It’s durn easy to buy Levi’s, cowboy boots and even chaps in Waco, Texas (pop. 101,000), but if you’re looking for one of those fancy Hermès scarves from Paris, France, you’ll have to mosey on up to the Hermès boutique 100 miles north in Dallas. What you can find in sleepy Waco is one of the French couturier’s top scarf designers—sitting behind his desk at the downtown post office.
Mail sorter and artist Kermit Oliver, 46, the first American to design for the 152-year-old fashion house, has created two of Hermès’s most popular scarf designs and has three more on the drawing board. In 1982, his first scarf, depicting a Pawnee Indian chief, sold so well that it had to be reissued (like most collectibles, the $175 Hermès scarves are printed in small runs). His next design, an intricate study of Texas wildlife, was issued in 1986 to commemorate the Texas sesquicentennial but was popular in Hermès boutiques around the world. “I cannot deny it is a juxtaposition to have him working for us,” says Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès. “But more it is a privilege to know him.”
A reclusive, almost ascetic man who spends his time away from the post office painting in his dining room, Oliver inspires that kind of reaction in many who meet him. A native of the small South Texas town of Refugio, Oliver has always preferred solitude to social encounters. “When I was a child, they used to call me Turtle’ because I didn’t talk or socialize with the other children much,” says Oliver of life with his father, Karl, a factory worker, mother Katherine and three brothers. “Art was one of the only ways I had of expressing myself.”
In 1962, Oliver moved to Houston to study art at Texas Southern University, where he met and married a fellow art student. After graduation, he took a series of part-time jobs, including teaching art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He devoted the rest of his time to his art. By 1970, Oliver’s oil paintings and pencil drawings were selling well enough to support his wife, Katie, and their kids—Kristy, now 25, Khristopher, 16, and Khristian, 12—but the uncertainty of the art world bothered him. Oliver signed on with the post office in 1978, transferring from Houston to Waco in 1983 and eventually upping his salary to $26,000.
Oliver’s paintings were brought to the attention of Hermès in 1982 by art consultant Shelby Marcus, whose husband Lawrence was an executive at Neiman Marcus, the only Texas retailer that carried the scarves at the time. And while Oliver’s designs were more detailed than most Hermès scarves, and thus more difficult to print, the relationship blossomed. “When I saw his first design, I said ‘Kermit, we must not stop here. We must go on,’ ” recalls Dumas-Hermès.
But fame has presented some difficulties for the reclusive Oliver, who has been known to stand outside gallery exhibits of his work for more than an hour trying to decide whether to go in. “I don’t like to be the center of attention,” he explains. Even though Oliver is making a pretty franc from his Hermès designs—he is paid for the original design and gets a royalty for every scarf sold—no one at the post office is worried that he will quit his job at the mail-sorting machine. Says Oliver: “The art world life is not conducive to my life or to my family—which has always been most important to me.”