It might seem that Hermès is a synonym for luxury, but the 184-year-old French house is very particular about words. In fact, when I ask the label’s men’s artistic director, the warm and sophisticated Véronique Nichanian, what she thinks about the word luxury, she practically rolls her eyes. “For me, that does not mean anything—luxury,” says Nichanian, who has helmed the house’s menswear maison for nearly 32 years. She describes her pieces as “vêtements-objets”—something akin to clothes as objects—and adds, “I’m not doing fashion.”
Indeed, what Hermès aspires to create—with its Birkin bags, crocodile-skin peacoats, and highly sought-after scarves—are not merely products. And you don’t really buy these objects; you collect them. If shopping can seem like an act of mindless consumerism, Hermès makes the process of welcoming new things into your life a pursuit of connoisseurship.
As anyone who has held an Hermès object in their hand knows, it’s not merely price that sets Hermès apart, but something more intangible. “For the past five years, everybody talks about luxury in terms of price,” Nichanian says. “For me, the price determines nothing. For me, it’s working with your hand, it’s attention, it’s beautiful material. It takes time; you can repair it. Maybe at the end it’s costly, but it’s not the point.”
The Hermès ethos resonates far beyond the confines of the runway. As the world financial markets went into free fall last year, people often joked that an Hermès bag was a wiser investment than stocks and bonds. Enough consumers seemed to believe the notion that, soon after lockdown lifted in China in April of last year, Hermès reportedly pulled in a record $2.7 million in a single day at one of its flagships. As many other European houses laid off staff, the label retained all its employees because, in a rare show of corporate noblesse oblige, the company’s board members opted to forgo bonuses. In fact, Hermès ended the fashion industry’s worst year in history—the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company projected an overall 93 percent earnings decline from 2019—with a profit.
What separates Hermès from its peers is its thoughtfulness—Nichanian, for example, is as existential as a French philosopher and as inquisitive as a Silicon Valley iconoclast. Indeed, aspects of Hermès warrant comparison to technology giants known for disruptive thinking, like Google or Apple—its interrogation of consumer culture, its obsessiveness over progress and perfection, and a looming, cult-like reputation. But unlike those companies, Hermès has become enormously popular for its archive while simultaneously being adored for what it’s creating in the moment. It seems that by remaining rooted in tradition, Hermès has fashioned itself as the most modern luxury brand in the world.
Hermès began in 1837, making what the poet Frederick Seidel once described as “flawless leather luxury made for horses out of cows.” It still produces equestrian goods, but the universe (in Hermès parlance) contains 15 other métiers that create, in addition to Nichanian’s sublime menswear, porcelain, watches, perfumes, and textiles, just to name a few. There’s also Hermès Horizons (a.k.a. Sur-Mesure), which tends to such bespoke client whims as private-jet interiors and a lambskin carrying case for a single apple.
Arguably, the vogue for expanding a fashion brand into what is often called a lifestyle brand began with Hermès. Those Supreme ashtrays and Saint Laurent marble arcade machines have a clear predecessor. The difference is that Hermès is a workshop of artisans, from Nichanian and Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski, the current director of women’s ready-to-wear, to its coterie of scarf designers and its renowned window dresser, the late Leïla Menchari. “They’re very careful about who they work with and what they do,” says Brian Procell, who, with his partner, Jess Gonsalves, consults for luxury brands and runs Procell, the influential New York City vintage store and archive. “It’s very calculated and well thought-out.” The house appointed womenswear designers like Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier long before it was common practice to install maverick creative heads at behemoth brands. Its output over the past 30 years includes everything from combs and place mats to some of the most exquisite work by the 20th century’s most significant fashion designers. “You don’t feel bad spending money for that caliber of product,” Procell says. “It always feels like an investment.”
Over the past five years, multiple vintage and archival fashion dealers told me that they have seen the market for almost anything that bears the name Hermès explode. “The one undeniable thing about Hermès is that it always conveyed aspirational fantasy luxury,” Gonsalves says. “That feeling has always been there for us, but maybe now some of the younger people can recognize that too.”
Procell traces the current wave of Hermès fanaticism in menswear to the positioning of the Birkin as hip-hop’s must-have bag, as when Drake revealed in 2017 that he was assembling a collection of them for his future wife. Many of his peers seemed happy simply to collect them for their romantic partners (Offset, Quavo) or themselves (Young Thug). Meanwhile, A$AP Rocky appeared onstage that same year draped in an Hermès blanket.
The Hermès hype goes much deeper than bags and blankets, though. The recent fervor for Margiela has turned men into collectors of the designer’s cerebral womenswear for the house. Then there’s Kermit Oliver, the famous painter-cum-letter carrier who is one of the only Americans to create the art for Hermès scarves. Teo Griscom, owner of Santa Fe Vintage, has seen the Hermès vintage market soar over the past five years. The prices for Oliver’s exuberant Southwestern-themed designs, with their Native American motifs and giant turkeys, “have skyrocketed,” she says, to upwards of $5,000 for a single 35-by-35-inch square of silk. “When you collect something that iconic,” Griscom says, “you want that story.”
The way Hermès devotees see it, the house converts clients into collectors by encouraging those who seek its most exclusive products to accumulate a portfolio of objects from other métiers first, not unlike the way Rolex dealers develop collectors of the brand’s watches. Bryan Yambao, who initially came to fame as the blogger Bryanboy and now consults for a number of luxury brands, has pillows, blankets, ponchos, and handbags (including five Birkins) and is also an enthusiast of the house’s porcelain. He is not alone: Young men are reportedly Hermès’s fastest-growing customer demographic for that métier. “They’re unwavering,” Yambao says of the brand’s range. “They don’t compromise.” Though the Hermès ethos can occasionally clash with the millennial lifestyle: Yambao recently put his teacup in the microwave to reheat his coffee and it nearly exploded. “There’s real gold in there!” he said. “Hermès doesn’t fuck around!”
Many fashion brands, given such a lauded back catalog, would be eager to plunder it for future collections. But Hermès rarely reintroduces its objects. That has made it both the ultimate archival brand and the house that resists looking back, in constant pursuit of innovation. “I don’t need to look at the archives,” Nichanian says. She made the archive.
The distinct, frenzied desire cultivated by Hermès has also set the tone for the rest of the fashion world. Yambao believes the house invented the culture of hype that now dominates consumerism—“more than Supreme, more than [Dior designer] Kim Jones,” he says. “They’re great at creating these really limited things in a small way to create demand, and they sell it to the right people,” he says, adding that you usually need a relationship with the staff to make a significant purchase. “We live in a world where, when you cannot get something, the more you want it,” he says. “It’s this built-up desire—and they’re masters at it. They pioneered it.” But rather than feeding the mindless cycle of hype, there remains a sense that you have to access Hermès, and its treasures cannot be unlocked with cash alone. While nearly every brand has introduced products for almost every level of consumer, from sweatshirts to wallets to logo-emblazoned outerwear, Hermès still stands, singularly, for aspiration.
“My work is doing beautiful clothes, because we are the most beautiful house in the world,” says Nichanian, with a somewhat beatific smile on her face. “And in the end, if it’s luxury, I don’t know. And I don’t care.”
Rachel Tashjian is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue with the title “How Hermès Invented Hype.”