Natural inspirations

By: Fernando Caetano

La Nature au Galop was the theme chosen by Hermès for 2016. Artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas talks to us about the concept behind this choice and its importance for the house founded by his great-great-grandfather

Every year, Hermès chooses a theme to serve as a leitmotif for its fashion collections and other pieces presented in the following 12 months. This is a custom that dates back to 1986. The original idea was the brainchild of Jean-Louis Dumas, the man who, at the helm of Hermès from 1978 to 2006, made it the luxury maison that it is today. As his son Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the current artistic director, explains to Essential, “it was originally an idea of my father who wanted to cast a new spotlight on the house each year. He recognised the importance of the ability of Hermès to reinvent itself season after season. It is through constant change that we actually remain the same in spirit and are able to maintain our culture. The theme is a part of that invitation to change and evolve.”

Three decades since the idea was first implemented, it plays an increasingly important role, either for the aims just mentioned, or for the way in which it has contributed to affirming the identity of a fashion house that, during its nigh-on two centuries of existence, has followed its own very particular path in the world of luxury. The creative process begins in the mind of Pierre-Alexis, who, ever since he took on his current role in 2011, is responsible for defining the theme.

“One theme generates the next. This is not a logical progression but rather an intuitive one. Such a process requires letting your instincts have free rein; they are the bridge to the subconscious. You become aware of a lot of things, and are intellectually stimulated in many ways: you listen, you see what is going on in the performing arts, you read, and you feed your brain, and maybe also your heart, with information and feelings that never cease to shape our personalities. I believe that intuition is the synthesis of culture at a given time.”

It is according to this fundamentally intuitive methodology that Pierre-Alexis determines the theme, which is subsequently handed over to the creative department that takes over for the ensuing steps. However, as he is keen to stress, there is no room for breaches in this process. “We have to constantly reinvent yet remain true to ourselves. It is a fundamental paradox.” This paradox, however, is a huge challenge in the context of a hectic industry, in which time has taken on dizzying proportions and in which the themes chosen, the timelessness attached to them and the fact they are selected two or three years in advance end up working as a counterpoint to the ephemeral spirit of our time.

This connection between past and present gives it continuity and substance, something which sets major brands apart. With 2015 as the year of flânerie (the art of aimless idling) and of the flâneur (the ‘man about town’ figure penned by Baudelaire), 2016 is the year of Nature at Full Gallop. Whether for its intrinsic beauty, which has always served as inspiration for the house, or for the pressing issues that it raises at the start of this century, nature is a huge theme for the moment. Here, Pierre-Alexis has decided to add the horse, symbol of power and elegance, which lies at the very foundation of Hermès and of much of its iconography.

“The world is so baffling in its self-destruction and negativity, but nature continues to fight against all odds. Nature inspires us. It is our aspiration, our respiration. Hermès has such a strong connection with nature, with the horse as its first customer. It gives our objects their allure. It embodies the energy, the generous force that stimulates our ingenuity and cultivates our sensibility. It gives us the wonderful materials that we strive to refine and make sublime through the respectful work of our artisans.”

However, the connection to nature goes far beyond horses. The majority of materials used to make the pieces are sourced from it: from leather to delicate cashmeres, from woods and stones to the precious metals featured in the jewellery. It’s an association that entails a huge responsibility, as Pierre-Alexis insists on making clear: “At Hermès, nature is the perfect antidote for coldness and indifference. It is a quest, a permanent discovery. It awakens our senses and enchants us. It is an open book whose words we must cherish and passionately preserve. But this book is not indefinitely extensible. It reminds us, too, of our responsibilities, our earthbound common sense, and our duty to preserve and pass on. In its immense prodigality and fragility, nature teaches us wisdom. It teaches us, in fact, to be truly civilised.”

Once the theme has been established, the challenge for the creative team is how to apply it. The theme is a way of stimulating internal creativity, which will impregnate, to a lesser or greater extent, the many métiers of the maison, from watches to fashion, from porcelain tableware to furniture. But, beyond this direct and immediate effect, it also represents an intelligent and original way of emphasising its close relationship with art.
More than a mere accessory serving the brand’s marketing, this relationship lies at the founding core of the house, in a practical manner through the métiers it favours.

An example of this is the regular collaboration of major artists, as in the case of painter Robert Dallet, who will be a key figure until the end of the year and whose relationship with the theme and Hermès is revealed to us by Pierre-Alexis: “Robert Dallet devoted his life to nature’s beauty and preservation. He has spent his entire life contemplating and observing big cats. You get a sense of this in his pictures, and of the presence of the bones and muscles holding the illustrated animal erect and lending it weight. They evoke an emotion in us; the artist is the medium through which we feel empathy for these animals.”

His work has also graced a myriad other iconic Hermès products, notes Pierre-Alexis: in 1988, after meeting Jean-Louis Dumas, Dallet created his first scarf for Hermès, Kenya, and in 1996, Jean-Louis Dumas bought 80 works, both to help support Dallet as an artist and to form the basis for future projects. The artist went on to create 25 scarves for Hermès, including the iconic Jungle Love in 2000, and Tendresse féline and Les Tigreaux in 2012. “This year we are also celebrating the work of Robert Dallet with Carnet d’Équateur, a new Limoges porcelain tableware collection created in tribute to the talent of Robert Dallet.”

After Hermès Wanderland travelled the world last year, ironically and surrealistically celebrating the spirit of the flâneur, in 2016 it is the work of Robert Dallet that moves to the fore, in a travelling exhibition entitled “Fierce and Fragile: Big Cats in the Art of Robert Dallet”. The show comprises some 60 works by the artist, including paintings, drawings and sketches, the motto of which is provided by eight species of big cats, in a multidiscipline approach that is as much artistic as it is scientific – much of his work has been developed within the scope of biology. Having first opened at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, USA, it then went on to Milan, last April, and Munich, in June, before heading onto Asia.

In addition to the unquestionable value of Dallet’s work, the exhibition has a greater purpose, as Pierre-Alexis reveals: “It celebrates the beauty of big cats while raising awareness of their precarious existence, forming part of a project to protect their wild populations from further diminishment. We hope to help raise awareness about this fragile existence and their environments on a global scale.” It is certainly something that will make Robert Dallet happy and which ennobles the brand and the initiative, not least because, as the founder’s great-great-grandson points out, “the main theme of course remains Hermès, this strongly humanist family house, which has existed for more than 178 years”.

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