Hermès’s Second Life

Vincent Leroux

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).