There’s a startling incongruity in seeing an impeccably dressed, soft-spoken man in a makeshift tent speaking on topics ranging from art to anthropology, as wild cats roar in the background. Pierre-Alexis Dumas wasn’t discomfited in the least.
This is a man who already has a creative vision for 2019, whose Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès started recognising contemporary Korean artists in 2000, before most of us knew anything about the scene. This is a man who sees no conflict between technology and craftsmanship, who is refreshingly sanguine about an evolving world. This is a man who seems, always, to be perfectly in his element.
The business world may know Dumas as one of the game-changers at Hermès. He became the brand’s artistic director in 2011, and the company experienced its biggest sales growth in decades under his direction.
Billions of euros aside, Dumas is also the founder of the brand’s Fondation d’Entreprise, which celebrates artisanal know-how and creativity, and he is integrally involved with the brand’s identity and evolving artistic expression.
The Fondation, for example, created the Missulsang prize in 2000 to highlight the increasingly vibrant contemporary art scene in South Korea. The winner last year, Jeong Geum-hyung, is testament to the brand’s willingness to push the boundaries beyond the more conventional art commonly associated with luxury brands. Jeong’s exhibit, titled “Private Collection”, included 250 objects that range from sex toys to head models to drones.
“I work with artists all around the world – whether it’s to invite them to decorate our store windows, or design a pattern for a scarf, as we did with Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Artists bring us back to our humanity, they make the unseen seen. It’s a great talent,” Dumas says.
He points out that the biggest danger he sees for humanity today is what he refers to as the “dehumanising process”, where we lose our sense of feeling and empathy for others. “Artists have a strong role in human society to remind us to feel and not be machines. Through art, we experience feelings again,” he says, explaining that art isn’t simply a commodity. “To do something artificial for the sake of making money makes [our lives] all the poorer. We become rich by having the desire to do something beautiful and better ourselves.”
Given his reverence for art, some might find it surprising that Dumas also has a deep appreciation for technology. Contrary to what many people in his position might believe, he doesn’t view the Information Age as an insurmountable change, or see the millennial generation as the alien “other”.
“If we put things in perspective, I don’t think human beings have changed that much,” he says. He explains that he sees two major revolutions of homo sapiens – once around 70,000BC, the age when anthropologists generally agree that humans developed imagination, and the second time is marked by the agricultural revolution around 12000BC. “What has actually changed in the past few decades is our ability to communicate – it has been multiplied in a dramatic way in this digital age.”
Dumas believes that due to information sharing, people today have far more critical minds. “They’re not fools. They ask a lot of questions. It forces everybody to be more genuine,” he says. Furthermore, it sets the stage for a world in which technology and art can no longer be mutually exclusive – quite the opposite, in fact.
“I believe in the integration of hi-tech and craft – that’s the future,” Dumas says, listing the Hermès Apple watch as the perfect example of this combination. “Users like functionality, but they also have to love it and feel something from it. That’s what craft does, it offers the human touch. I think products in the future will be increasingly focused on integrating the sensuality of craft with the functionality of high technology.”
Dumas points out that communications may be evolving at breakneck speed, but design will always have its place in the world. He uses the venue at which the interview was taking place as the perfect example. The tent we were in was part of the travelling “Fierce and Fragile” exhibition organised in collaboration with Panthera, a wild cat conservation organisation. Outside, visitors perused illustrations and paintings of eight big cat species, beautifully rendered by artist Robert Dallet, to the sound of the animals roaring.
“Here, it’s analogue rather than digital – you have to come and physically walk through the venue to experience it,” he says. “I don’t like to oppose the real world to the digital world. We have to learn to integrate both, to think about how the digital world can complement the real experience.”
The “Fierce and Fragile” exhibition was merely one of the many expressions of last year’s theme, Nature at Full Gallop. The concept was also seen throughout the brand’s collections, visual elements and events over the course of the year.Galop d'Hermes launches in Hong Kong
“Now that we’ve entered an age of global extinction of species, some of these animals don’t even exist anymore. Before I was even thinking of celebrating nature as a theme, I knew I had to celebrate Dallet as an artist. He painted these animals because he thought they were beautiful, but also because they were disappearing, and he wanted people to look at them and think about their condition,” Dumas explains. “I think Dallet would be extremely happy today if he were alive to see this collaboration with Panthera and to see that people around are interested and concerned about these beautiful creatures.”
The theme this year is Object Sense, which Dumas says is “driven by all the information we integrate”, reaching beyond the industry to include the larger issues that affect humanity. The artistic director decides on the brand’s yearly themes three years in advance, a feat which, he admits, is no easy task. “The [yearly] theme is a wonderful tool to strengthen the vision we have of the brand – Hermès is a mystery even to us; it is a heritage and a culture, not just a brand,” he says. “[Deciding on the theme] comes through intuition, creative thinking and what I feel is relevant to us in the world.”
Dumas is clearly someone well in touch with his feelings, and it is perhaps this that gives him a refreshing optimism even after a thoroughly depressing 2016.
“When you work in the creative field, you have to understand what you feel. Feelings are beautiful. Feelings are your ability to have empathy, to have concern, to feel love, to feel pleasure, experience beauty. Through feeling, we can have an intuition of things to come.”
As with art and technology, he places great value in emotion and the place it has in work and life.
“We need it to surprise ourselves. We need to create wonder and inspiration,” he says. “There are too many things around. Today, people want something genuine, something that really has meaning to them.”
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