The sound of trickling water to my left, the rhythmic crashing of waves to my right, a fresh ocean breeze caressing my face and morning sunshine warming my cheeks. I’m seated on a circular rattan mat on a cobbled stone beach—where a freshwater river meets the sea—on the southern Japanese island of Yakushima and, although I’m told by our meditation instructor to “focus on my breath”, my mind keeps throwing up the same question: what on Earth am I doing here?
Hermès and Apple have invited a select group of 14 international journalists to join Pierre-Alexis Dumas (executive vice-president and artistic director for Hermès) and Jony Ive (chief design officer for Apple) for a secret retreat in Yakushima to celebrate the recent launch of the Hermès Apple Watch Series 4. It’s taken me 11 hours and three flights—each plane getting successively smaller—to get to this remote island from Singapore; but some guests have travelled for considerably longer, journeying for more than 24 hours from as far as Paris and New York.
“Be present”, I’m told. I draw my attention back to the beach. Eyes closed, I feel the sand sieve through my fingers. The knowledge that my phone is totally out of range feels liberating. This, I think to myself, is luxury. Hermès hates the word, preferring to label itself as a craft house rather than a purveyor of ‘luxury’, but right now as I fill my lungs with the damp scent of the adjacent forest, white-knuckling myself through the social media ban (how very counter-culture), there really is no better descriptor. “Just breathe”, comes the mantra. There’s an app for that.
“Why Japan?” proposes Dumas later that day after lunch. “Because it is the mid-point between Paris and Cupertino, the two homes of Hermès and Apple. Japan is also a country that blends modernity with history, craft with innovation and, as such, is the ideal place to celebrate the partnership between our two maisons to create the Hermès Apple Watch Series 4.”
When Hermès and Apple first teamed up in 2015 to launch their first Apple Watch, the world put down their iPhones, set aside their Birkins and took notice. These are two houses famous for not collaborating with anyone else, and here they are working together. As Dumas puts it: “Apple doesn’t need Hermès and Hermès does not need Apple, so it makes the union more unique, because it’s all about making something beautiful.”
On first glance, the Hermès and Apple tie-up does seem rather odd: what does a saddle-maker founded in 1837 have in common with a tech company established in 1976, almost 140 years later? “I think it is rather wonderful that we make very different products, but they come from a similar set of standards and preoccupations,” shares Ive. “When you look at Hermès products and ours, what they testify to is an extraordinary degree of care, what they describe is the sincere pursuit of excellence.”
Dumas concurs. “Like Apple we are obsessed with detail. We are equally concerted on this idea of care: care in designing the object in the utmost detail, but also for the person who’s going to use it. I think that is where we meet.”
Distilled to its core, both companies exist to make people’s lives better. While Apple does this by mastering technology—an extension of Steve Jobs’ original mission statement for the company ‘to make a contribute to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind’—Hermès achieves this through the hands of its craftsmen; delivering products that are at once, both functional and aesthetically stunning.
“My father [the esteemed Jean-Louis Dumas who is credited for turning Hermès into a global powerhouse during his tenure as chairman and artistic director] always said: ‘Hermès strives to create items for comfort and elegance in your everyday life’,” shares Dumas. “And I could add, ‘how can we give a contemporary expression to an age-old tradition?’ My job at Hermès is to see how, with what we know and what we master, we can make the ordinary extraordinary.”
It’s a quarter past two on my Hermès Apple Watch and we’re hiking through the Yakushima forest to meet the thousand-year-old cedar trees that the island is renowned for. With the exclusive new Hermès user interface for Series 4, a colour-blocked design that sees the screen change colour with the movement of the minute hand, I simply have to glance down at my watch to gauge the time without losing track of where to place my next step. Undeniably, the timepiece is gorgeous—it comes with new tri-colour leather straps (all saddle-stitched, of course) to match the new dial faces. The technology of Apple coupled with the craft of Hermès, is there a more covetable combination?
Because I’m obsessed with closing my Activity rings, I have turned on my workout app and selected Outdoor Walk when I started the hike. Yup, there’s an app for everything; albeit, this is not the usual ‘outdoor walk’ that I’m accustomed to in my neighbourhood park back home in Singapore.
Just over half-an-hour into our walk and the destination is in view. Angelica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China, is making her way down to a river bed wearing white Hermès sneakers; to her right, Kevin Ma, founder of Hypebeast, is taking snapshots of the sunlight breaking through the canopy in his black Nike x A-Cold-Wall* trainers (how did he get them pre-release date?), and on a river boulder to my right, a cellist and singer are getting ready to perform. Music in the middle of the forest? Accompanied by freshly brewed hot tea and lemon financiers? Talk about making the ordinary extraordinary.
“Will this track be available for download on iTunes after the hike?” I joke to Dumas. He lets out a smile. “The moment is unique because we decide to make it unique,” he responds. “It’s so important to feel strong emotions. I always take my staff to a retreat to feel strong emotions because, as humans, we need to feel sensations. That’s how we can create. That’s how we can dream.”
As the strings reverberate down the river, bouncing off the green walls created by a gauntlet of towering ancient trees, an easy calm settles on the eclectic ensemble. Tea cups cradled in hand, we rise and fall with the visceral wails of the vocalist; birds cry back in response, leaves rustle as if signalling their appreciation and the words of Japanese poet Mimi Hachikai come to mind:
Ears sprout on my body for the first time
And I begin to hear the words of the forest
It was talking
The whole experience is special. A pulse to the senses. I check my heart rate. A peaceful 68bpm. There’s an app for that too.
Dinner is held at a restaurant by the sea. The ladies have replaced their hiking gear with evening dresses, the men their jeans with suits, and Hermès has flown in a Japanese chef—who now resides and works in Bilbao, Spain—just for the occasion. We’re dining on Hermès Rallye tableware, cutting up our 10-year-old Txuleta steaks with silver Hermès Attelage cutlery, and listening to a flautist charm us with his sweet harmony.
Ive is seated to my left and, in front of him, industrial designer Marc Newson—the man responsible for bringing together Dumas and Ive—is sharing a laugh with Masafumi Suzuki, editor-in-chief of GQ Japan. Ive may have just flown in this morning, but he is not showing any signs of jet lag.
“I love being somewhere out of choice rather than obligation,” he says. “Flying all the way to Yakushima sounds weird, but that’s the definition of ‘vision’ isn’t it? Like our partnership with Hermès, this collaboration is out of choice and not obligation. One of the things that both Pierre-Alexis and I keep coming back to is humanity; this is what fuels our passion to create. There is a common misconception that things made in small volumes is greater in quality than things made in large volumes. But volume has nothing to do with it. It’s all about care. It’s all about human touch.”
On the table behind me, Lisa Armstrong, the venerable fashion director of The Daily Telegraph, is wearing an Hermès Apple Watch Series 4 strapped to her wrist with a double tour bracelet—the iconic leather strap famously created by Martin Margiela when he designed for the house in the 1990s. To stop the leather from sliding under the Apple Watch, and thereby allow the sensors on the caseback to remain in contact with the skin (in order to read the wearer’s biometric data), Hermès had to work with its craftsmen to develop extra tension in the double tour strap. The solution? Adding strategic thickness to parts of the leather—a technique used by the maison to make the handles of its bags since the foundation of Hermès.
“I like this idea that the unit of measure for Hermès, and maybe for Apple as well, is a detail so small that the human eye cannot perceive it, but somehow the human sensibility can appreciate it,” explains Dumas. The function, and therefore the practical beauty, lies in the details. “I think that very often it is hard to articulate why we like something,” says Ive, “we sense beyond what we can see; we sense the value and care.”
To accompany our dessert of honey, eggplant and local citrus fruits—a concoction that sounds preposterous on paper, but proved a delight on the lips—the flautist has returned, and this time is accompanied by another performer playing Japanese taiko drums. Individually, these instruments are a joy, but together their harmonies are intoxicating. Like our dessert, it is surprising. Like our hike, it is soul-searching. And like the partnership between Dumas and Ive, it is thoughtful. There isn’t an app for this, but there is a tool. A tool that is not only a timepiece, but a tool that has shaped, and will continue to define, the way we live.