Hermès inaugurated its CityCenterDC boutique with a grand, eccentric flourish befitting a nearly 180-year-old French luxury firm that was born as a harness-maker and grew into the purveyor of $10,000 Birkin handbags. At a seated dinner in the stately surroundings of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, 120 guests began their meal with a foie gras feuilleté and ended it with a white chocolate “flower pot” filled with raspberries and mousse — a dessert so finely executed it could have been a porcelain figurine.
Though the fine china upon which the pea-crusted lamb loin was artfully arranged came directly from the company’s stock, the dinner otherwise did very little to showcase the actual stuff of Hermès. But in the digital millennium, luxury is defined less by products than by experiences.
And so the company recently presented an evening of culinary theater choreographed and costumed by Belgian artist Charles Kaisin (who recently dazzled Hong Kong with a 35-foot golden goat constructed from 13,500 origami horses for Chinese New Year). Two sopranos trilled the “Flower Duet,” and 60 waiters imported from New York — one for every two guests, as if catering to a royal court — marched out in synchronized precision to deliver the meal. They changed costume with each course: silver origami masks, golden welding suits and, finally, white cumulus headdresses lit from within.
Hermès is the latest high-end brand to open at CityCenterDC, the gleaming mixed-used development newly built downtown. It joins Burberry, Loro Piana, Canali, Hugo Boss, Salvatore Ferragamo, Paul Stuart and Alexis Bittar, among others. This summer, Louis Vuitton will open; Dior is coming in the fall. And in June, Carolina Herrera will throw open the doors of a CH boutique — not quite as high-end, but perfumed by its association with her flagship line and the glamour of a Vogue-sponsored cocktail party.
Of all the brands, however, Hermès is arguably the most rarefied. It is a shop where a business-card case — two small rectangles of leather stitched together — costs $335. And the suitcase-size Birkin and Kelly bags stashed not so discreetly under the tables during the gala dinner each cost as much as a car.
The 6,000-square-foot Hermès shop, on Palmer Alley NW, replaces the company’s Tysons Corner store. While this new space might be light and airy, it is not a joltingly modern place with sales clerks toting mini iPads in side holsters. Immediately upon crossing the boutique’s threshold, there is a mosaic insignia embedded in the floor based on one found in the mother store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris — a reminder of Hermès history and tradition.
The mosaic drives home the point that Hermès traffics in slow fashion in an impatient, buy-it-off-the-runway, want-it-now culture. Babies are conceived and born in less time than it takes for a dedicated customer to acquire a Birkin handbag, which was introduced in 1984.
In many ways, Hermès violates all the rules of the modern retail environment, which is to make shopping as effortless as possible — including buying a $10,000 handbag while lounging at home in pajamas.
Yet shoppers want what Hermès is selling even if they have to go out of their way to get it. The company reported that its first-quarter revenue was up by 19 percent over last year, to $1.2 billion. That growth was fueled by Asia and Europe, as well as the United States — the No. 1 luxury market in the world. After years of luxury firms chasing consumers in China, Russia and South America, the United States is once again devouring high-priced clothes and accessories. Hermès has seven projects in the works in the country. Six, including Washington’s, are expansions in markets where the brand already had a footprint; the seventh is a dedicated perfumery in New York.
Hermès is one of the fastest-growing luxury companies in the world, according to a 2014 report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, with a Q rating — a measure of a brand’s resonance and value among consumers — that places it third among luxury brands. That’s ahead of Prada, Ralph Lauren and Burberry.
Hermès is so certain of its own mystique that since 2011 it has sold a monthly mystery box to customers starting at about $250, which includes a unisex trinket crafted from workroom scraps of leather, silk or the like. “They’re making money out of their waste,” marvels brand consultant Amy Shea, who has not worked with the company.
Hermès is a contrarian company. It has no Twitter followers because it is not on Twitter. The social media site is about personalities and celebrities, and Hermès is not.
Hermès maintains a Web site that resembles a charming old sketchbook sweetly animated. It is a pretty site, but a frustrating one. There are no high-definition photos sweeping, spinning or rocketing across the screen. The bags most closely identified with the brand — the Birkin and the Kelly — aren’t even represented. Ready-to-wear isn’t displayed on models, but on drawings of models. There is no technology to give a shopper a sense of how the garment might move. At a luxury conference this year, chief executive Axel Dumas, a sixth-generation descendant of founder Thierry Hermès, joked that the company wants its things to be difficult to find — even on the Web site.
Editorial Credit: By Robin Givhan for The Washington Post