At the head of Hermès, today are two cousins: Pierre-Alexis and Axel Dumas. Both are co-chairmen of the brand, Axel the CEO and Pierre-Alexis its creative director, whose father, Jean-Louis, revolutionized Hermès from just selling perfectly crafted saddles to an international luxury retailer.
In the fashion industry, Hermès is the ultimate status symbol: Its signature Birkin bag takes over 25 hours to make, costs up to six figures, and can be seen on the arms of celebrities and princesses.
Thierry Hermès, who was highly skilled with leather, opened a shop in Paris in 1837.
Hermès, at the time, specialized in saddles, taking precise measurements for horses and riders. Hand-stitched saddles took months to make. Perfection was expected every single time, as many Hermès clients were European royalty, like Napoléon III.
Thierry's son, Émile-Charles, moved the Hermès flagship store in Paris to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré when he succeeded his father. It still stands there today. By the 20th century, Hermès had royals from all over the world on its client list.
In 1937, 100 years after Thierry Hermès opened his Paris shop, Hermès added square, silk scarves to its repertoire. Today, a signature Hermès scarf can cost upwards of $1,200.
The fourth generation of Hermès was synonymous with the Dumas family. Robert Dumas took the head executive and artistic role in 1951 after the death of grandfather Émile-Maurice.
It was Dumas who introduced belts and bags to the brand. He kept these new accessories in line with the brand's tradition, though: Scarves, belts, and bags were all decorated with bridles, bits, and saddles.
After Robert Dumas died in 1978, his son, Jean-Louis, took the leadership role, a position he would keep for nearly three decades, transforming the company's financials from extreme lows to over $1 billion.
Not only did Jean-Louis Dumas diversify Hermès to include clothing and jewelry, but he also steered the company into opening global operations and stores in a handful of countries. Today, there are over 300 stores in the world.
In 1984, Jean-Louis met actress and singer Jane Birkin on a plane. He inquired about her distressed handbag, and asked if she would like to design a bag with Hermès. What came out of this chance encounter would go on to define Hermès for life.
The Birkin bag, by Hermès, would ultimately become the most transcendent fashion status symbol of all time.
Like all accessories Hermès, a Birkin bag does not leave the workshop until utterly perfect. It has been reported that Hermès burns imperfect Birkins. It can take up to 25 hours to produce just one Birkin bag.
An extremely rare Himalayan Nilo crocodile Birkin bag sold for $185,000 in 2014, becoming the second-most expensive bag to sell at auction. (The first? Also a Birkin.) The handbag has 242 diamonds with a total of 9.84 carats with white gold.
Alongside the overwhelming success with the Birkin, Jean-Paul Dumas also saw enormous success when he appointed bad-boy couturier Jean Paul Gaultier as Hermès creative director in 2003. Gaultier stayed in the position until 2010.
Jean-Louis's wife Rena designed over 150 stores for Hermès. Rena had a significant influence on the way customers remember the brand — many stores have been described as post-modern, with clean, open spaces.
In 2005, Jean-Louis announced he would be retiring after nearly 30 years as the company's chairman and CEO. By 2006, Jean-Louis had overseen Hermès sales to nearly $2 billion.
In 2010, Jean-Louis Dumas died at the age of 72. A statement released by the company did not specify the cause of death, but it was known Dumas had Parkinson’s disease.
In typical, and historic, Hermès fashion, Jean-Louis handed off the reins of the luxury house to his son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, 52, who was named artistic director in 2002.
Axel Dumas, nephew of Jean-Louis, joined Hermès in 2003 and was appointed CEO in 2014. He is one of a dozen heirs of Thierry Hermès with a controlling stake in the company.
"Axel is financial and very charismatic, more like my father, with a strong commercial vision," said Pierre-Alexis of his cousin's role at Hermès in 2013.
The role of each Dumas cousin is different. "My job is to keep the strong creativity of Hermès alive. To nourish the rigor and the vision," Pierre-Alexis said in an interview, "to make these values vibrate."
Pierre-Alexis spoke with The Wall Street Journal in 2010 to announce the partnership between Hermès and The Bugatti Veyron 16.4. At $2.1 million, it was one of the most expensive cars in the world.
Hermès also teamed up with Eurocopter to design a nearly $8 million helicopter. In 2011, Pierre-Alexis Dumas said the brand had already sold two, with six on the waitlist.
"Our business is about creating desire," said Axel Dumas in 2014 interview with Forbes. "It can be fickle because desire is fickle, but we try to have creativity to suspend the momentum."
But creating desire is just half of the equation. When Axel Dumas took charge of Hermès, he also increased the production of its handbags. In 2014, Hermès sales grew to over $4 billion, a notable feat Dumas credits to its increasing output of leather goods.
According to W Magazine, cousins Axel and Pierre-Alexis both share "an obsession with continually renewing and refreshing Hermès, no matter how august its history."
In 2018, Bloomberg estimated the Dumas family has access to a $49.2 billion fortune. The publication named the family one of the richest in the world.