Hermès fetes year of Astonishment in the Camargue
To thine own self be true, which Hermès certainly was with Astonishing Hermès - a performance art, equestrian ballet homage to the noble horses in the Camargue, Europe’s greatest wetland, on Tuesday evening.
A celebration of the Hermès theme for 2023 – Astonishment – this exceptional event did not feature a single brand logo, monogram or H. Nonetheless it was a telling meditation on craftmanship, tradition and artistry in one of the most beautiful regions of France by an iconic French marque.
A celebration above all of the horse, the defining source of inspiration of Hermès, which began life as a harness maker in Paris in 1837. Its emblem is a ducal horse drawn carriage. Before a blistering red sunset, scores of beautiful white Camargue horses rode out of the horizon, racing through reed-covered marshes, ponds and canals, churning up water in one of the soirée’s defining images.
“We wanted to place the horse at the center of this event. Especially as the Camargue has such astonishing horses,” explained the house’s creative director Pierre Alexis Dumas.
Just one of multiple dramatic moments in an evening that began with electro folk singer Lyra Pramuk performing before a glider that had mysteriously landed on the edge of a sprawling pond. Joined by several dancers and pied piper Emiliano Maggi, who led the audience in a merry dance over to the main action.
Guests sat on a custom-built stand, that miraculously rose out of the Camargue, a giant regional park located in the delta of France’s largest river, the Rhône. Guests had to wade through a canal in rubber boots provided by Hermès to reach their seats, where they enjoyed a concert by a choir attired in the muddy gray hues of the region’s canals. No surprise as the Rhône deposits an estimated 20 million square-meters of mud annually, pushing the coastline out into the sea by many meters each year.
All organized by La Horde, a creative group from the nearby National Ballet of Marseille, known for blending film, performance and dance. Followed by a poetic display of dressage by Hasta Luego, a local equestrian troupe. Magnificent stallions pranced, pirouetted, stood on their hind legs and executed complicated weaving patterns. Their hooves beating out a musical drum beat at times. A further intricate show by a quartet of acrobatic riders was beautiful and very brave.
Climaxed by the herd of the semi-feral white horses, guided by a dozen riders – known in the local parlance as gardians - bearing lamplights to take a final pass, the crowd rising for a sustained standing ovation. All led by a charmingly grizzled 89-year-old rancher, or manadier, Henri Laurent, riding proudly in a felt hat and short riding jacket. Remarkably, many of the Camargue horses who pass their life in the soft soil of the region, never wear horse shoes.
“I think we just witnessed a miracle here, in between the Le Grand and Petit Rhône. None of this could have happened without the incredible generosity of Henri and Annie Laurent,” said Pierre-Alexis at dinner, referring to the family who hosted Astonishing Hermès at their farm.
A dinner staged inside the Laurent’s bull ring was catered by cult chef Armand Arnal, owner of starred restaurant La Chassagnette. A botanist who manages to combine elements of Camargue cooking, Japanese cuisine and local produce. An exotic and purely vegetarian meal included combinations like beetroot and raspberries flavored with hibiscus; almond aioli; Mallorcan onions and a golden Camargue risotto.
Hermès has been picking an annual theme since back in 1987, when Pierre-Alexis' father Jean-Louis Dumas dreamed up the idea. A brilliant conceptualist, under Jean-Louis’ guidance Hermès linked up with extraordinarily distant creators – from perfume-makers in Jodhpur to Tuareg silversmiths.
Traditionally, Hermès invites its "community" to celebrate its concepts in unexpected locations – from the Arctic Circle in Norway to Governors Island in New York Bay. More recent themes have included In the Pursuit of Dreams in 2019, and An Odyssey in 2021.
They are top secret invitations. Guests are requested to be ready at a certain train station or airport, without revealing the final destination. This year, the formal invitation was a drawing of marshland, with what looked like a distant ruin. Nothing else was explained, except the starting point – the Gare du Lyon train station.
In the end, around 120 guests gathered on a TGV high-speed train to Avignon, before being driven to local farms, like Mas de Peint, an estate raising horses, bulls, rice and melons, centered on a cut-stone farmhouse built in 1602.
An evening feted by a Spanish guitar band Sol y Arte, a local group famed for their modern interpretations of gypsy music. Based in nearby Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where the Petit Rhône reaches the Mediterranean.
Not a single product was presented, nor any pushy brand building throughout the trip. Just an exceptionally artful expression of what Hermès stands for – exceptional quality made with dedicated and skilled artisans, inspired by a multiplicity of creative minds and cultures. And, though a million miles from the hard sell, Hermès success is remarkable. Last year, Hermès scored 2.991 billion euros net profit on revenues of 11.6 billion euros.
“We continue our work at Hermès, creating objects with a contemporary tradition. Astonishment is an ability to surprise ourselves and to reinvent ourselves. We are craftsmen who make products by hand and with care, and what is most surprising is that so many people want to buy them. That is astonishing,” concluded Pierre Alexis with a large smile.
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