Questions Hover over Hermès

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The death of Jean-Louis Dumas, former CEO of Hermès, on Saturday raises questions about the future of the family-held luxury brand.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, Dumas rejuvenated a brand that got its start as a saddle maker. WWD noted his contributions to growing the company into a global powerhouse, hiring Jean-Paul Gaultier as designer for women’s ready to wear in 2004 and expanding into emerging markets including Asia.

A fifth-generation member of the Hermès family, the 72-year-old Dumas was its patriarch and kept dozens of family members around the company’s managerial ranks. Son Pierre-Alexis Dumas still works as artistic director. 

However, when Jean-Louis stepped down as CEO four years ago, outsider Patrick Thomas was hired, signaling a shift of more than just bloodlines.[more]

Since Thomas took the reins, Hermes opened its first men’s store on Madison Avenue with its signature silk ties and scarves, along with the option to create a luscious custom leather jacket for $50,000.

2009 sales for the fashion house rose 8.5 percent with plans to open 12 stores in 2010, including four in China, four in Japan and one in Singapore.

The brand’s popular accessories, like the iconic Birkin bag, sell for thousands, with celebs including Victoria Beckham snapping them up. Martha Stewart toted her Birkin to her 2004 trial, causing some to ask if a jury would appeal to a person carrying a bag with a likely six-digit price. The goods are well-crafted, but not for the modest.

For fall 2010, Gaultier for Hermes channeled 1960s British TV spy series The Avengers, sending Emma Peel-ready slinky black leather cat suits with bowler hats down the runway.

Chances are not much will change for the brand in the short term, but with no real family successor in sight, a potential suitor will likely come along and snap up the heritage brand.

Already, changes were afoot before the death of Dumas, following a long illness, in Paris. It seems the waiting list for the famed Birkin bag has been removed, which also – of course – removes an air of exclusiveness and mystique about the veteran “it” bag.

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