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Fashion’s musical chairs commence anew, as Christophe Lemaire leaves Hermes

Alex Fury
476775439 1024x682 Fashions musical chairs commence anew, as Christophe Lemaire leaves Hermes

Christophe Lemaire's autumn/winter 2014 collection for Hermès (FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Fashion isn’t a house of cards – where one ill-judged manoeuvre brings the whole thing tumbling down – but rather a game of Kerplunk!. Meaning, if you twiddle the wrong bit, it makes a lot of noise and you lose a few of your marbles, but the whole thing doesn’t crash to the ground.

That’s what occurred to me when news broke today of Christophe Lemaire’s mutual parting of ways with the French luxury juggernaut Hermès after his spring 2015 show in October. He’s been artistic director of women’s ready-to-wear (note the adumbrated parameters of that title) for four years, and over the past twelve months rumours have swirled about his leaving.

As they do about most designers these days. Times are uncertain, jobs are always up for grabs. With all this emphasis on “codes” of houses and the dreaded “DNA” of brands, the point of these designer musical chairs seems to be to emphasise the inviolability of the label. Designers come and go, the house must still remain.

It’s always been that way at Hermès, though. Martin Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christophe Lemaire have passed through the womenswear studio in the past fifteen years – but I would question if any have really left that strong an impression on the house. You remember Margiela’s sleepy luxury, a bit like his own line but with everything made out of thousand-ply cashmere. That jolly, fetishy Gaultier opener with strap-on saddles and leather corsets made an impact, even if no-one much bought it.

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Hermès autumn/winter 2013 (FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

And Lemaire’s last collection was lovely, as was his winter before. He isn’t terribly good with print, but he got the gist of the game: a coat that costs as much as a car, plenty of crocodile, good bags that you don’t fiddle about with (Gaultier, probably messed with them a bit too much). Hermès works much better for winter, because if you’re dropping an enormous amount of cash on something, it’s likely to be a gigantic overcoat or enveloping jumper as opposed to a filmy silk something. But still, it’s not immediately identifiable as ‘him’ rather than just ‘Hermès’.

It’s been selling, however. Axel Dumas, Chief Executive Officer of Hermès commended Lemaire for his “passion” and mentioned “very satisfactory financial results,” in his official statement. That’s a bit of an understatement – last year, Hermès posted an operating profit of 32.4 per cent, a historical record, on sales of 3.75 billion euros. It’s not purely down to Lemaire, of course – leather goods make up 44% of the company’s income, ready-to-wear barely half that (and that also includes the highly successful menswear collections helmed for over 25 years by Véronique Nichanian).

This year, there has already been a slow-down – a VAT hike on 1 April slowed sales growth in Japan from 21.7 percent in the first quarter to just 1.6 percent (less slowing, more hitting a brick wall). Bearing in mind that Japan alone counts for 12 percent of Hermès sales (to put that in context, the Americas as a whole are only 17 percent), it’s a hefty blow. Earlier this year, Dumas also addressed the prices of Hermès products, raising them 10 percent in Japan, about 4 percent in Europe and between 6 percent and 7 percent in the U.S.

It’s cynical to peg it all to figures, of course. But there’s something telling that this slowdown occurred when decision were presumably being made as to whether or not Lemaire would continue as Hermès head honcho. Plus, a designer shake-up is a sure-fire, tried-and-tested means to bring press (and therefore customer) attention to a label.

The inevitable question: who next? Given Hermès’ run of designers thusfar, a European name probably – although they could do a “Wanglenciaga” and bring in a young American to try and capture a different demographic. Joseph Altuzarra could be an interesting fit (French-born, New York based), but he’s in the Kering stable, hence presumably out-of-bounds (note: Margiela’s employment came before he sold a stake in his business to Renzo Rosso’s ‘Only The Brave’ holding company in 2002; he left in Hermès in 2003).

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Christophe Lemaire bows at his spring/summer 2014 Hermès show (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

Then again, who wants a part-timer? Lemaire is bowing out stating “My own label is growing in an important way and I now really want and need to dedicate myself to it fully.” Maybe Hermès is looking to mimic their lucrative and lauded situation with Nichanian and employ a designer whose sole focus will be to build their womenswear line? Such as Olivier Theysken, the Belgian who cut ties with his former US employer Theory earlier this summer, perhaps?

Hermès is a plum gig for anyone. There’s a focus on craft, on the kind of awesome technical abilities to make crocodile behave like silk, and a money-no-object nonchalance in sewing said crocodile into a five-figure t-shirt. Which then actually sells. Hermès is one of the few remaining bastions of real luxury – where bags are ordered, rather than plucked off shelves, where perfume is only 6% of sales, rather than the cash-cow for a loss-leading façade of fashion.

It’s an interesting job, almost unique in the fashion world. But, as I said before, the designer is almost irrelevant. Hermès is the name that really matters.

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