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November 02, 2011

Hermès’s Second Life

With petit h, Hermès isn’t just thinking outside the orange box—it’s completely reimagining it.

No one knows the indelible images—the orange box, the Kelly and the Birkin, the scarf, the belt buckles—better than Pascale Mussard. The fiftysomething great-great-great-granddaughter of founder Thierry Hermès has been with the company for 33 years, most recently as the brand’s co–artistic director. As a child, Mussard would often play in the fabled Paris workshops on Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, surrounded by the exquisite Hermès materials and products, as well as the talented artisans who created them. She would collect the scraps and discarded materials (leather trimmings, buckles, pieces of crocodile skin) and save them, just in case they could be used for something else. It is this very idea—giving a second life to unused Hermès materials by transforming them into something completely new—that forms the basis of Mussard’s groundbreaking new project, petit h.

“Petit h is the younger sibling of Hermès,” Mussard explains in her thick French accent as she sits in her New York City showroom, her arms covered in bracelets made out of repurposed crocodile skin and her brown hair tied in a ponytail with a piece of Hermès leather. “The whimsical one whose cheeks you pinch, who has the luxury and the time to invent anything.” The idea is simple: Since everything at Hermès is of the finest quality, and almost everything is made by hand, there are inevitable mistakes or imperfections that render otherwise flawless materials unusable. To illustrate this, Mussard pulls out a colorful silk scarf. “Making one scarf takes 300 people, from the selection of the silk to the weaving to the printing to the coloration of everything,” she says as she points to a tiny black dot on a corner of the scarf that’s barely visible to the naked eye. “I don’t know what happened here, maybe it’s a pen mark, but now it’s ruined,” she says. “And it’s so sad, because aside from that spot, the scarf is perfect.”

For petit h, Mussard takes these perfectly imperfect items and works with artists, designers and craftsmen to create spectacular, one-of-a-kind pieces inspired by the materials, completely reversing the creative process. “At Hermès, a designer has a set design or a grand collection plan, and he has to invent within that by playing with the colors or the materials,” Mussard says. “Petit h designers have to play with what we have. They have to imagine something new from the materials that already exist.”

The resulting petit h workshop—located down the street from the main Hermès atelier in Pantin, France—is a laboratory of innovation, a playground where designers and artisans collaborate and develop ideas that can possibly be applied to “Grand H” Hermès products later on. That damaged scarf? Designers Godefroy de Virieu and Stefania di Petrillo had the vision to cut off the marked section, wrap the scarf around electrical tubing, stitch it together with a linen thread, place it in a steamer and then remove the tube and thread—creating an accordion-like 3-D pleated silk necklace that is playful and featherlight but also chic and unmistakably Hermès. The petit h team plans to continue to develop this new technology of pleating, making necklaces using other items, like marbles. In another case, a beautiful carafe from Cristalleries de Saint-Louis was damaged by a tiny air bubble in its handle—but turned upside down, the crystal belly was transformed into a hanging lamp. A new version was unveiled as part of an official Hermès lighting collection at Paris’s Maison & Objet in September (see “Before & After: Behind the Things at Hermès’s petit h”). Other pieces may not make it into a collection but are exquisite one-of-a-kind objects on their own. Take, for example, the commode by furniture designer Christian Astuguevieille. After finding a piece of lagoon-blue Togo calfskin that was left over from an unsuccessful Birkin handbag test, Astuguevieille wanted to use it to cover the commode but realized he didn’t have enough. So in a sort of grown-up version of a treasure hunt, the designer dug through scraps until he found a terry-cloth beach towel with a pattern that perfectly matched the lagoon-blue color, which he used to cover the drawers.

Mussard is quick to point out that petit h is not about cutting costs or being ecofriendly and politically correct. “At the beginning, I was worried that our customers might think I was just recycling and trying to do something that didn’t cost money,” she says. “Petit h is really a way to respect Hermès—respect for our materials, respect for the people who work for us, respect for the memories.” In the end, the petit h pieces are Hermès-quality products created from Hermès materials and crafted by Hermès artisans. Think of it as high-end arts and crafts that only the creative and talented minds at Hermès could achieve.

The transient nature of petit h makes it difficult to have set collections or themes or even a permanent store—for now, groups of items are presented together at special sales for limited periods in Hermès boutiques throughout the world. The first group was unveiled in Paris last November, followed by a visit to Tokyo in June, and in both cases all items sold out in a matter of weeks. Now, for three weeks this November, petit h’s “traveling caravan,” as Mussard likes to say, will come to Hermès’s Madison Avenue flagship in New York. There will be 2,200 pieces for sale, ranging from $40 for small leather charms in the shapes of Kelly bags and dogs to $100,000 for a massive leather panda beanbag that will undoubtedly be one of the most coveted items—its one green foot is due to a shortage of black leather, but “he also has put his foot on the grass and the grass was wet,” Mussard playfully says. Also created for New York were colorful leather and crocodile-skin coffee-cup holders, inspired by Mussard’s impression of Manhattan working women as always on the go.

“These objects are a way for people to be able to touch Hermès in their daily lives,” she says. “With petit h, I want to nourish this connection and pay tribute to our craftsmen and our craft.”

Petit h will be at Hermès’s 691 Madison Ave. store in New York November 2–23. For more information, call 212-751-3181 or go to hermes.com.

Before & After: Behind the Things at Hermès’s petit h

“I want petit h to be revolutionary ideas for the future,” Mussard says. “It gets us thinking about different processes in creation, but it’s also a transversal way to work with new craftsmen who interest me.” And just like the materials, the stories and people behind each of the items are completely special and unique.

Silk Scarf Necklaces: The pleats on petit h’s accordion-like necklaces ($170), which were made out of damaged silk scarves, were created by Gérard Lognon, owner of Les Ateliers Lognon, Paris’s oldest workshop for pleating fabrics. The necklace underneath is a simpler design by Christian Astuguevieille. It’s created by wrapping a scarf around stiff cotton halyard and finishing it with a hammer-shaped clasp.

Cristalleries de Saint-Louis Lamp: “The bubble doesn’t make it fragile, but for Hermès, it’s more than something wrong,” Mussard says, referring to the tiny air bubble in the handle of an otherwise perfect carafe. Crystal artisans, leatherworkers and silversmiths from Puiforcat all contributed to the resulting petit h lamp. A new version is now part of an official Hermès lighting collection, along with a corresponding light fixture and chandelier. Prices upon request.

Woven Leather Necklace: While walking the streets of Paris, Mussard observed a young woman wearing a unique knitted necklace and immediately regretted not asking her where it was from. Later that night, Mussard attended her son’s art opening and, amazingly, that very girl was working there—and told Mussard that she designed the necklace herself. Alice Cozon was asked to join the petit h team and subsequently created a woven necklace made out of leather scraps ($1,025).