his definition of luxury. But he notes that time is the truest indulgence. “People are always willing to wait for quality,” Chavez says. “They know that it takes time. It takes more than 20 hours to make a Birkin.”
Luxury fashion, Harvie-Watt notes, has yet to produce an equivalent of Uber — a company so transformative that it’s hard to remember a time before it existed. “For these kinds of brands, the question is how to leverage technology to give customers better service?”
“Maybe someday you can order [Birkins] online,” Harvie-Watt says, “but you’ll still have to wait for them.”