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Jean-Louis Dumas Dead at 72

Godfrey Deeny
May 03rd, 2010 @ 00:46 AM - Paris

Jean-Louis Dumas, the former president of Hermes and one of Europe’s greatest experts on luxury, died Saturday morning after a long illness.

Dumas, the great, great grandson of Thierry Hermes, who founded the famed label in 1837, had been president of Hermes for 18 years until his retirement in 2006.

Famously elegant, and noted for his inventive and curious mind, Dumas was regarded as the driving force in Hermes’ remarkable flowering in the past three decades, as the label grew from largely a leather goods business into a major league luxury brand.

“It is with a profound emotion and great sadness that the house of Hermes announces the death of Monsieur Jean Louis Dumas,” the house said in a release Monday.

“Poet and magician, lover of creation and quality, attentive to all, he sewed the deepest bonds with the staff, suppliers and clients,” the release read.

Fluent in English well before many French executives of his era, Dumas tapped into his personal experience as a buyer for Bloomingdale's when he joined Hermes in 1964, after a legendary trip to India in a Citroen “deux chevaux” automobile to Katmandu, Nepal. Throughout his life he was an intrepid voyageur to remote civilizations and distant cultures, using these experiences to enrich Hermes creativity. Under his management the house famously created Kelly bags in raw rubber supplied by a primitive Amazonian tribe.

He threw open the doors of Hermes to widely varying outside ideas; creating a policy whereby anyone can submit a sketch to the house which, if deemed fine enough, will be turned into a scarf.

In three decades at the helm, Dumas helped transform Hermes from a company with annual sales of 40 million euros, or $53 million at current exchange rates, to one with 2009 turnover of 1.9 billion euros, or $2.5 billion, a remarkable 47 fold increase.

Dumas brought in talented designers, beginning with Eric Bergere and Bernard Sanz to revamp the house’s ready-to-wear collections. Later hiring Tomas Maier, now the acclaimed creative director of Bottega Veneta, Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier, the current women’s designer of Hermes. And it was Dumas who requested singer Jane Birkin to develop one of the label’s most iconic products, the Birkin Bag.

Hermes also embarked on a series of strategic acquisitions buying up many of its high-quality suppliers and acquiring strategic stakes in prominent French glassware, silverware and tableware manufacturers, such as Puiforcat, St. Louis, Perigord and hatter Motsch. The house was also to buy control of Gaultier’s fashion house.

After overseeing the house’s diversification into watches and greater emphasis on perfume, Dumas launched Hermes on the Paris Stock exchange in 1993, raising $23 million in a flotation that was oversubscribed 34 times.

“He was the prototype of a Man of Light, an enlightened gentleman, curious and open, French and international, full of courtesy and humor. A great man,” Gaultier told Paris daily Le Figaro.

Originally Protestant Germans, the Hermes family settled in France in the early 1820s, and perhaps are the most famous exemplars of what the French call the H.S.P., for haute société protestante (Protestant high society), a powerful minority within a predominantly Catholic country.

Dumas’ children Sandrine and Pierre Alexis survive him. His memorial service will be held in the Reformed church of the Holy Spirit in Paris this coming Friday.

Vivit post funera virtus.

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