Artistic Director of Hermès, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and Architect Stefano Boeri discuss the responsibility of larger corporations to lead in the transition towards a mandatory sustainable consideration for the future
On September 4, 2020, a redevelopment of an industrial brownfield site near the city centre of Normandy commences. Pierre Alexis Dumas, Artistic Director of Hermès, lays the first symbolic brick to the Maroquinerie de Louviers — the second site of Hermès in Normandy. The workshop designed by French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh will produce more energy than it consumes and follow the Maison’s core values of social and environmental sustainability: the building, will be made only of bricks and wood, and the trees uprooted in the construction site will be retained for the gardens, maintaining the biodiversity of the site. The day before laying the first brick, Mr. Dumas sits down with Stefano Boeri and presents a construction hat in the brand’s signature orange, discussing the responsibility of larger corporations to lead in the transition towards a mandatory sustainable consideration for the future.
Ann-Marie Voina: The rise of consumerism, growing populations, climate change and now, the growing concern of public health. Could you please explain the updated moral obligations that you both have faced?
Pierre-Alexis Dumas: The world is VUCA, as my cousin, Axel Dumas, who is the chairman of our family company says — VUCA stands for Versatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. I am lucky to serve a cultural company which happens to be a family company for almost 200 years. We have to put things into perspective, have faith in human beings and human intelligence. The real question is — are we willing to use our intelligence? Hermès is a peculiar company centred around craft. I was raised by my forefathers — my father, my grandfather and great craftsmen that I met at a young age. They all said the same thing: we work with nature, transforming what it gives us. No nature, no culture. The idea here is a higher degree of interest that in French we name un intérêt supérieur. It can be summed up into the pursuit of curiosity of the other. Through craft, we continue what we have learned, we educate, we improve: because we started making harnesses and saddles, so obviously we have evolved. But the spirit is the same and it is all based on two values: the respect of nature and human beings and altruism — curiosity for the Other. The Other for Hermès is everything apart from what we know. The challenge is not to face the obstacles, it is to understand who we are and where we come from and from there, stand true to our values. Facing the complexities of the world today, an economic model like Hermès is part of the solution more than the problem.
Stefano Boeri: We are now even more aware of the fragility of our species. We have been fragile in our technocratic ambitions to rule, which turned out to be harmful for our survival. We have also been fragile in our intellectual ability to make predictions, because we failed to predict the infection that was the last link in the chain of a virus-induced infection. Then, fragile in our desperate desire to stay strong. We have to accept this fragility and transform it. The real issue is how we can reimagine what we are used to call natural. In my position as an architect and urban planner, we are used to considering natural as something that is outside our sphere of life — outside our cities, our homes, and our bodies. But this is not the case. We should accept to be a part of the natural process and at the same time, we need to accept the position of the entrepreneurs trying to transform the world by working with materials and so on. We cannot forget to consider the necessity to take a risk as a basic component of our own way to be the planet. Our species used to change things to protect the environment.
PAD: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to Normandy. We are going to have a symbolic ritual of laying the first stone of our new manufacturing site. I am going there with one of my cousins, Guillaume de Seynes, who is Executive Vice President Manufacturing division and Equity investment. I prepared a speech and realised — I don’t just want to come in and make a speech. I need to come with a strong object that will make people realise why this is important. I found the object in my office; I will show it to you. — Mr. Dumas brings out a construction hat in the signature Hermès orange with a date marked on it. — This was written by my father in 1990, it says ‘19 July 1990, Ateliers de Pantin’. This is our first modern manufacturing site. Until 1990, the Hermès production was located above the store. That is where I grew up from the age of 11 to 17, working in the workshops every Wednesday after school. My father said, «We must build the manufacturer of the future. It is composed of three ideas. Number one is natural light for the craftsmen, number two is space for the craftsmen and finally, number three, one craftsman and one object, meaning that one bag is made by one and only one craftsman». This was his brief for the architect. I need to add one word that my father did not use then, which is sustainability. For the new maroquinerie in Louviers, we ran a competition and the architect who won was a French-Lebanese woman named Lina Ghotmeh. Tomorrow, we start the building of a site that is going to generate more energy than it is using. Lina Ghotmeh found out that in the town, next to the site, is an old manufacturer of bricks — it will now be constructed using the local building craft. It could have been just another manufacturer. However, for us it is a big deal because I am very proud that we can actually push in the right direction. The climate in Normandy is in the winter, cold and humid. To have a building which will be zero-emission is an achievement. Now is the time where each individual on this planet and therefore every company has to put themselves into question, asking themselves «What can I do every day that can include an action of sustainability and eco-responsibility?» I don’t have the power to change the climate, but I can choose to take my drop of water and bring it to the forest.
AMV: Mr. Boeri, on a similar note – how about the integration of green architecture in city landscapes?
SB: We started the idea of putting together architecture and living in nature a few years ago. We did it with the vertical forest and we are still doing it with the other vertical forests that we are building in other parts of the world. We believe that a new relation between nature architecture is possible — now that we have the technologies and the awareness. It is definitely not about decoration, the practice and bringing trees to buildings. We create ecosystems where humans, plants and birds send signals together. We have to be brave in the capacity to use materials as timber and wood.
PAD: There’s a limited quantity of supply in this world of natural resources. In addition to this, looking for the best quality means a limited amount of supply and in order to have this you need to know how it’s produced, who produces it, how it’s transported and the subsequent impact they have on the local environment of where they are produced. These questions cannot be taken for granted, and it’s not just a matter of transparency, but a matter of ethics. Today, we buy silk in Brazil, where it’s produced by small producers. Our job is to make sure that they find it economically interesting for them to continue growing the mulberry tree and to be able to develop silk farms. We need to invest in awareness — all the way to the end, Stefano. When we buy something, when you go and live in a building, you want to know the impact of what you are using — on your life and other people’s life. There is an obvious change of paradigm.
SB: We are taking another amazing step in order to reduce CO2 emissions, working on the idea of a new certification that demonstrates how buildings are sustainable, also in terms of materials in the construction phase. But this is not enough: we also need to make them accessible. For instance, in the Netherlands, we are under the construction of the first Vertical Forest for social housing — with the cost of construction lower than 1,300 euros per square meter. Planting a tree is a must — economically inclusive, democratically inclusive and an efficient way to tackle climate change. We have understood how the pandemic is not an isolated phenomenon. It is the last of the chain of events related to effects which are coming from global warming and climate change.
PAD: The city is going back to the countryside. During the confinement, we discovered that we can work from different locations. I told you that the first Hermès construction was done in 1990, and tomorrow I’m starting a new one. In between, we have built forty-three manufacturing sites in France. And they are not in Paris, but all over the country. One of the issues in France is that small towns and small villages are becoming empty, everybody has left, and large cities are overcrowded. Twenty-five years ago, we made a decision to encourage people to go back to the countryside. We team up with local craft schools and municipalities that are looking for investors. We then come and build our manufacturing sites. They never consist of more than 250 people — the reason for this lies in the concept of the Italian bottega. Everybody has to know each other by their first name. My father told me once — if you are more than 250 people it is impossible to know everybody by their first name.
AMV: The luxury fashion industry is perhaps not the most accessible industry. When discussing values, actions and commitments within the fashion industry, we must also address the issue of accessibility.
PAD: I created the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès in 2008, which is engaged in supporting artistic creation, the transmission of know-how and the preservation of biodiversity. It is not about Hermès but about Hermès’ values and helping projects around the world, which are coherent with what is important for us. Talking about The H3 project — Heart, Head, Hand — we started asking all our employees around the world if they knew a small non-profit local association which Hermès could help. Today we have 15,600 employees, in 2008, we were 8,000. We asked everybody — gathering around 134 application projects. This program is founded through the Hermès Foundation and helps local non-profits on different subjects: sustainability, craft, education… it’s a way to involve all our employees. The foundation exists because our business is profitable. Whereas, Hermès is profitable because employees are working hard I also feel that people feel concerned by the company they work for. I call it the social glue, after the famous sentence: ‘a company that only makes money is poor’. People who are giving their time and their life to Hermès have to feel that in return, their own life is being enriched.
AMV: This could be regarded as a future definition of durability. Mr Boeri – architects produce works that last much more than our lives. How do you approach durability in your practice?
SB: What is paradoxical is that we stop to work on producing these things when the real life of building begins. In a short time, we have to concentrate on everything we know about the future — our capacity to predict the future and the reaction of the people that are going to use it, to inhabit the spaces we have imagined. When we are in doubt about what is happening and we are insecure about the expectations of people, we are entering the domain of uncertainty and flexibility. This domain is not a good drive for building timeless architecture. Sometimes, when you do something strong, certain and stable, a building will last longer — it will be more capable to accept changes in the future. The second issue is worth mentioning, and I agree with Pierre-Alexis, is the culture of repair and maintenance. We are now working in Genoa, close to the new San Giorgio bridge — replacing the Morandi bridge that connected France and Italy and that collapsed two years ago. We won a competition and we are redesigning the valley under the new bridge, designed by Renzo Piano. Here, we have an example of how care and maintenance are a part of the idea of repairing, imagining timeless buildings and objects of craft. The Morandi bridge was used, but not maintained — there was no care to the maintenance of such a complex object. An object and a product should be followed in its life. In our culture, we do not have enough of this concept. It is something that we have to absorb from other cultures.
PAD: I live in a house in Paris, which is the fourth registered building in France in concrete, built in 1905. I was a bit concerned about the quality of the concrete after over 100 years. The engineer told me they did not know very much about the properties of that new material then, they took no risk — so it’s high quality. We make objects that are strong and last, but we also make them so that people can use them. By using them, you finish the product. If you don’t use a saddle, or a bag, it will dry up and fall apart. If you use it, it will be kept alive and it will improve over time – it will achieve its patina, which will protect it. If it is damaged, you fix it and you take care of it. Timelessness is something that can be used and reused over and over again — that is why it is timeless. It’s about the way you construct your object, and the aesthetic of your object, which makes it sustainable over time. I keep repeating something that my grandfather told me when I was a child; «Luxury is what you can repair». I think the word that Stefano used is ‘care’. Behind the idea of maintenance, there is this idea of caring. If we design an object and you do not care for the people who want to use it or the people who are going to make it, you are going in the wrong direction. This is what I meant by the Other at the beginning of the discussion. I will tell you the story of a man who was making saddles at Hermès. He told me this story: «If I make a saddle and there is a nail that I forgot, that will go up and down the saddle seat and into someone’s bottom, he will be hurt, he will be upset, and he will come back. In the end, he will make it clear that we did not do our work properly. If that nail is not going up, but down, it is going in the back of the horse». He looked at me and he said «The horse would only have his eyes to cry. So, Pierre-Alexis, when I make a saddle, I think of the horse». It’s time for everybody to think of the horse.
Opening in Normandy in 2022, the new site of Hermès Leather Good & Saddlery division, was envisioned with the intention of protecting the know-how developed by local artisans while caring for the local ecosystem. The building, designed by the French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh and the Belgian landscape architect Erik Dhont, will be made only of bricks and wood, and its shape will grant the artisans a great deal of natural light, thus minimizing the use of artificial lights and improving the quality of their work. The trees uprooted in the construction site will be retained for the gardens, maintaining the biodiversity of the site, while Dhont’s work will employ modern non-invasive techniques for capturing and redirecting water, dampening the risk of wasting resources. Perfectly fitting into the landscape, the building will merge with its surroundings thanks to his rust like tint, diffusing a soft glow at night at odds with our cities’ light emissions. Hermès plans on preserving the legacy of generations of leather workers, keeping their craft relevant through the products bearing its mark, a synonym of beauty, excellence and durability but also a banner of years and years of French craftsmanship.