Robert Chavez ’77, President and CEO of Hermès of Paris, spoke at a seminar hosted by Business Today, an undergraduate-focused business organization, on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Hermès of Paris is the U.S. subsidiary of Hermès International, a French luxury design house.
At the event, Chavez discussed the importance of authenticity — from his belief in the value of pursuing topics of genuine interest, to his experience leading an international powerhouse designer brand that crafts each product by hand.
“Do what you love,” Chavez advised student attendees. “Reading, discovering, learning a language, these are the beginnings, the first stepping stones.”
While today Chavez is a towering figure in the fashion industry, he said that his professional trajectory was not necessarily linear. While at Princeton, Chavez pursued a degree in romance languages and literature — a focus of study that, while seemingly unrelated to his life’s work, Chavez still stands by 45 years later.
“People used to say to me, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” Chavez said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian after the event. “Yet now here I am working for a French company. I go back to the fact that Princeton really opened my eyes to the world.”
After graduating, Chavez worked in various departments at Bloomingdales and Macy’s stores, eventually landing his current position at Hermès in 2000.
Business Today initially invited Chavez to speak at their Design Nation Conference in April 2021, but due to a scheduling conflict, he could not attend. Instead, Chavez agreed to a moderated Q&A, which was held on Wednesday night in McCosh 50.
Elizabeth Poku ’24, Assistant Director of Business Today’s seminars team, organized and moderated the event. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Poku noted the value of hearing from executives like Chavez about company values, particularly in fashion.
“I love to hear from people in the industry about how they’re able to express what the brand means,” Poku said.
Poku also hoped Chavez’s perspective as someone who was once a low-income student at the University would resonate with those who share a similar background at Princeton.
“We have a growing first-generation population that needs to see people like them succeed,” she said. “It’s like the old adage: You can’t be what you don’t see.”
Chavez grew up in San Antonio, Texas as a middle child of two Latin American immigrants. He left Texas for the first time when he began school in New Jersey.
“There was a time when I felt like I didn’t belong here at Princeton,” Chavez said. “I went home over winter break and I just thought I was not coming back. I don’t fit into this rich campus and these people.”
Chavez also addressed how his socioeconomic background has affected his experience working for Hermès.
“Selling luxury products was the same as selling other products,” he said at the event. “It was just about not feeling inadequate. I realized one day that this poor kid from Mexican San Antonio had something to offer.”
According to Chavez, that “something to offer” was his unique leadership style, which focuses on community building.
“One of the first things I did was to bring people together and almost force them to communicate,” he said. “Everybody was operating in their own silos. If you are not sure if you can trust a person, you’re not going to build an organization; it’s never going to work.”
He suggested students find ways to connect in a similar way on campus.
“I’m going to sound like an old man right now, but you have to talk to each other. There’s emotion when you talk to each other,” Chavez said. “Put the phone away. You have to understand how people are feeling and what they’re going through.”
As the final question of the event, Chavez was asked to describe his personal fashion style.
He responded with one word: “Simplicity.”
An Hermès store will be opening in Palmer Square in 2023.
Rebecca Cunningham is a news and podcast contributor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to email@example.com.