NEW YORK, United States — Large corporations often stage internal conferences for their employees, inviting bold-faced names to dispense business lessons and sometimes even life advice. In January 2019, Gucci, for instance, brought in renowned Italian chef Massimo Bottura to speak with 300 employees at its headquarters in Milan. A year later, he collaborated with the Kering-owned fashion house on the food for its newly opened Los Angeles restaurant, the first of its kind in the US. Just this week, news spread that Prince Harry is in talks to participate in an interview series filmed for Goldman Sachs employees.
But most of these conversations are held in private, sometimes with the stipulation that employees not record, film or photograph what they hear and see. On Thursday, French luxury firm Hermès cracked open the window just a bit, inviting about 180 people — mostly journalists, but also family members and "friends of the house" — from around the world to attend its own gathering, held at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Arts Center on Governors Island and hosted by Artistic Director (and family heir) Pierre-Alexis Dumas.
Every year, Hermès picks a theme that serves as a guide for its “maisons,” informing everything from the design to the way the product is presented to the consumer. For this year’s missive, “Innovation in the Making,” Dumas organised something of a lecture series, with each wrap-around desk equipped with a pencil and red-and-blue crosshatch-covered notebook stamped with an “H” crest. (Guests were indeed asked not to record or film, although note-taking was permitted.)
Despite taking place in a public high school, Hermès was able to swiftly brand the space, going so far as to stock each bathroom with its own line of hand soap, as well as cotton towels so that guests wouldn’t have to waste paper.
Chalkboards were illustrated with the day’s itinerary, which included a meditation on coincidence from the French philosopher François Jullien, a dispatch on what it’s like to go to space by the astronaut Peggy Whitson, an explanation of the evolution of the hand given by paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and a live piece by the performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili.
It’s no surprise that Hermès, which takes an abstract, almost childlike approach to its ideation, would bring such a group together. At lunch, cooked by New York-based chef Daniela Soto-Innes — a Mexico City native whose brightly composed food looks as good as it tastes — guests were invited to build a discourse with the speakers.
However, when it came in the headlining act, Dumas chose pure a crowd-pleaser: Former Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive, who collaborated with Hermès on its edition of the Apple Watch.
Ive left Apple at the end of 2019 to launch his design company, “LoveFrom,” in collaboration with the designer Marc Newson (who helped design the Apple Watch). And although Ive is best known as a product designer, his influence on the fashion and luxury industries is outsized. Not only has his approach to design influenced the likes of Virgil Abloh and other contemporaries, but his take on the smart watch, first introduced in 2014, fully disrupted the traditional Swiss timepiece industry. In 2019, Apple shipped 31 million watches, compared to 21 million for all Swiss watch brands combined, according to Boston-based research firm Strategy Analytics.
While Apple does not break out watch sales, over the past four quarters, the company’s broader wearables and accessories category generated $27 billion in revenue, about 10 percent of its total. On its most recent earnings call, executives said Apple’s wearables business, which also includes AirPods, grew 44 percent year over year and is now the size equivalent of a Fortune 150 company.
Careful to divulge few details about LoveFrom, Ive mostly spoke with Dumas about product purpose. “Objects are extremely powerful, but they are powerful beyond our ability to describe why,” he told Dumas. “There’s a danger I’ve noticed…when you have a large group of people, there is a tendency that you focus on attributes where there are absolutes. There is tremendous value in what people cannot consciously declare about an object.”
He and Dumas spoke more practically about the challenges designers face, explaining what it took to create the house’s famous double strap for the Hermès Apple Watch. The traditional “Double Tour” strap would have slipped under the part of the watch that includes its sensors, according to Apple's engineers. However, one of Hermès’ craftspeople came up with a fix by applying a technique typically used to reinforce the handle of a handbag to keep its shape. (The tension prevented the strap from sliding under the sensors.)
“We sent it to California and received a message that the engineers could not understand why it worked,” Dumas recalled. “I like that story because it creates a new space where technology and craft can somehow create a dialogue.”
Ive also discussed the value of failure. “I am much more interested in trying stuff and failing than being right,” he said. “I really don't care when it goes the wrong way. In fact, I find a perverse sort of delight in it.”