The last 46 years have seen Barbara Hermon become a household name synonymous with style, quality and the best of interior design.
This year, Melbourne institution Hermon&Hermon celebrates 23 years on top, but inside the fickle and often foreboding world of retail, perhaps Barbara’s most impressive accomplishment is the mere fact that she is still an ever-present force among her fellow design enthusiasts, pushing the boundaries to create trends whilst simultaneously avoiding them.
Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting with Barbara to discuss the logistics behind her longevity. “Passion, resilience and determination are the most important things,” she told me.
After moving to Melbourne, she began working for Trade Action and, in 1972, became the homewares and jewellery buyer for Handicrafts of Asia. “I travelled to developing countries; Pakistan, Ethiopia and India, and discovered many incredible handmade, one-off pieces. My experience being a buyer was invaluable and gave birth to my passion for quality handmade products and natural fibres.’’
Barbara says the biggest issue with bricks and mortar retail right now is “truly dismal” customer service. “I am very proud of the feedback we get and I believe this is due to the emphasis we put on staff knowing the products and having a genuine love for what we do.
‘’We take our staff to visit our local manufacturers to witness how the product is made for themselves. People still want that shopping experience, especially with furniture, and my passionate team offers that to the huge cross-section of customers coming through our doors.’’
At the heart of H&H lies a great deal of philanthropy. Barbara is a strong voice and advocate for the Philippines, where much of her stock is manufactured, and freely declares her dislike of imitation furniture and the importance of defending the integrity of designers.
‘’Often people ask me why I don’t go to China and have the furniture made cheaply and I tell them copying is something I am firmly against. Once copied, furniture loses its soul. If I see a designer being replicated I will contact people. It is about principle. Quality design and craftsmanship is what I love and I will defend it.
“We have spent a long time building our relationship with the H&H manufacturers in the Philippines and we are passionate about the country and the incredible work of its people. I also think of how many people rely on our business for their livelihood.’’
After two decades, Barbara is well placed to explain how she keeps H&H customers on their toes: “The future will always bring the promise of reinvention, something my husband John and I believe to be a vital aspect of our business. I never sit back; instead I look for different ways to showcase the furniture. The same couch displayed differently is a new piece.”
With staff whose ages range from 22 to 72, they’re forever working to evolve the store and everyone’s opinion is valued. “The youth in our team have been a huge part of how we find middle ground between staying true to what many describe as “very Hermon&Hermon’’ and staying fresh and innovative,” says Barbara. Having product appear on shows like The Block, holding in-store events with guests like Shaynna Blaze, and great relationships with magazine stylists and itnerior designers, have also played their part.
Barbara makes sure there’s always “a wow factor piece” in every H&H story, even if it’s only one item. “There must always be that element of wow. It excites people and draws them into the store. The piece may live its life on display but the power in its statement is worth it.”
Through the tough times in retail, it’s passion that has kept Barbara going. “In 46 years there have been so many ups and downs and I think ‘Oh my God, this is bad,’ but you have to keep going. Yes, be a realist. At the end of the day I’m a businesswoman but I do believe if the passion’s strong enough, it will get you through.’’
Hermon&Hermon | 556 Swan Street | Richmond | Melbourne
Photographs by Julian Pang.