Hermès’ Robert Chavez, a Genuine People Person – WWD
Planning can be overrated. At least it seems so if one considers the professional ascent of Robert Chavez, who leads the Americas wing of the storied house that resides at the pinnacle of global luxury. “I
never had a game plan for my career. I just went where life led me,” he says.
Twenty years ago, life led Chavez to his current position as chief executive officer of Hermès Americas. Since then, he has steered the company through happy and woeful times. He has overseen the remarkable growth in the Americas region (it excludes Canada), with U.S. revenues surpassing $1 billion in 2018. And he has navigated through cultural tumult and despair — the aftermath of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008-09, and now, COVID-19.
Hermès Americas accounts for 14 percent of the global company’s overall revenues. Until COVID-19 struck, the division was rolling, last year up 12 percent in constant currencies to 1.2 billion euros. The pandemic struck hard, and the first nine months of 2020 saw a 29 percent decline, down to 606.5 million euros, but in the third quarter, the numbers improved significantly, with sales in the Americas down just 5.2 percent in constant currencies.
Over two decades of vicissitudes, Chavez has operated with unwavering confidence and ample daring, yet also with humility. Judging by his media presence, he’s not much interested in self-promotion (he gave a rare, wide-ranging interview to WWD). Conversely, he cares a great deal about articulating gratitude. He recalls lessons learned from the late, legendary Hermès lnternational ceo Jean-Louis Dumas and a Bloomingdale’s Clinique counter manager named Dora with equal reverence. Mostly, he showers praise on the hundreds of people who work for Hermès Americas, 850 in the U.S. alone.
“I’m the ceo, but I’m not really the ceo. I’m part of the team. I’m part of them,” he says. Though not unique language from a company head, when Chavez says it, it resonates as more than p.r. speak; you believe him. He frequently circles back to the employees, particularly those in retail. They are “out on the front lines every day, dealing with customers. They’re shipping the boxes; they’re opening up the shipments, all things that I did in my early days at Bloomingdale’s. I know [what it takes].”
That ground-up knowledge of retail, Chavez muses, is what won him the Hermès job despite his then-dearth of luxury experience. Well, that, along with a snappy Armani suit and some quick bonding with Dumas, the fifth-generation Hermès family member who rebuffed the luster of the storied luxury house that had slipped from fashion prominence. Now, Chavez reports to Axel Dumas, a nephew of Jean-Louis, who assumed the ceo role in 2014. He has high praise for his chief deputy in the Americas.
“The multi-local strategy is at the core of Hermès’ business model,“ Dumas says, and it requires strong local leadership. “[Bob] is the driving force behind Hermès’ success in the U.S., reinforcing the house’s commitment to dynamic growth and expansion, while keeping the local sensitivities. He cultivates Hermès’ values, quality, excellence, family spirit and a passion for craftsmanship.”
Family is a notion that factors strongly in the Hermès psyche. Founded by Thierry Hermès in 1837, the company has remained majority-owned by the Hermès family through six generations and running. Chavez isn’t a blood relation; he’s a Latin American native of San Antonio, Tex. Yet he, too, uses the language of family to refer to those who work for him. According to one long-term employee, it’s genuine. Susan Dicecco preceded Chavez to the company by several years, and is now client service manager at the Madison Avenue store. The two are on a first-name basis — Bob and Susie. She recalls that upon his arrival he visited the store and introduced himself to every employee: “I’m Bob Chavez. And you are?” She notes, too, that he remembers who you are — by name. He also answers staff emails immediately. “Brought that feeling of family — let me get to know you, that everyone is important,” Dicecco says. “The Hermès family is that way, but they’re mostly in Paris. Bob created an atmosphere of inclusion. We needed that in New York.”
Ordinarily, Chavez spends every Saturday in December with sales associates, on the selling floor at the Madison Avenue and men’s stores. On the women’s side, he’s typically behind the scarf counter. Dicecco assigns him a sales goal, and he’s darned competitive about achieving it. It’s hard work, and he makes sure to let the sales staff know he appreciates them. “I don’t know how [they] do it. My feet are killing me after one day. [They] do it each and every day,” he says.
Town & Country editor in chief Stellene Volandes has known Chavez for about 15 years, and has happened upon some of his selling-floor sessions. “Maybe he was there to support the staff or to investigate shopping patterns or to keep in touch with clients, but he was there,” she says. “As ever, a merchant and a gentleman.”
COVID-19 protocol kept Chavez off the floor and out of the store this Christmas selling season. It has not kept him from connecting with employees. When the virus started ravaging New York and closures were imminent, the first questions on his mind were: “How can we stay connected,” and “How to keep the family close if everyone is going to be isolated at home.” He decided to initiate a weekly email update to all U.S. employees. The dispatches proved a hit with the suddenly homebound staff, and responses poured in. As spring gave way to summer, and the brand’s U.S. stores prepared to reopen, starting with Dallas and Houston, Chavez shared successes along with setbacks. He addressed incidents of COVID-19 exposure, as well as the company’s plans in light of the social justice demonstrations following the killings of George Floyd and others.
“I never sugar-coated anything,” Chavez says. “I didn’t hide anything, and I didn’t embellish anything. I just told it like it is, and I think people really, really appreciated that.” Indeed, they did. So much so that when Chavez pulled back from the weekly emails as events started to stabilize, employees let him know they missed the regular communication from him. He then decided to restart the dispatches on a monthly basis, even pivoting to video in November for a mini face-to-face conference.
Throughout Chavez’s tenure, Hermès has strategized pulling back from wholesale distribution almost completely, with the exception of fragrance, watches and some tabletop, while expanding the vertical retail footprint, both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce. The number of physical stores in the Americas region has grown from 14 to 29 on Chavez’s watch. When determining the location for a new store, he often trusts his gut. He is proud of some risky moves that have worked, including the 2007 opening on Wall Street at a time when downtown Manhattan was still recovering from the devastation of 9/11, and a newly residential tenor was percolating. He considered the move “a vote of confidence in Lower Manhattan and the city I love so much.” Locals agreed, frequently stopping by to say, “we really needed this.”
Among other notable retail moves, Chavez relocated the Palm Beach outpost from Worth Avenue to the Royal Poinciana, and last year christened another Manhattan store, in the Meatpacking District. In 2018, the company moved into Paolo Alto with a store at the Stanford Shopping Center. Meanwhile, only one store has closed on Chavez’s watch — Charlotte, N.C., opened in 2006. That boutique plateaued after five years, and was shuttered at the end of its 10-year lease. Otherwise, Chavez notes, “We have done some crazy things…but, knock on wood, they have worked.”
Next on the brick-and-mortar horizon: The 2022 opening of a new, huge flagship at 706 Madison Avenue Axel Dumas calls it his and Chavez’s “next adventure together.” They haven’t been shy about teasing its arrival, in February christening the raw space by throwing a huge party titled “Heureka” to celebrate “creative ingenuity.” With hindsight, the fete, held on the last night of the last “normal” NYFW, now feels like a different lifetime. But Chavez insists there are no regrets for the 45,000-square-foot project, nor does he anticipate a delayed opening. “More than ever, we think it’s the right thing for us to do,” he observes. “It’s a much bigger space [than the two stores on Madison Avenue]. It will give us the opportunity to offer a significantly enhanced experience for all of our customers on Madison Avenue. We are very, very excited about it.”
While the store plans remain constant, the pandemic-induced shutdown of travel has brought into even sharper relief the importance of nurturing the local clientele. Chavez draws a parallel with 9/11, when he realized that “we really needed to nurture a local client base because there was no one coming in from anywhere.” Now, COVID-19 has again “taken people back to their home boutique.” Latin American clients in particular would typically shop during their travels. With that no longer an option, they’re hewing closer to home for their silk scarves and Kelly bags, creating the potential for deeper brand-client relationships. “It means now we know [these clients], we see them more. We are better able to service them as we get to know them.”
Chavez sees streaks of silver breaking through the clouds in other areas as well. “COVID-19 has accelerated the digital elements of our business,” he notes, referencing a quote he read that two years’ worth of digital progress has happened in two months. “It really did. It happened overnight.”
In fact, strengthening Hermès’ digital acumen was a major priority pre-pandemic, and Chavez credits Axel Dumas with pushing the company in that direction without compromising the brand’s hallowed traditions and emphasis on craft. “You see how somebody brings his own imprint onto a family business while still preserving all of the things that are so important and so meaningful,” he says.
Chavez points out as well that, given Hermès’ vaunted place in the luxury pantheon, some consumers outside the brand’s tony clientele base have “perhaps had a slight intimidation about coming into our stores,” but have long felt comfortable shopping online. With COVID-19, “I think that has really exploded even more so, and people have discovered us more online.”
At the same time, loyal customers still want the personal service the in-store experience provides. “I see us in a good position to benefit from both,” he says. “People will have [a positive] online experience, and once they feel that comfort, they will say, ‘It’s been a great experience for me so far, maybe I should go [to the store] now and see what else I can learn and discover.’”
As for what’s selling, home is sizzling hot — unsurprising as months of lockdown have, for many, inspired the urge to jeuge up their decor. Fine jewelry rates an “amazing,” and shoes, “across the board have been just phenomenal.” In addition, the recent launch of beauty provides “a really great entrée into the house.” One that’s particularly well-timed, given that many people “[want] to buy something that just makes you feel good or gives you an uplifting feeling.”
On the bag front, Chavez declares the Kelly the brand’s most in-demand style, outpacing the Birkin. “[It’s] a fantastic investment. The association to Grace Kelly, the elegance of that time, the classicism of the time…it just fits all of the bullet points that one would go through: ‘if I’m going to buy myself one handbag, which handbag would I buy?’” As for ready-to-wear, Chavez observes that designer Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, who arrived in 2014, “has really transformed the client’s desire. It has become a very important category for us.”
Chavez’s inclination toward positivity is both innate and learned. He has navigated disasters before, including early in his Hermès career, when he felt disoriented and devastated by 9/11. Inspiration and pragmatic advice came in a call from Jean-Louis Dumas. He told Chavez, “‘Hermès has been around since 1837. We have been through world wars. We have been through many, many devastating experiences. We we will get past this as well. Just know that we are here to support you and we’ll get through this together.” Those words resonated powerfully, and Chavez found in them the perfect “guidance and wisdom” for the strange, frightening new world of this past year.
His road to Hermès began in San Antonio on the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks.” The youngest of three sons of a Mexican-American father and Spanish-German mother, he grew up in a “very conservative household,” and, at the insistence of his mother, a bilingual one. She warned her sons, “If you don’t speak Spanish, you will not be able to communicate with half the people that live in this city. You cannot do that.” One might think that now, Chavez’s heritage and fluency in Spanish afford major advantages in his oversight of Hermès Latin American business, but he doesn’t overplay their significance. “Is it overwhelming? Not really,” he maintains. “It doesn’t hurt that I speak Spanish and understand the culture. But in business, if you understand the business, if you understand retail, those are important things as well.”
Still, plenty of youthful lessons inform Chavez’ work today. As a teen he was intrigued by the window displays of the elegant Frost Brothers department store, its wares decidedly beyond his reach. At the same time, he was drawn to military efficiency, and joined ROTC, where he learned discipline and organization. “You had to make sure your uniform was crisp, your brass was polished, your shoes were always shined, your belt was aligned with your shirt,” standards that still resonate. “You know what?” Chavez offers. “I want my shoes to be shined and I want my belt to be aligned with my shirt and I want to look nice.” Two bus rides figure prominently in his story. One took him from San Antonio to Princeton University, his first trip out of Texas. The second followed in short order.
During freshman orientation, Chavez saw a sign advertising five-dollar tickets into Manhattan, and decided to take advantage. New York’s reputation du jour was as a rough place, especially for a young out-of-towner, but for Chavez, it was love at first sight, so much so that he stills views a mostly miserable traffic artery through a romantic lens. “I rounded that Lincoln Tunnel curve, and when I saw that skyline for the first time — I’m getting goosebumps right now. I looked at that skyline and thought, ‘I’m not going back to Texas.’”
Perhaps in deference to his mother’s insistence that he learn Spanish as a child, Chavez studied romance languages at Princeton, intending to become a teacher. But four years of intense schoolwork, having a job and “doing everything times ten” left him “academically fried.” He felt he needed a break before graduate school, and explored postings for jobs in the city that captivated him. Bloomingdale’s was among the companies recruiting on campus. He interviewed and was offered a position in the retailer’s executive training program. Salary: $9,500.
At Bloomingdale’s, Chavez got a broad-based retail education, and recognized early that much of the essential work takes place outside the c-suite. He loved the program, describing it as one hour a week of retail class and “the other 59 hours” working in the stockroom or on the selling floor. Trainees shuttled from department to department; Chavez did early stints in men’s wear and contemporary sportswear. His third assignment proved fateful: the cosmetics department, known for being “very avant-garde…very edgy, but a little crazy.” He tried to get out of it, but changing course was a no-go, though he was assured that the stint would likely only be for a few weeks.
The young employee quickly lost his chagrin. Though eccentric as foretold, the cosmetics denizens were, “lo and behold, very, very smart people.” Dora, the Clinique counter manager, still stands out (small-world kismet, Chavez’s mother was also named Dora). Clinique Dora had encyclopedic knowledge of her brand and what she needed in-store, meticulously working through her orders at a time when each was handwritten, line by line, every month. “I thought, ‘Wow, she really knows her business. She knows exactly what she needs, she knows what’s missing, she knows what has to go back,’” Chavez says.
Much like ROTC, Bloomingdale’s cosmetics arena demanded intense attention to detail while, he notes, “they were teaching me the retail discipline — inventory, ordering, opportunity. I learned a lot.” The assignment also afforded an introduction to Mike Blumenfeld, the retail giant and vice president of cosmetics credited with building the store’s beauty business. He soon offered Chavez an assistant buyer position, where his primary accounts were Estée Lauder, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Chavez learned about selling, marketing and advertising, all while being exposed to a veritable who’s-who of industry heavies, including Leonard Lauder and Clinique founder Carol Phillips. He also earned his first invitation to a black-tie event. Having been told he would be seated next to Mala Rubinstein, niece of Helena and a former company executive, he was already nervous when hailing a taxi. Sizing up his young fare — a destination, Waldorf Astoria; attire, rented tux — the cab driver asked him what it was like to work at the famous hotel. After a brief moment in which “my bubble just burst,” Chavez demurred that the Waldorf was a pleasant company with good benefits. Case of mistaken identity aside, the event proved delightful; Mala even requested that he save a dance for her. Back at home that night, Chavez articulated to himself a sense of purpose: “This is why I moved here. This is where I want to be. This is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”
In New York retail, perhaps, but not at Bloomingdale’s. After 10 years — during which time he met Vincent Sabio, his partner of 40 years and husband of 10 — Chavez moved to Macy’s, lured by Rosemarie Bravo. There he overlapped with other major individuals who figure prominently in the golden age of American retail — Ellen Saltzman, Joe Cicio and Linda Fargo, who is an unabashed admirer. “In the retail sea of big personalities, egos and agendas, Bob has always been a calm, straightforward and unflappable presence,” Fargo notes.
That’s not to say Chavez doesn’t bring his own flair to a situation. She recalls an ’80s fragrance launch event for Cher that included a Q&A session. Someone boldly asked the pop diva why she never dated anyone her own age, to which she replied, “Because no one my age ever asks me out.” Chavez jumped in and quipped, “Cher, will you go out with me?” diffusing an awkward moment. Says Fargo, “I gave him a lot of credit for keeping his cool, regaining control of the moment, all with grace, style and humor. Those qualities still serve him well.”
Chavez stayed at Macy’s for six years, until the company’s 1992 bankruptcy filing when, seeing “the writing on the wall,” he departed for Etienne Aigner, where he spent several years before decamping for Frédéric Fekkai. He was there just two months when the call came from a headhunter. Hermès beckoned.
With only minimal luxury experience from his Bloomingdale’s years, Chavez assumed he didn’t have a shot, yet he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet with Jean-Louis Dumas. To start the interview, Dumas admired Chavez’s suit, inquired of its source (Armani), and then the two men fell into a conversation about all sorts of non-business topics — Spanish history, food, Texas. They also discovered a mutual connection to Blumenfeld, for whom Dumas had worked years earlier, when his father sent him to the U.S. to develop his retail acumen. And so, the ROTC alum from San Antonio ascended to a post at the top of the U.S. wing of fashion’s most storied luxury house.
Immersion into the company culture took time. Accustomed to the corporate workings of U.S. mega retail, Chavez found himself thrust into a family business that operated with very Parisian sensibilities. He encountered practices that felt completely foreign to his experience, from late deliveries to a steadfast refusal to put seasonal merchandise on sale. More than once, he found himself asking, “Oh my God, how does this work?” After time, though, he came to an epiphany. “I thought, ‘Look at the size of this business. Who am I to start criticizing? There is something about it that works.’ And that was my big a-ha moment about luxury. It was different, and it worked differently. That’s when I thought, I can totally embrace this. I totally understand it now. I get it.”
Today, Chavez cites that tradition and history as the touchstones guiding Hermès in its 21st-century endeavors. “People want the quality, they want the craftsmanship, they want the authenticity. What Hermès represents, more than anything else, is authenticity,” he says. Even with the company’s push into digital, he stresses that “technology will never replace the artisans or the craftsmanship that is so key to who we are and to what we do.”
Like many others across the industry, Chavez believes the COVID-19 crisis has forced some serious soul-searching among industry types and consumer alike, and that process will likely benefit Hermès in the long run.
“I think that authenticity message is coming through even more loudly and more clearly than it ever has before,” he maintains. “And so for us, under the guidance of Pierre Alexis, it’s really all about continuing to do the things that we do best and infusing some novelty, some freshness, some new material, some new colors, some new categories, like beauty, for example, that will keep Hermès going in a modern yet very authentic and enduring way.”
Of course, at the pinnacle of luxury, authentic, exquisitely crafted product is but part of the baseline expectation. Service registers as equally important, especially in-store. It involves learned skills — knowledge of product, client management protocols — as well as something more ephemeral. “I always like to say that people have to be happy,” Chavez says. “We can teach you everything you need to know about Hermès. We can teach you how to sell a Birkin, we can teach you how to sell a Kelly, we can teach you how to sell a diamond bracelet. But we can’t teach you how to smile.”
That said, a company can do its part to elicit smiles. One way is to encourage employees in their pursuit of work-life balance. In his own life, that’s often a struggle, though COVID-19 has changed the dynamic. Like everyone else who used to travel for work, Chavez’s airborne and hotel time time now clocks in at zero. His husband Sabio observed recently that they’ve spent more time together in the last nine months than in the past 40 years combined — and, Chavez insists, without getting on each other’s nerves. Some shared joys — theater, travel — are on hold for now, but the couple continues to delight in intimate at-home dinners, whether alone or with two or four other people, “just a beautiful, nice, quiet dinner together. Always by candlelight.”
Asked about their wedding day, in Sharon, Conn., 10 years ago, Chavez speaks with emotion. “Just to be able to say those words, ‘to have and to hold until death do us part.’ I couldn’t believe that in my lifetime I would be able to look at the person that I love more than anybody else on this planet and to say those words to him and then to put rings on our fingers. It was amazing.”
Another great love of Chavez: New York City. Unlike some business power brokers who have floated the notion of fleeing, Chavez remains devoted to the town he fell in love with through a Greyhound bus window all those years ago. He and Sabio live in Battery Park City, and the thought of abandoning Manhattan appears never to have occurred. Instead, he reflects on the joys of his Hudson River view, facing “the Statue [of Liberty] and New York Harbor. [It’s] magical.”
Chavez is equally definitive when asked to articulate his most powerful contribution to Hermès, and he doesn’t tout retail expansion or having hit the big 1-B in U.S. revenue. “I’m grounded,” he says. “That’s what I would say I bring to Hermès. Because when you work at Hermès, you could live in a cloud and you could dream all day long…wealthy customers, beautiful products, beautiful stores, everything is great. But it’s not about that. For me, it’s always about the people.”