Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jean-Louis Dumas, Chief of Hermès, Dies at 72

By WILLIAM GRIMES for The New York Times.
Published: May 3, 2010

Jean-Louis Dumas, who revived the flagging fortunes of Hermès in the late 1970s and in his nearly 30 years as the company’s chief executive transformed it into one of the world’s most successful luxury brands, died Saturday at his home in Paris. He was 72

A company spokeswoman, confirming the death, provided no details on the cause, but Mr. Dumas had had Parkinson’s disease for several years.

Mr. Dumas assumed leadership of Hermès in 1978, at a low point in the company’s fortunes. Founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermès as a harness maker, it had diversified to include clothing, jewelry and accessories by the 1920s. Although its Kelly bags and signature square scarves were fashion must-haves, the company was languishing, hobbled by its fusty image.

With a free, sometimes audacious hand, Mr. Dumas began shaking things up. He hired exciting new designers, extended the company’s lines, expanded internationally and invested in companies like the glassware maker Saint-Louis, the tableware company Puiforcat and the fashion house of Jean Paul Gaultier.

In a characteristic bit of opportunism, he turned a chance encounter with the English actress Jane Birkin into one of Hermès’s biggest successes. Seated next to Ms. Birkin on a Paris-to-London flight in 1984, he began asking her about her tattered straw handbag and then invited her to work with Hermès to develop a new handbag design.

The oversize Birkin bag, with its distinctive locking clasp, soon rivaled the Kelly bag as an object of desire for fashionable women worldwide, who were undeterred by prices that now start at $7,500 for the humblest version.

In 1978 Hermès had revenue of about $50 million. By 1990 the figure had risen to $460 million. Last year the company, with about 300 stores worldwide, reported revenue of about $2.5 billion.

Jean-Louis Robert Frédéric Dumas, who also used the last name Dumas-Hermès, was born on Feb. 2, 1938, in Paris. His father, Robert, had married one of the four daughters of Émile-Maurice Hermès, a grandson of Thierry, and would become chief executive of the company in 1951.

After attending the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, better known as Sciences Po, Mr. Dumas traveled to Scandinavia and Czechoslovakia playing drums with a jazz ensemble, then performed his compulsory military service in Algeria.

He entered the buyer-training program at Bloomingdale’s in New York in 1963, a year after marrying Rena Gregoriadès, an architect who would later design the Hermès stores. She died in 2009.

He is survived by their two children, Sandrine, a film actress, and Pierre-Alexis, the artistic director of Hermès.

Mr. Dumas joined Hermès in 1964 and, after becoming chairman when his father died in 1978, embarked on an ambitious program of modernization and expansion, extending the company’s reach into the United States and Asia.

Under designers like Eric Bergère and Bernard Sanz, the company began shedding its equestrian image with python motorcycle jackets and ostrich-skin jeans. Mr. Dumas showed great flair in hiring new talent.

Véronique Nichanian, previously with the Italian couturier Nino Cerruti, took over men’s ready-to-wear in 1988, and in 1997 the Belgian iconoclast Martin Margiela was brought in to design women’s wear. When Mr. Margiela left in 2003, he was succeeded by the even more shocking Mr. Gaultier. The move raised eyebrows throughout the fashion world but paid off in increased sales.

Mr. Dumas aggressively opened new Hermès stores abroad, planting the company flag on Madison Avenue in 2000. At the same time, he closed franchises.

In addition to Puiforcat and Saint-Louis, he created alliances with other luxury firms, investing in the German camera company Leica and buying the name rights to the London shoemaker John Lobb.

In 1993 he took the company public. Nearly three-quarters of its shares remain in family hands, making Hermès, along with Chanel, one of the few great luxury brands that are still family-controlled.

Mr. Dumas, who retired in 2006 because of ill health, always carried an old Leica with him, taking pictures constantly. In 2008, Steidl published a collection of his photographs: “Jean-Louis Dumas: Photographer.”

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