the woman behind hermes canada
toronto native jennifer carter's love affair with fashion
It was the message I’d been waiting for: “Jennifer Carter calling you in five” read the text.
Through a bizarre twist of fate, my wonderful and surprisingly well-connected friend had wrangled me an interview with none other than Jennifer Carter, the President and CEO of Hermès Canada. How was I to act? What was I to say? After all, there are few iconic labels higher on the fashion food chain than this one.
A Toronto native, Carter began her career in investment banking before making the move to help launch Hermès in Canada. Her love affair with the brand first began as a young girl when her family would shop at Hermès, (something Carter recognizes as slightly atypical). While on a business trip to Europe in 1963, her father had agreed to pick up the coveted Kelly bag for her mother. Upon his arrival, the store only had the alligator version of the bag that then, cost $800 and they were unwilling to accept traveller’s cheques. So off he went to the Canadian Embassy to get cash. With the funds secured, he returned to the store, purchased the rare bag and came home to Canada a hero in her mother’s eyes.
Fast forward several years and Carter is now working for the iconic French label and travelling to Paris for a meeting with then chairman of the Hermès group, Jean-Louis Dumas. Accompanying her is the very bag her father first purchased back in 1963. Only now it’s hers and a gift from her mother for her 33rd birthday. During her meeting, Dumas couldn’t help but notice the rare alligator Kelly bag and asked her where she got it. Explaining it was a gift from her mother, that her father had purchased many years ago, Dumas asked if she was willing to give it to the museum. After Carter politely declined, he asked if he could see the bag. Following a thorough examination, he then led Carter through the building and upstairs to the atelier where the leather craftspeople were hard at work. She was then introduced to the gentleman who had made her mothers bag many years ago. As fate would have it, he was retiring the next week and his son would be taking over for him.
It is that deeply personal connection to the brands legendary craftsmanship that fuel’s Carter’s drive and devotion. “People forget that this is a crafts oriented company”. She tells me, “One thing you always have with Hermès is trust in the product”. Indeed, each one of the company’s famous Kelly and Birkin bags is a labour of love and each is handmade by a single craftsman. While the loyal customers of Hermès don’t mind waiting up to six months for such quality and attention to detail, it hasn’t slowed the demand on the secondary market where people have been known to pay 50% more than the retail price to instantly satisfy their couture craving.
Carter and I discuss that it’s the nature of today’s culture to expect such instant gratification. In the age of social media, e-commerce and overnight shipping, the idea of waiting any length of time for something has become a foreign concept. However, at Hermès, where its master craftsman can take up to two years to train, it’s impossible to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for its most coveted items. After all, you’d have to be living under a rock to not have seen these iconic bags on the arms of the world’s most rich and famous or it’s trademark ‘H’ belt hugging the waist of a member of a royal family. If not, perhaps you’ve seen some of the brand’s signature products that are endlessly Instagrammed and tweeted by the current, royal family of reality TV (you know the one, so please don’t make me say it).
When I bring up the subject of some of the label’s most famous fans, Carter doesn’t seem interested. I get the sense that for her, the brand’s celebrity allure doesn’t even register on her radar. Instead, she focuses our conversation on a name I’d never heard of; Kermit Oliver. A relatively unknown postman and undeniably talented artist from Waco Texas, Oliver is the only American to ever design scarves for Hermès. When the conversation turns to customers who frequent the label’s trendy Yorkville location, Carter tells me that the people she most looks forward to seeing are often the one’s who come in maybe just once or twice a year to purchase a tie or scarf either for themselves or, for a loved one. Even though they aren’t shopping at the store every week, they have developed a rapport and a trust that Carter believes, is invaluable. For all it’s famous French pedigree, Carter tells me “Hermès is very local in terms of spirit. It’s about reaching out”.
Finally, I had to ask Carter for some fashion tips. She excitedly lists off some of her favorite designers including Dries Van Noten and Marni. When I ask her for investment advice (fashion investment of course), she simply states “all you really need is a good bag, a good pair of shoes and a good watch”. I certainly agree with her practical approach. A great watch, pair of shoes and bag is sure to stand the test of time and is something you’re sure to hang on to. This leads me to my final question: does she still have the crocodile Kelly bag from her mother? “Absolutely!” she says with a laugh.
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