Being Green & Iconically Luxury are 2 reasons to pitch this fashion launch
Steve’s breakdown: Hermès is leaping into makeup for the first time in its 183-year history with lipstick colors drawn from an archive of 75,000 silk swatches and packaging made from the same metals it uses for handbag hardware.
Heard enough? I have.
PARIS, France & NEW YORK, NY: I’m trying to be calm,” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, 53, the artistic director of French luxury house Hermès, at the company’s headquarters in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. “But in my 25 years working at Hermès and my 50 years in my family, I’ve not witnessed many new métiers.” He’s referring to the company’s first proper foray into makeup, with the launch of Rouge Hermès, a line of lipsticks. It is the result of two years of development and at least a decade and a half of pondering before that. Recalling the time when the house launched a perfume named Rouge Hermès, in 2000, Dumas says, “I think I was the one who suggested to my father [Jean-Louis Dumas, the late chairman and creative director of the house] that we should register the name for lipstick.” They didn’t do it then—instead just once making a single shade of red lipstick in limited edition. They needed to think it through some more.
At the time, Hermès was a much smaller, simpler organization. “I have startup problems today,” says Dumas of the vertiginous growth the company has seen since that conversation between father and son. In 1993, when Pierre-Alexis Dumas officially joined the company, Hermès had 2,600 employees. There are 14,500 today, with 2018 revenues of $6.8 billion and free cash flow of $1.66 billion. (His cousin, Axel Dumas, 49, is the company’s CEO.) It’s definitely enough to embark on any major new endeavor they want, though it took the arrival of former MAC executive Agnès de Villers in 2015 to run Hermès’s perfume and beauty division to kick-start this particular development effort. “I’m not an expert in beauty,” Dumas says. “I’m an expert in Hermès. When Agnès came, with her savoir faire, she reassured us, ‘We can do this.’ ”
De Villers brought in Jérôme Touron, who previously developed makeup for Chanel and Christian Dior, to create beauty and skin-care products, and Dumas assembled an in-house team to surround him. Why look elsewhere, goes the logic, when you already have such a deep bench? This includes Bali Barret, artistic director of their women’s universe, to consult on the colors. (She and Touron have Hermès’s library of 75,000 silk swatches and 900 leather shades, complete with pigment formulas, some around a hundred years old, to play with.) Christine Nagel, Hermès’s perfumer, created a delicate custom scent for the lipsticks. And Pierre Hardy, creative director of jewelry and shoes, designed the graphic packaging, which is made of lacquered metal and Hermès’s “permabrass” hardware (the same that is used on its handbags). The refillable metal case snaps shut with a resounding magnetic clack. “We wanted to do refillable so we could use more luxurious materials that had their own value,” says Hardy. “The idea is a form that’s both simple and playful enough to allow it to be done and redone ad infinitum. It’s rare for an artistic director to think about packaging over a long period of time and not just a one-off.”
For now, there is only lipstick, for $67, with refills for $42. It comes in 24 colors (plus three additional options every season, for $72 each) and two different textures, a matte inspired by Hermès’s fine-grained suede and a satin meant to imitate the glow of box calf leather, of Kelly bag fame. The natural ingredients, like beeswax and white mulberry extract, were developed by Touron at Hermès’s laboratory in Normandy. The pigments are intense and electric, hitting across the color spectrum, and include a deep purple, a neutral rose, a true red and a bright, light Orange Julius color. “We’re looking for something pure and timeless…. It took us a year and a half to get here,” says Touron, who has selected manufacturers in Italy for the lipsticks. (He is also looking at production facilities in Japan and France for future products.)
With the lipstick one can add a few little accessories—this is Hermès, after all—including a lip brush with a handle of striped, lacquered wood, and a matching translucent lip pencil intended to stop lipstick from spreading. Barret designed a leather case that pops open to reveal a lipstick tube suspended from a ring and two straps like a trapeze, and a metal mirror encased in a leather disk that doubles as a necklace pendant. The elements that have long been associated with Hermès—color, finesse and that unusual balance of whimsy and practicality—are present.
Every six months for the near future, Hermès plans to launch a new cosmetics category. The company won’t yet confirm any delivery dates or future product lines—“at our own pace” is a phrase often used at Hermès so as not to ensnare its creatives in rigid delivery schedules—but foundations and eye and cheek colors are not far behind, to be followed eventually by skin care.
Dumas, who studied visual arts at Brown University, has always preferred the French word métier when referring to Hermès’s different departments: men’s and women’s fashion, silks, shoes, jewelry, leather goods, equestrian equipment, furniture, tableware, watches, perfume and now cosmetics. Métier has no exact translation in English. It’s more elevated than craft and nobler than skill. Hermès is a company that makes 70 percent of its products in-house, many entirely by hand. Though it hosts runway shows during Paris Fashion Week, it’s always been first and foremost a maker of objects. Says Dumas, sitting in his office hung with riotously colored contemporary art, “A functioning definition for us of what an Hermès object is, is rigor, no wastefulness, attention to detail and an insistence on a job well done.”
But what does that mean for makeup? Today it functions mostly as a quick mood boost, the equivalent of fast fashion for the face. The industry is in high thrall to celebrity-fronted lines like Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, which are heavily trend-driven and have lower prices. Rouge Hermès has no celebrity face like these, nor a high-profile makeup guru under contract to create collections and give tips. “The idea of one makeup artist giving all the rules was not ours,” says de Villers. Touron is a product developer. He used makeup artists to help him test and develop products, but no one is signing a product group or telling anyone how to wear anything. For Dumas, that approach infantilizes customers. “We’ve always relied on the good sense and intelligence of our clients,” he says. There will be no Hermès “face of the season” or step-by-step inserts with line drawings. As Dumas puts it: “Lipstick is not a status symbol, nor a sign of submission to an order, but an affirmation of the self.”
Is this enough for an oversaturated market? Products that aren’t revolutionary can still penetrate the public. (Lip gloss and liner kits propelled Kylie Cosmetics to a $1.2 billion valuation in 2019.) “Success will mean our clients feel immediately that Rouge Hermès is more than a lipstick, but an Hermès object in itself,” says de Villers. “We’ll also be happy if we succeed in offering something with several life cycles, able to interest all generations.”
Besides providing an opportunity to make one’s ontological mark, lipstick—and makeup in general—is a business opportunity with vast democratic potential. It’s one that Hermès has already tasted with the rapid growth of its perfume division, which, until now, has represented one of the company’s most accessible price points. The perfumes start at $79, while a crocodile Himalaya Birkin bag with gold and diamond hardware sold for $380,000 at Christie’s in 2017. “Now perfume is such a mature métier, we can attack cosmetics,” says Dumas. “From an entrepreneurial and economic point of view, it really makes sense.” He points to a tiny orange box on his desk, even smaller than the one created to package Rouge Hermès. “We have a competition to see who can create the smallest box. This one is for fountain-pen ink cartridges. For seven euros, madame,” he says. “You’re going to tell me that Hermès is expensive, but no, it’s costly. I think the hardest thing for us is to convince people that it’s worth it to walk in the door. And it’s true that beauty, like perfume, is a universe that lets us reach bigger numbers. And that makes us really happy, because I believe in the virtue of what we make.”
“I think the hardest thing for us is to convince people that it’s worth it to walk in the door…. Beauty is a universe that lets us reach bigger numbers. And that makes us really happy.”
Rouge Hermès’s lipstick distribution will be far narrower than that of its perfume, however. (No duty-free, for now.) In March, it will be available in 35 countries at select Hermès boutiques, on hermes.com and at third-party retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s—around 180 points of sale worldwide, a choice that de Villers calls “humble and strict.” The nude-wood retail case echoes the stand-alone displays for Hermès perfume’s highest-concept and most expensive line, Hermessence. It is designed to be modular to accommodate new product lines as they’re released. If they perform well enough, retail outlets will expand and counter space will grow.
Though lipsticks will generate less income per square inch than silk or leather, beauty traditionally involves significant investment in marketing and advertising, which gives more visibility to the whole company, says luxury-industry adviser Mario Ortelli, of Ortelli & Company. “Chanel and Dior are proof that the beauty market for heritage brands can be massive,” he says, “but you cannot expect a big boost in revenue in the short term.”
Dumas says he avoids looking at what his competition is doing—and warns anyone working with him to avoid it, too. “Stay focused on what you want to say. For us, that means making an Hermès object,” he says. “We’re a house of artisans, with a lot of wisdom and good sense.” And now, if they’re in the mood, purple lips.