As artistic director of the women's "universe" at Hermès, Bali Barret may be the most quietly influential figure in luxury fashion. Formerly a designer of her own ready-to-wear line, Barret has been at the quintessential French company eleven years and now oversees everything from the house's métiers, including the world-renowned silks and leather goods, to its perfumes and communications materials. She works on shoes and jewelry with Pierre Hardy and on womenswear with Christophe Lemaire, whom she recruited despite his relatively low profile and who has repaid her faith with a series of highly regarded collections. It seemed like an opportune time to talk to Barret: Hermès, which reported revenues of $4.99 billion in 2013, is planning a major showcase in New York, on May 20. But, beyond that, I had been hearing all season that other luxury companies were changing up their strategies, focusing less on the expansion-at-all-costs drive of recent years and more on quality and construction. That, it seemed to me, has always been the way at Hermès. Sitting in her quiet, light-filled office on the top floor of the label's headquarters just off the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Barret, a native Parisian, came across as calm and thoughtful. But there were also glimpses of passion—and maybe even a little steel—beneath the silk.
DIRK STANDEN: What makes Hermès different from other companies, even other luxury companies?
BALI BARRET: It's a big company but still very familial, as we say in French. Things happen in the corridors, we say here. It's not big meetings and blah, blah, blah. Things happen very easily and intuitively. I think intuition is one of the big strengths of the house.
DS: So it's not all about looking at a spreadsheet?
BB: No, no. For example, Axel [Dumas, CEO] and Pierre-Alexis [Dumas, artistic director of Hermès International] recently told me, "You know, you have to continue going this way of hiring people who can cry and go crazy and that don't walk straight." We want people like that. We don't want very rational and nice, submissive people, designers who do what they think they have to do. We want emotional people, interesting people. I mean, there are not many companies where the bosses are telling you this.
DS: And how do you work with the various designers? What is that process?
BB: All of them are very different people, so the relationship is very different with each of them. Really, my job is to feel, understand, support, kick the ass sometimes. Also, say the truth, which is sometimes difficult, because working with creative people is about sensitivity and trust. It's been a few years now, so the relations are fine, but, in the very beginning, I was not arriving like I know everything and you have to listen to me. That's not it. It's about being very humble, listening, understanding, and getting to know each other. Having this global vision is very interesting, too. Having links between things but not too many, just keeping the balance. Because Hermès is about chaos. A nice chaos.
DS: Can you define what makes an object or a piece of clothing Hermès?
BB: Beauty. Mostly beauty, no?
DS: Well, there are different forms of beauty. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?
BB: People who do cheap things maybe say that. Beauty means something for me. Beauty is a level of perfection and beautiful material and a beautiful hand. You can feel it.
DS: You're planning a huge event in New York, on May 20. Why the U.S. now?
BB: I'm not sure everybody in the U.S. knows how modern Hermès is. The image can still be a bit conservative there and maybe not as contemporary as it is here. And I think this kind of event is meant to express things a bit differently…. At Hermès parties, people are smiling, you know? When you see three hundred people who most of the time are sharp people, people who are used to being invited everywhere, and they have this smile like kids, you say, "OK, I'm fine. I did it." And that's really the ambition.
DS: It's true the company is not conservative and boring; it evolves all the time.
BB: Pierre-Alexis often says, you know, we could just rely on our past and our archives, but his terror is to become a museum.
DS: Can the type of attitude Hermès has only exist as long as it's a family company?
BB: Yes, I think the fact that it's a family company is the thing. They're gone, I'm gone, no?
DS: Can we talk about LVMH and the situation with the shares? [Bernard Arnault's group has amassed a 23.1 percent stake in Hermès, against the latter's objections.]
BB: No, we don't need to.
DS: You hired Christophe Lemaire because you believed in him, not because of his name or buzz. Why don't more companies behave like that?
BB: Because people are obsessed with money. Of course, it's more courageous and difficult to pick up someone nobody knows, and to give him the tools and everything and say, "Go ahead, prove it." It's a risky way, and it doesn't take five minutes. It's much easier to take a big star. The press is talking about it straightaway, you do your show and everybody is there, and, no matter what, they are giving great comments. It's like buying something. But it's a great luxury to be able to do it differently.
DS: You don't feel like you have to create a new It bag every season?
BB: "It" bag? Come on.
DS: Well, wasn't the Kelly or the Birkin the original It bag?
BB: You don't decide to have success, you know. It just comes up. What we have to do is design beautiful bags, but we don't decide this one is going to be the bag. I mean, it took the Kelly almost twenty years to be "It," as you say. It had to be in the store for twenty years before people started to love it.
DS: Can you sum up the Hermès philosophy in a sentence?
BB: Creation, creation, creation.