As difficult as it is to buy an authentic Birkin via the Internet, it is nearly as difficult to do a proper Google search on Bali Barret, the deputy artistic director for women’s at Hermès. Sure, there are a few headshots circulating, and the occasional mention in an unrevealing article. But to know her, you must meet her, which I did last Friday morning at a cafe in New York’s Financial District. Her look tells a wonderful story: She is tiny, but not dainty, wearing a denim utility jumpsuit accessorized with a thin brown-leather belt, chunky rings, and of course, an Hermès scarf, wrapped rather classically in circles around her neck. The assembly was perfect in that imperfect French way, but it also speaks to her understanding of the Hermès ethos: There is something magical about the brand and its wares, yes, but more than anything they are meant to be worn. Utilitarian luxury is not an oxymoron for the 177-year-old French institution. “What is Hermès and what is not Hermès is something I really can’t explain to you, but it’s intuitive and natural to me,” says Barret, sipping on an Americano.
Barret is in town to oversee May 20th’s All About Women event. It’s taking place at a venue on Wall Street, which explains why she has parked herself so far downtown. The party, which boasts a guest list 800-people deep, is a showcase for what Hermès likes to call the women’s “universe”, which includes everything from printed scarves to bracelet watches. The evening will consist of a runway show featuring ready-to-wear designer Christophe Lemaire’s fall 2014 collection, as well as stations showcasing the house’s métiers, or crafts. There will be an area dedicated to bags, another to enamel jewelry, another to silk, each with some sort of performance or display. There will dancers. Music by Parisian DJ Clara 3000. And even a fortune teller. A real carnival, but for luxury goods!
This is the third “All About Women” party Barret and the team at Hermès have thrown. (The first was in Shanghai in 2012, the second in Paris in 2013.) The idea is to target Hermès’s most robust, and loyal, markets: U.S. sales, for example, grew by double-digits last year. So far, the events have aided Barret in communicating her vision for the areas of the business she overseas. While not a blood relative, the faith Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’ artistic director, and his cousin, CEO Axel Dumas, have put in Barret’s work has proven that she is an integral part of the family.
Raised in Paris, Barret studied design and tailoring at Paris’ l’Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode (ESMOD). She worked as an assistant at several houses, spending time in New York, Italy, and Spain before launching her own Paris-based label in 1999. Hermès’ Pierre-Alexis Dumas was a longtime friend who would pop into her shop now and again with his wife, whom Barret has known since childhood.
Once, in the early aughts, the drive by included of a job offer. “He asked, ‘Would you love to work for Hermès?’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’” explains Barret, with just the right amount of irreverent French humor needed for what was obviously a major moment in her career. “One of the great talents of Pierre-Alexis is that he can see what people are capable of doing. All the houses were coming to me and asking me to design the same things I was already designing for my own collection. I kept saying no. He was the only one that proposed something different.”
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