Postcard from Paris: It’s play time at Hermès’s annual theme launch
Time to play
Invitations are usually a telling indication of what to expect at an event. For the launch of Hermes's annual theme, the invite came looking like an oversized playing card, but what caught me in a state of uncertainty was the dresscode. The invite requested guests to 'come overdressed'. Now, what did that mean by Hermès's standards, and given that the theme was 'Let's Play!', what to expect? Were there competitive games involved? Do I wear heels or sneakers (all the better to run to the finish line in)? Should I wear feathers and sequins or ruffles and clashing print? So many possibilities to consider! In the end, I went with the latter, tying two printed scarves together to create a top, matched with heels, which were probably more suited to the 'overdressed' dresscode; plus I can still run in these low pumps, should there be need for me to.
While in name a 'hotel', the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild is actually a mansion located close to the Arc de Triomphe that dates back to the late 19th century that was later bequeathed to the French government. In creating the ultimate 'play' house, Hermès presented the 'game' in all its forms: board games, musical quiz, illusions and charades, casino, and televised games were brought to life. A group of actors were interspersed with guests, playing out various roles including a magician, who suddenly produced a lighter from my left shoulder, which he used to light up a piece of tissue, and upon extinguishing the fire, transformed it into a rose, Romeo and Juliet, and a Mrs Smith looking for her lost dog. Upon arrival at the mansion, we were greeted by a receptionist sat at a fancy bureau, who would make a phone call to double check our invites, and then proceeded to announce our arrival with a hailer. Above us, Juliet was on the top floor balcony professing her love for Romeo, who turned out to be standing right next to me—I had been too fascinated by the receptionist's grand gestures to notice Romeo's metal armguard.
At the entrance hall of the Hermès mansion, guests were greeted with two live sphinxes, aloof as they were, with their dark bobs and thick Kohl-lined eyes. We ascended the stairs into the first room where there was a lively wheel of fortune game going on, hosted by two presenters. Across from that, was 'Oops La La', a hallway of plastic limbs sticking out from various heights in the wall, which we threw foam hoops at but missed terribly. The heavy velvet curtains at the end of the hall opened up into a bar and a stage setup, where an Elvis lookalike and his wife were performing and hosting a musical quiz.
A sign that said 'jousting' pointed out the door, so I went out towards the garden at the back, where the stage had been set for 'verbal jousting'. The 'judge' would pick a word and the jousters had to get off the stage and ask the audience for a related word, get back on and compete. The jousters would then race past each other, shouting out their respective words, with the judge announcing the winner.
Having lost out to 'Yorkshire', as in pudding, I'd said 'chocolate' (dessert was clearly on my mind), I went back into the mansion, into the 'Fast and Hilarious' room, where there was a remote control car race. Set up to look like New York City, complete with skyscrapers and a King Kong running about, the race was about completing the most number of rounds around the track in 3 minutes. I redeemed myself by coming in tops, and getting a coconut from King Kong as my prize. Across the hall, at 'Get Lucky or Die Trying', we each received a stack of playing chips which we spent on blackjack and roulette ('all on the colour black, please!').
After having our photos taken at the 'Celebrity' photobooth, we headed upstairs to find ourselves in the 'Sit and Run' room—essentially a game of musical chairs, led by a lanky dancer with a brilliant afro. I successfully got halfway into the game, and then was eliminated by someone who had a more efficient slide-and-bump-off maneuver than I did. In the final room 'Skittle Dog', we had to choose from a line-up of dog soft toys of different breeds and slide them home, hitting down 6 bowling pins along the way. It wasn't as easy as it looked—perhaps my terrier didn't have enough to eat as it was too light to even hit down a single pin in the first try (his fault, not mine).
"My cousin, CEO of Hermès, Axel Dumas, said 'Beware, because we live in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous," says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès. "So I decided to pick some of the most creative brains at Hermès and we came up with ACVU, the antithesis to VUCA. ACVU stands for audacious, crazy, vogueing, unique and 'uriginal'. We want to be creative, and we want to play. The essence of play is to be inspired, and hopefully to be inspiring. And this is our answer to the VUCA world."
"The essence of play is to be inspired, and hopefully to be inspiring."—Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès
For a luxury maison so steeped in history, one that is sometimes mistakenly perceived as straight-laced and serious, Hermès's annual theme reveals a facet of the brand that perhaps might not always be seen or known, or that one might immediately associate with the brand—the idea that behind these meticulously crafted, highly desirable leather goods, and clothes of the most luxurious fabrics, 'play' is well and alive.
"Play—because playing means being together, because it's a way of learning about ourselves and others, a way of letting chance have its say, of both controlling and letting go," says Pierre-Alexis Dumas. "Could we create, could we invent, could we even just imagine if we didn't play? Certainly not at Hermès in any case, where our first comrade in play was the horse. Who knows, maybe that is the secret of our longevity. For a hundred and eighty years, this house has never stopped playing." Coming from a brand such as Hermès, that could just be my new perspective for both work, and life.