Swellboy on… Pierre-Alexis Dumas

Hermès’ creative director and his cast of colourful characters certainly know how to tell a good story

Image: Brijesh Patel

The other day I had lunch with Pierre-Alexis Dumas. As well as being a thoroughly nice guy, he is the creative director of Hermès and therefore the man you can hold responsible for coming up with the products that provoke an almost Stendhal-like reaction among some people. I enjoy the whole Hermès cult, but for certain individuals I know it is a fundamentalist religion.

I suppose what I like is that Pierre-Alexis understands that there is a need for narrative in our lives. After all, the world’s great religions are, au fond, great stories (witness this summer’s Bible buster Noah).

And at Hermès the storyline is an important part of the luxury experience. Craft skills are wonderful, but they need to be animated by a story and directed by people of taste. I am sure that Pierre-Alexis would be the first to admit that Hermès does not have a monopoly on the craft skills that go into making the things that we like; but he approaches the whole undertaking as though he were making a film in which he has to cast actors.

Take for instance the great Henri d’Origny, a giant among designers and all the more impressive because he wears his genius so lightly. This is the man who invented the Hermès tie, who has designed some of the bestselling Hermès watches that, decades on, are still bought in their thousands, and who has, I am sure, lost count of the number of scarves he has designed. I would argue that this man has done more than many others to attract foreign visitors to the French capital, and yet the state has ignored this major contribution with an almost cavalier indifference. Anyway, I hope that the nation will rectify this matter soon enough, but if it does not I am thinking of getting up a petition, and you might like to drop your local French ambassador a line to ask him to jog the memory of whoever it is at the Elysée Palace that decides these things.

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But while, for me at least, Henri is one of the stars in the Hermès “studio system”, a sort of Cary Grant with a hint of Maurice Chevalier, there are other leading men, among them Jean-Claude Ellena, the nose of Hermès. I am a creature of habit and “my” fragrance is Oris Noir by Ormonde Jayne. However, there are times when another fragrance attracts and, more importantly, holds my attention. Hermès’ Terre is one of these. I will not bore you with top notes, base notes, dry down and what have you, and just say that I like it. It holds up to being splashed on with an almost drunken abandon and goes well with cigar smoke (which for me is the ultimate test of a good fragrance).

Pierre-Alexis put him together with French superchef Olivier Roellinger, who has what I am reliably informed is a smashing restaurant near Mont St Michel. Apparently, Roellinger shocked France a few years ago when he renounced his three Michelin stars and opened a spice business. Only the French could be scandalised by a chef handing back his Michelin stars. The economy may be in freefall, the president may allegedly be trysting with a starlet, the political right might be in the ascendant, but civilised French society is still reeling from the shock of L’Affaire Roellinger, a sort of gastronomic Dreyfuss affair. I hyperbolise slightly, but you get the drift.

Anyway, Pierre-Alexis had the genius to “cast” Roellinger opposite Ellena to create a fragrance. Apparently, the denouement of this particular narrative sees Ellena, reeling from a session with the spice king, rubbing a particularly recondite single-malt whisky into his forearm, placing it under his nose and declaring it to be the scent he was after. Clearly, I have not been drinking for a long time, as the resulting Epice Marine (absolutely nothing to do with Old Spice, I assure you) smells nothing like any scotch I used to drink. Far from it, it is light, brisk and ever so slightly bracing, and the blue leather-covered cap and blue glass bring to mind the waves of the ocean (with a pleasing hint of seaweed, so maybe it was one of those obscure island malts). I like it.

And in the cunning manner of film directors, Pierre-Alexis has left room for a sequel, as this is clearly a trilogy: first Terre, now Epice Marine, and I am waiting for the next instalment, which inevitably will be something to do with air. Perhaps Monsieur Ellena will be sent wingwalking or skydiving as part of his research.

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