As artistic director of Hermès, Pascale Mussard holds a position that is as much a validation of her family's luxury legacy as it is the expression of herself.
With an attractive amiability, Pascale Mussard discusses what it means to be artistic director of Hermès.
Sitting behind a desk in a light, spare, but cozy room high above the Hermès flagship store and spiritual home on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, Pascale Mussard, the house's joint artistic director, is wearing two earrings of a surprising nature. They're a pair of tiny tin buckets, one red and the other green. And while one might, if pushed, want to read something symbolic about a stop-and-go nature into her choice of adornment, there's no sense of a killer corporate approach about Mussard – if anything, it's the complete opposite.
Nominated in 2005 to the post of artistic director, a title she shares with her cousin Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Mussard has been with the esteemed Parisian house for over a quarter of a century. But in reality, she's been there all her life, as Mussard is part of the family that – a partial float on the Paris Bourse notwithstanding – owns and runs Hermès, and has done so since the company's creation in 1837. Thus her job doesn't stay at the office when she leaves, as, tied to her family's continually evolving heritage, she has a responsibility that goes far beyond the boardroom.
Having family involved is, as she freely concedes, a double-edged sword, as there's always someone extra to please, someone to convince or battle with to get her point of view across. But since she took the reins in early 2006, having worked alongside her uncle Jean-Louis Dumas who was not only CEO but artistic director, too, she's been in a position to exert her vision on the output of perhaps the most respected and exalted purveyor of luxury goods in the world. Not that Mussard is a big fan of the word luxury, because what others might consider luxurious is to her normal, an inescapable fact, the backbone of everything Hermès is and does.
With an almost childlike sense of pride and wonder, and an enthusiasm and instant charm that haven't been dimmed by the responsibility of overseeing the 55,000 references in each twice-yearly collection, along with exhibitions, windows, architecture, and advertising, Mussard talks animatedly about her life and work, peppering her conversation with stories about unlikely encounters with craftspeople, finding a belt that belonged to her late grandmother in the back of a drawer, and holding up her trusted appointment book as an almost reverential icon.
As joint artistic director of Hermès with Pierre-Alexis Dumas, what does your role entail?
At Hermès, creation has always been the center, the heart of the house. And creativity has always been the result of two different poles: the know-how of our artisans, and the desires of our clientele. Without an imposed creative or marketing side, the house grew as a result of the special orders and the desires of our clientele. Each métier has its own very specific specialties, and overseeing it requires follow-up and knowledge. Jean-Louis Dumas had that role for all products of the house, and from 2002 to 2006, Pierre-Alexis and I assisted him. Now we've divided the job between the two of us. At the start, for the input and the theme, we work together. Again, at the end, for the collections as a whole. I look after leather, as in bags and luggage, and fashion accessories from shoes, hats, and gloves, to belts, jewels, and after that, equestrianism. We share perfumes and watches. Pierre-Alexis is in charge of ready-to-wear for women and men, printed fabrics – so, scarves and ties – and what we call "art de vivre," which is homewares, fabrics.
In simple terms, what is your aim at Hermès?
I believe the reputation of the house is to produce objects that will be more beautiful in 25 years, in terms of the materials, where a patina makes them more beautiful, but also more beautiful because the form won't be out of fashion, in fact it'll perhaps be more brought to life.
Is it true that there is no marketing department?
There are a few dirty words at Hermès: we don't do marketing, we don't do merchandizing. Something might be easy to produce and create lots of sales, but quantities of ten thousand don't interest us. We want people to be able to encounter products, to get to know them, to want to own them. For me the most beautiful Hermès object is the appointment book. [She takes out a simple, zippered leather notebook from her bag.] It's something I've had for years, and the longer I have it, the more beautiful it will become. It has no outward signs, just its essential beauty. I don't believe you could involve marketing with something like that; it is what it is.
How did you get started at Hermès?
I began as an assistant in a consultancy headed by a woman named Nicole de Vésian who created colors and so forth for various clients. Christian Lacroix was there at the time and he looked after color. We had Pierre as our landlord and neighbor. And I was just Pascale, I never mentioned anything about my background, never mentioned the Hermès link. One day Nicole came in and said she'd met someone who wanted us to work for his company, and she was very excited, telling us everything would be different from now on. She wouldn't tell us who it was, but brought us with her the following day, down the Faubourg and, to my shock, into Hermès. It was only when we were in the elevator that I finally, inescapably, had to say, "Listen, there's something I have to tell you..."!
So you stayed.
I had told myself I would never work at Hermès, I didn't want to work with my family, didn't want to be judged, didn't think I had the level or authority. Eventually I admitted to myself that it would be dumb if I never entered this house. You know, every evening, from the age of five until I went to college, I used to come here. It's in my genes, there's no doubt.
Have you passed something of your love of Hermès on to your own three children?
I would have to say yes, because before they used to tell me they didn't like something or they thought something else was bad quality. I've always involved them. I guess I've given them a critical mind, but then when I see their bedrooms, which are a huge mess, I tell myself that I clearly haven't taught them everything! But each has their own personality. One is more into business, one works in a bank, the third is very creative.
What makes it different working for a family company when the family is your own?
As Hermès is a family signature, when we bring out something signed Hermès it represents our taste. It's not just the staff or the clients who can critique it, the whole family could say it's great, but the whole family could also say it's awful and that we shouldn't attach our name to it. We can try to fight, to convince them we're right about something, but if the family really doesn't want it, we remove the product. I'm not going to say it's always a walk in the park, but it's very important to be able to get their take; and I want to please them. On the other hand, we're not like other houses. When the store directors come to see the collections – and everyone has the freedom to order what they want for their own store – if a product hasn't been bought by anyone, we then take it out of the collection. Not long ago, there was a product of which only three were bought, among all the stores. But I believed in it, and I felt it corresponded to the Hermès story. So I asked that it be put into the next collection where sales went from three to ten. And then the third time, I was really behind it, and it's been taken up by the press and has turned into a big success. It's the necklace of lacquered horn disks.
Speaking of your image, one of your recent advertising campaigns scooped up a host of awards. How do you approach the question of advertising at a house known for such a strong, and consistent, image?
You know, Hermès is a family name. Putting an H on a product or a campaign is a signature. It's a real responsibility, and it's really stimulating, diving into our roots, our voice, our fantasy, all while respecting our designers. It's about staying the same Hermès while still changing, being ourselves.
Can the success of the Lindy bag be put down to advertising?
There's never been such a big success; it was selling like mad all over the world from its very first month. And while I think that's great, in a way, it's not what I would like, because I think it's good for people to take the time, to discover things for themselves, to fall in love. Our greatest communication tool is word of mouth. I would like for people to get in the habit of coming to Hermès to look around in a pleasant manner and to discover their own things.
How involved have you been in the hiring and promotion of creative people to the Hermès fold – people like Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela, Bali Barrett, Pierre Hardy, etc.?
This is a team chosen by Jean-Louis Dumas, but who make up my professional family. He left us exceptional people: working with Pierre Hardy in the morning, moving on to Jean Paul Gaultier, or Martin Margiela before him, or with Hilton McConnico for an exhibition. We have a collection of people around the world, diverse and varied, with whom we've had a life moment, a moment of creation that we will always remember.
You're heavily involved in the link between Hermès and the art world. What has this brought to the house?
It's a family characteristic. I think it allows us to be contemporary, at the turn of the tide. The artists help us to see the world with a new eye, force us to share, to travel. As the head of a house with its roots in equestrianism, you must ride often. I learned when I was young, but I don't ride much anymore.
Will this era be remembered as the Birkin bag era?
I like to think that each generation leaves its stone on the Hermès pile. Pierre-Alexis and I want to bring something more unique and individual. We find this mania over "It" bags rather funny, to be honest. When I started at Hermès, the Kelly wasn't the bag of dreams. At the time, that honor fell to the Constance. It's strange, today we speak only of Kelly/Birkin, whereas tomorrow, it could be something completely different..
As artistic director of Hermès, you have enviable access to some of the most beautiful and luxurious clothes, shoes and accessories in the world. How would you describe your own sense of style?
I like the freedom of mixing things. I have my own way of dressing – a touch of Hermès mixed with something from Marni, for example.
Do you have any icons of Parisian style?
Inès de la Fressange.
What are your favorite bistros and restaurants in Paris?
Le Timbre, Café d'Angel, Le Griffonier – for great wines and delicious cuisine, as well as for a great bistro atmosphere.
What places define Paris for you?
For me Paris is the Seine, the Pont Alexandre III, the Moulin de la Galette, the Pont Neuf, the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde in the early morning.
What's a typical Parisian weekend for you?
Taking my time, making use of it to see an exhibition, catch a movie, go to the market on Sunday morning, cooking for my friends for a casual Sunday evening dinner. What are your favorite addresses in Paris? Naïla de Monbrison's jewelry gallery, the Musée de la Vie Romantique, Musée Gustave Moreau, Musée Galliera, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the atelier and garden at the Musée Bourdelle.
What is your definition of luxury ?
Trust, good service, and increaingly for me, luxury is family, time, space, rarity.
If luxury were:
A place: A hotel under the stars in India's Kutch desert.
A moment: Waking up to be greeted with a smile; the time to enjoy your loved ones; unexpected meetings.
A thing: An object that's beautiful, spiritual, and wonderfully made.
A person: Someone who's cultivated, refined, courteous, curious, and funny!