Abstract: Hermès in Asia: Haute Couture, High Art, and the Marketplace

Chin-tao Wu


We want Maison Hermès, so declared, in all seriousness, the spokesperson of Hermès Japan, "to be thoroughly absorbed into Japanese society." He also quoted Jean-Louis Dumas, chairman of Hermès Paris, when he said that the Maison Hermès, located in the most fashionable shopping district of Tokyo, should have "as much art in it as it has air." How and for what reasons can a Western high-couture house such as Hermès want to be "thoroughly absorbed into Japanese society"? This incongruous phenomenon is typical of the stage of advanced capitalism reached in a post-modern metropolis where what matters, in the urban spectacle of consumption, is no longer the goods themselves but their status and their symbolic value. Here art has become the Esperanto of the elite global consumer. This paper will first examine the specific ways in which Hermès integrated their art intervention into their marketing strategies by establishing, for instance, contemporary art galleries in Tokyo and Seoul, and by instituting a contemporary art prize in Korea. Secondly, it will attempt to elaborate on the meaning and implications of Hermès' art practice within the context of Barthes' theorizing on fashion.