The light in Northern California has a rich orange glow at sunset, and the roughly 200 people waiting outside of the Stanford Shopping Center’s new Hermès store were basking in it. Orange, after all, is the signature color of the latest brand to join Silicon Valley’s luxury retail landscape.
After a ribbon cutting by Axel Dumas – the company’s CEO, and one of 80 or so Hermès family members to attend the Palo Alto opening – guests streamed into the store. It had been designed to look like an apartment, with rooms off a central “living room” outfitted with couches and intricate lighting fixtures. Champagne flowed as French people with advanced degrees in scarf-tying, schooled the tech luminaries in what “effortless” really means.
An Hermès store is a big deal for a town that has a surplus of cash and a shortage of style. But it’s not such a crazy proposition if you consider the region’s longstanding horsey tendencies. Many of the people in this community are already Hermès customers, thanks to the brand’s core equestrian collection. Wherever fortunes can be found, horse culture is never far, and beneath the new money coursing through Palo Alto, there’s plenty of old wealth, too. Earlier in the day, members from the Menlo Circus Club had shown several of us around their pristine stables, which have been in operation since the 1920s and now house world-champion animals and Olympic riders. There we met Oliver, “the unicorn,” a small white horse whose mane was styled in a jaunty 80’s frizz. His owner, a 12 year old girl, had inherited her Hermès saddle from her grandmother who’d used it in the 1960s. Caramel brown and worn smooth with use, it was still in perfect condition.
But back at the new store, only a handful of the guests were riders. I spotted Apple executives, real estate moguls, and a healthy smattering of former New Yorkers mingling. As the opening wound to a close, the entire party migrated to an elevated outdoor parking lot that had been transformed into a playground made entirely of cardboard. Robert Chavez, president and CEO of Hermès US explained, “We were joking that it would be funny to come to the highest tech place in the world and contrast that somehow. And then we decided to do it!”
The basic packing materials had been taken up a notch, in playful Hermès style, to near celestial levels of craftsmanship. Like players on a stage that mimicked a small French town, guests could sit at cardboard tables on cardboard chairs, around a central fountain, made of, you guessed it, cardboard. Smooth cardboard clouds hung above us and performers milled about carrying cardboard parrots, poodles and there was even a minstrel strumming a cardboard guitar. It was a low-tech fantasy that spared no expense.
“I’ve never seen so many stylish people in one place in this town before,” the wife of one executive told me. What did she think of the whole thing? “I’ll be back for a bag soon,” she said, and paused. “Probably tomorrow, actually.”