It was always going to be a “moment” when Hermès, the luxury house founded in 1837, finally joined the beauty game. But on Wednesday night, deep in the heart of a grand private Parisian townhouse, it was clear that despite being a slow starter in the race for luxury cosmetics dominance, the maison was making a break for the front of the pack.
Under the aegis of artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, lipstick collection Rouge Hermès, the inaugural chapter in the new métier for the house, has been five years in the planning. At the launch event in the 16th arrondissement, performance artists in lipstick shades of silk mingled with guests (and a horse, for good measure) in a womb-like archive of the brand’s heritage treasures: saddles, scarves, leather gloves and the vintage silver lipstick cases and compacts that – until now – never went any further down the track.
Interspersed with the artefacts were the new lipsticks: refillable designs in 24 shades, available from 4 March, in matte and satin finishes, plus three limited-edition versions in graphic, colour-block packaging – all displayed on stone plinths as if to underline the strong foundations of this new “adventure”. After all, as Agnès de Villers, CEO of Hermès Perfume & Beauty, explains, everything that led to this point provided a rich seam of inspiration.
“We wanted to do this at the right moment, and only when we were ready,” says de Villers, a veteran of Frédéric Malle, L’Oréal, MAC and Shu Uemura, showing me a charming old box of original swatches, or “recipe cards”, from Hermès’ palette of 75,000 silk colours. “We have so many ideas, but we’re building a whole métier step by step and Rouge Hermès is the first one. There were so many things that matter – from the quality to the aesthetics – and it was important to draw on all our talents, together with the vision of the artistic collective.”
For while the project was driven by Dumas’ artistic vision, it involved a “collective” of the house’s other specialists: Bali Barret, artistic director for Hermès’ women’s universe and creative director of women’s silk; Pierre Hardy, creative director of shoes and jewellery; Jérôme Touron, creative director for beauty; and Christine Nagel, director of olfactory creation.
“The design had to be functional, essential, without losing the poetry, the element of fantasy; strong, but with grace,” says de Villers. “At the beginning, Pierre Hardy, the designer of the object, was wondering, ‘Will I be able to do this new thing?’ Then as soon as he started he got very excited and had so many ideas. We’re looking all the way to 20 years from now.”
The house wants to lead a move away from the idea of make-up as a status symbol, but rather connect with the wearer – through “gesture”, ritual, emotion and tactility. “Our approach to beauty is to reveal and highlight what is naturally there, with elegance, comfort and pleasure,” says Dumas. “I like the idea of Hermès as an intimate companion, revealing one’s deepest self. I associate Hermès’ beauty objects with self-fulfilment, with the colour of an individual’s personality.”
As other luxury houses have shown, the value of creating a new revenue stream by attracting an entry-level customer can’t be understated. But the very fact that Hermès has taken its time to enter the field – a space occupied by Chanel, Armani et al for decades – underlines a more all-encompassing vision. “For Hermès, this was about entering a new world, with a singular offer, much more than having a target,” says de Villers. “We don’t ever ‘target’ people. Yet there is an understanding that the world is changing, and make-up is very exciting to so many people. As well as being about beauty, it’s about modernity, openness, inclusivity… We like that perspective.”
The instant magnetism of the “object” is undeniable – and quite literal too, providing a hugely satisfying pull-and-click closure on the sleek lacquered metal tubes. But it’s colour that’s at the heart of the enterprise. As Barret puts it: “It is an irrational, intoxicating passion, a craftsmanship of nuances, an obsession with striking the right tone, and a language all of its own.”
On the launch night, one of the make-up artists told me that the shades most requested by the guests were the intense, dark burgundyish-red Rouge H and the playful, pinkish brick-red Rouge Casaque. But the whole rainbow of berries, plums and (of course) oranges is delicious indeed. The range includes a lip balm, lip shine, universal lip pencil and brush in lacquered wood, as well as leather cases and mirrors, and will evolve with twice-yearly limited-edition colours. Every six months, new make-up items will be launched, until there’s a complete collection.