Illustration of Axel Dumas by Patrick Morgan
© Patrick Morgan

Axel Dumas, the 44-year-old chief executive of Hermès and a sixth-generation member of the family who founded the house in 1837, wants to have lunch in the private dining room of the company’s Paris headquarters and shop at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

And so I arrive, via the shop’s main entrance, where I am ushered across the mosaic-tiled floor and past hushed clusters of clients. We pass the tableware department (sales of which, together with jewellery, were up 14 per cent last year) and sweep through the silks (up 6 per cent), scents (up 10 per cent) and saddlery. The leather department is home not only to the house’s famous handbags (so famous they are known by name; Birkin, Kelly and Constance) but also to the harnesses with which the company’s founder Thierry Hermès first made his fortune. His son Charles-Emile Hermès added saddles to the inventory in 1880. Today leatherwear (excluding belts, which are included in ready-to-wear sales) accounts for 44 per cent of the house’s annual revenue, which was up 10 per cent to an estimated €4.1bn last year.

Through a small portal, and I am escorted away from the theatre of retail and into the backstage operations; the mosaic is replaced by industrial lino and the walls studded with fire extinguishers. We scale small stairways and more corridors. On the upper floors, where the natural light outwits the neon, glass walls offer a view on to deserted workshops. Maybe, like the elves and the shoemakers, everything happens at Hermès on the stroke of midnight? Or maybe this is France, and this is l’heure du déjeuner.

I find Dumas taking the air in the roof garden. A neat figure in a navy double-breasted suit, pristine white shirt and blue tie, he is keen to show me the unusually asymmetric aspect of the building his great-great-grandfather Charles-Emile secured in 1880. Once upon a time, the building afforded a unique vantage from which to admire the seamstresses working for Jeanne Lanvin, the couturier who set up her atelier across the road in 1889. “Fifty years ago, you had Hermès here, which was men, and Lanvin on the other side of the street, which was only women,” explains Dumas. “There were a lot of weddings between the two.” Lanvin is no longer a neighbour, and the main production site for Hermès is in the Paris suburb of Pantin, but the nostalgic tale of artisanal romance still charms. “The craftsmen”, says Dumas, “would throw a scrap of leather from the window when they saw a beautiful woman over the road.”

We pause to admire the garden’s apple and pear trees, a large magnolia and the bulbs emerging in the spring sunshine before taking our seats in the dining room. Lunch has been prepared by the in-house chef Elisabeth. “She’s training with the best restaurant in Paris but now she’s just for us,” says Dumas proudly. I ask where she trained but Dumas tells me it’s a secret. As is the lunch menu, which he has chosen.

Elisabeth makes her introductions and asks whether we would like a glass of wine. “I don’t usually drink at lunch”, says Dumas, “but, if it’s a competition for Lunch with the FT to see which CEO will have a drink, I will have a drink.” I tell him I won’t judge his sobriety, and the golden Hermès wine goblets are whisked from the table to be replaced by water, a basket of bread, a plate of gougères (little puffs of cheesy choux pastry) and then a starter of beef carpaccio with a gremolata of herbs and baby cauliflower crumbs served with olive oil, lemon and sea salt. All are presented with a quick description, in broken English, by Elisabeth who is as ridiculously charming, attentive and sweet as her plates of food are tasty.

With its delightful cook and timeworn yet elegant tableware, the atmosphere chez Hermès feels more domestic than corporate. Dumas eats here “most of the time, for convenience and confidentiality” but one imagines the space is also a sanctuary, somewhere to retreat when the subjects of foreign expansion or secret LVMH shareholdings become too overwhelming.

Last September, following a lengthy court battle, the luxury conglomerate LVMH and Hermès declared an entente cordiale after which Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s chief, agreed to relinquish almost two-thirds of the near €7.2bn (23 per cent) shareholding in Hermès he had amassed since 2010 without the company’s knowledge. To fight off the possibility of a hostile takeover, Dumas persuaded the 100 or so family members to pool their shares in a holding company (the family was worth an estimated $25bn in August 2014, according to Forbes). The siege ended amicably but the scars are still raw. And while he is relieved of the immediate threat “of a competitor on your shoulder”, Dumas is far from relaxed about the future.

“You need always to be cautious about everything,” he says of the experience, which came to a head 15 months after his appointment as chief executive. “What was admirable is that the family really gathered herself to keep the independence of Hermès. We created a holding company called H51, which owns 51 per cent of the company, where no one is allowed to sell their shares for 20 years. It was a big commitment for them to say, ‘I will put all my net worth there and not sell it for 20 years.’ But they did it — like that. It was a very strong mandate that they gave me, to keep Hermès independent, and it’s something that I’m focused on, regardless of the situation. It was a test of loyalty, yes. And I found it.”

Family is writ large at Hermès: it’s even painted on the walls. Over a main course described by Elisabeth as “Brittany lobster with a spiced crust, black rice with squid ink and a jus of herbs”, we discuss the mural behind Dumas. It was painted by Philippe Dumas (Axel’s uncle, and brother of Jean-Louis, the company’s chief from 1978 until 2006) and depicts the Hermès dynasty as farmers tilling fields, rather like the Waltons but wearing slightly chicer clothes.

“This was my uncle’s view of Hermès,” says Dumas, as he points out the figures of his grandmother and grandfather Jacqueline Hermès and Robert Dumas, the son-in-law who later took the reins. “Uncle Jean-Louis believed that we are the peasants of the city and that twice a year we have our own crop — and it may be a good or bad harvest depending.”

While the first Hermès generation established the business, and the second and third introduced the new products — scarves, fragrances and handbags — that would secure the brand’s survival, Dumas most identifies with Jean-Louis, the mythmaker and architect of the brand’s foreign expansion. “He brought us up to date, and he was a great storyteller. But I think all [the Hermès chiefs] gave us a great respect for craftsmanship and the quality of our methods.”

The culture of craftsmanship is part of the family’s creed, continues Dumas: “I think, in a Max Weber way — you know, the sociologist and economist who wrote The Protestant Ethic about faith and industrialisation — we believe, like most of the Protestants in France, in craftsmanship. We believe in the long term, and we don’t like to be in debt.”

Keeping a global luxury brand in business while nurturing a skilled labour force isn’t easy. All those Kelly bags (which retail from £4,890), for example, are still produced in France, so they’ve built 15 new leather centres to cope with demand. “We try not to have more than 250 people [in each] because above 250 people no one knows each other and then it becomes a factory,” Dumas explains of the centres, many of them in areas of high unemployment such as Montpellier.

It takes two years to become an Hermès craftsman, although 80 per cent of the craftsmen are actually women. Leatherwork is no longer seen as a male skill. “Men don’t want to do it any more,” says Dumas. “They say, ‘It’s a woman’s job. I’m not sewing.’ ”

Can anyone do it? “It’s hard work,” cautions Dumas. “But what we look at first of all is personality, because it takes around 15 hours to make one bag and that bag is almost entirely done by one pair of hands.” Personality is everything. “Everyone knows which is his bag and they get attached to it: it’s part of the magic. It’s about a passion, and passion is complicated to assess.” Dumas pauses.

“There is a German story about stonecutting during the Middle Ages,” he continues, “and someone asks three stonecutters what they are doing? One of the stonecutters says, ‘I’m breaking rocks.’ The second one says, ‘I am earning my living.’ And the third one says, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’ The third one gets the job. You have to believe in it.”

I really could believe in a Birkin bag, I say, but what’s the pay like? “Yes. If you are at the right level because you started that way then it’s getting there,” Dumas replies vaguely. “It’s important for us that our craftsmen are happy. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect.”

Dumas studied political sciences at the illustrious Sciences Po in Paris before doing postgraduate studies at Harvard, but he’d be a philosopher by choice. “From time to time, I fantasise that I’m going to go back to my philosophy study,” he says when I ask him what he does for fun (a rare commodity it seems — “there’s probably less switching off when you’re in a family business” — although he does have a wife and children to distract him).

The family business has always been part of his life. “I would visit the shop when my father visited my grandfather, who was still working. And I’d play in the store with my cousins.” He was first aware of being “an Hermès” aged eight when his classmates were discussing the biggest shop in Paris.

“I was recently presented as the genius who invented the waiting list,” says Dumas, by way of a family anecdote. “But I cannot claim this title. In fact, the decision was taken at the dinner table. At the time there was a big demand for the Birkin handbag and my uncle, who was CEO, and mother, who was the managing director, were talking about how we could produce more. But, at the end of the dinner, they decided the changes required to produce more bags would change the quality, so we couldn’t do it.”

Instead, they let the store managers handle the demand independently, and thus the list was born. He prods his lobster. “To be clear, it’s embarrassing to say no to a client but it is what it is because of the demand — and our standard of quality. If we could live without a waiting list, I would be very happy.”

Dumas is good company. His furtive, slightly anxious storytelling is punctuated by a high-pitched giggle, which sounds almost apologetic at times and is very endearing. He’s also surprisingly self-deprecating. When I ask about the double-breasted suits he favours, and which have lately had a fashion renaissance, he jokes: “I am at the front of the revival — maybe a little bit earlier than the revival.” He then adds hastily: “I don’t go as far as thinking I made the revival, don’t worry.”

Was his journey into the family business predestined? “No. It was very free. There was never any pressure at all.” Dumas worked for eight years at BNP Paribas before he got the call. “I chose banking because I wanted to be in China” he says. “That was my dream. I wanted to work in Beijing.” Surely, in 1995, Beijing was far from dreamy. “I’m still asking myself why I thought that,” Dumas laughs, “especially when I arrived. But, for me, it was glamour and it was exciting.”

He stayed in China for two years. “Then, I was sent to Paris for two years and then I was sent to New York for four. And then my Uncle Jean came to see me and said, ‘Axel, I really want you to join the company.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Everything except finance,’ because I was in a bank. And he made me start in the finance department.”

Dumas was the head of the jewellery department and leatherwear before being made chief executive in June last year. His cousin Pierre-Alexis is artistic director and together they oversee a company that is seeing its biggest growth in decades despite shrinking global demand. On top of this, the new Hermès designer Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski has just shown a first “more feminine” ready-to-wear collection for the brand, the company has just unveiled a massive, refurbished store on Bond Street in London and, next month, it opens an exhibition, Wanderland, at the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, celebrating the spirit of the flâneur.

The store revamp is part of an initiative to make London the gross driver of the company — maximising a retail hub where old money meets new, Europe meets America, and tourists flock from the new market territories. “It’s very important to remain faithful to your loyal customer. We need to cherish that. When you have a long-time connection with a clientele [Hermès has sat on Bond Street for 40 years], it’s nice to show that you still care, you still invest.”

Desert arrives, a millefeuille of mango and passion fruit, mandarin sorbet, an assortment of little biscuits, and pu-erh tea. Dumas only picks at his sweet before apologising to Elisabeth for his lack of appetite. He say he’s a big fan of pu-erh, a 25-year-old blend of fermented dark tea from China’s Yunnan province that smells like dust. “It’s supposed to smell like fresh wood after small rain in the forest,” says Dumas, “and it’s very good for your health.” It’s surprisingly delicious.

Lunch complete, we leave the dining room, where Elisabeth presents me with a small bag in the company’s distinctive orange livery. The colour is subject to another tale of family lore: seeking a paper with a grain akin to pigskin with which to make the company’s bags after the second world war, Emile could only find a large enough quantities in the vivid citrus shade. What delights might such a bag contain? In fact, it is a small pot of apple jelly, from the tree outside, tied with a brown grosgrain ribbon and marked with a handmade label. It’s very charming. I try not to look too disappointed.

Dumas leads me back out of the building. We weave through the workshops, where I am introduced to half a dozen workers, and through Emile-Maurice Hermès’s wood-panelled offices which are maintained as a private museum in which one can see the handbag that inspired the first prototype “Kelly” and a saddle made for Napoleon Bonaparte.

As we descend the stairs that lead back to the shop floor, Dumas points to portraits of his chief executive ancestors that line the stairwell. Why is he not among them? “Because you have to be dead,” says Dumas, with another nervous little giggle. “For now I prefer to stay on the Lunch page. I don’t want to be an obituary, yet.”

Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor

Illustration by Patrick Morgan

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