The petit h atelier in Pantin, located on the outskirts of Paris, is a place of dreams. Here, the Hermès offshoot creates charming objects out of surplus or discarded materials, through a combination of creativity and skilled craftsmanship.
Leftover leathers from making the world-famous Birkin or Kelly, unused fabrics from seasonal ready-to-wear collections for men and women, dormant silks from scarves, redundant trims of all kinds spanning buttons to metal hardware… These are wonderfully transformed into innovative, useful objects, breathing new life into the high-end scraps.
While many companies tend to throw away unused or defective materials and goods, a rising awareness of sustainability and social responsibility has led other forward-thinking enterprises to look into ways to reduce material waste.
The result for Hermès is petit h, which was born in 2010 to upcycle precious scraps in ingenious ways. At the same time, it also brilliantly demonstrates the company’s expertise in craftsmanship and its uncompromising stand on quality.
Led by Godefroy de Virieu, Creative Director of petit h, I embark on an eye-opening tour of the atelier to explore its world of dreams. Like a labyrinth brimming with treasures, the studio is filled with swathes of surplus leathers, boxes of excess trimmings, flawed crystal glassware and porcelain, piles of rejected silks and other fabrics that failed to meet Hermès’ demanding standards of perfection.
Bringing these leftovers into play for petit h’s awe-inspiring alchemy means that creation begins in reverse – scraps are the starting point where ideas from creative minds all over the world are conceived and come to life. The artisans’ skill and craftsmanship, executed with nothing less than Hermès’ revered finesse and exacting attention to detail, elevate the objects to items that are whimsical and extraordinary, with refreshed forms and meanings.
Most importantly, these objects – many of which are one-of-a- kind – are products we can use in our everyday lives. These include the saddle bow chair in crocodile and taurillon calfskin, as well as the little coat hook fashioned out of leather, which will be coming to Singapore for the upcoming petit h exhibition. Other exclusive creations serve to delight, too. Look out for the bags standing on “legs”, one of which has a duck’s webbed foot. Or you can enjoy a game of hopscotch on the leather mat.
Do the local-motion
petit h has taken Virieu all over the world in search of things unique to particular cities, as well as to learn about how people live their daily lives. These are sources of inspiration that tell the stories of each city petit h goes to.
In particular, he is excited to take petit h to Singapore. “It’s been a year and a half since I took over from Pascale Mussard [the founder of petit h who’s also the great-great-great-grand daughter of Thierry Hermès], and the atelier has produced new pieces that Singapore will be the first to see.”
His previous visit to Singapore to look for collaborators marked the first time the globetrotter had visited this part of the world.
After meeting people from different walks of life, he decided to work with award-winning industrial designer Olivia Lee. She showed him some of her previous projects, and he immediately saw how her intriguing work aligned with the spirit of petit h. “I’d never met her, and we didn’t mention petit h, but when I spoke to her, it was incredible how much she understood the project!”
He feels Singapore is a “very strange country”. “I work with craftspeople who make things, but people in Singapore don’t really build things. I don’t see craftsmanship there. The creative part is more two-dimensional, coming from images or communication. There is technology and urbanism but there are also many gardens, a lot of nature. That’s why we created the mushrooms [referring to paperweights in ostrich and clemence bullcalf] and the fishes [referring to the safety pin in the form of a sardine, with leather and croco ends; and a fish-shaped bag in clemence bullcalf], to bring together nature and urbanism.”
He emphasises the importance of telling a city’s stories: “It’s not just to say ‘Hello, we are here’. We want to link the Singaporean spirit to petit h and the Hermès spirit.” Later, I found that Virieu snuck in a nod to Singapore with a charm featuring the ubiquitous red plastic coffeeshop chair worked in leather.
Against the odds
Most of the petit h products are limited editions. The restriction stems from the quantity of materials available to produce the items. “It’s like a market. If you arrive late, you won’t get anything,” Virieu says.
Production is not based on a pre-established volume – it depends on what the atelier has, so designers, artists and craftsmen have free rein to make very special things. “It’s always a surprise – you don’t know what will be presented – and that’s the game of petit h,” he concludes.
The element of surprise is no gimmick, though. Both Virieu and Mussard believe in “useful projects”. He reminds me that, at the end of the day, he is a designer, and he had connected with Mussard because she always had function in mind. “That’s also the story with Hermès, starting from the saddles, bridles and other riding gear, then the suitcases, bags, scarves… We don’t just do decorative pieces,” he points out. “I want to make things that people will touch, will use, that will become part of their stories. When I buy an Hermès object, I’ll use it for life. It’s not something you buy and throw away. petit h does not deviate from that philosophy. Utility is always important.”
In a way, Virieu feels that petit h is a manifestation of an incident that happened in the early days of Hermès. “When Pascale was a child, she saw her great-grand uncle picking up a small piece of leather from the trash. She asked him: ‘With this, shall we make a little wallet?’ They went to a workshop nearby and the craftsman flipped the leather piece, stitched it up and created nice details on what turned into a functional wallet. It was displayed behind a window without a price tag. A woman passed by, saw it and wanted to buy it. And so they decided to produce more of it. It’s a simple line of thought that Pascale wanted to recreate – the notion that there’s no object without objectives. This is why petit h interests me. I don’t want to make big shiny pieces. I like that people hold petit h items in their hands, they use the objects, appreciate the quality and know-how that go into each thing.”
One of petit h’s memorable projects in 2018 was a hardware store offering tools with a twist, such as the hammer that uses crocodile skin for the handle to gives users a better grip.
Once, a Japanese designer found little buttons of different sizes and materials in the atelier, along with some unused glasses from the eyewear department. Marrying the two elements produced a salt shaker, bringing beauty to something entirely quotidian. “That’s the strength of petit h – we work with the various departments of Hermès to create a new functional object. That’s exactly what I want to see every day in petit h,” Virieu enthuses.
It is incredible for a French luxury house to have this inventive programme that partly addresses issues to do with sustainability. “It’s not the final answer, but I love this idea because it speaks to everybody, even those who have yet to own an Hermès product. This project is also about an attitude we want to share with people. When you are with your family, your kids, you take care of things, you don’t throw everything away. If it can’t be re-used, let’s combine it with something else to reduce waste. For an eminent brand in the the luxury world, I think it’s nice for Hermès to pass down this attitude to the next generation.”
The process of reverse creation poses its own set of challenges. The petit h team is not large, numbering nine craftsmen and around 80 designers and artists, but they all thrive on coming up with fixes for problems. “I want to talk to each of them, I want to know I can be confident of them, I want to build strong links. If there are too many people, you can’t get to know everyone in a year,” he explains. “I prefer a small but strong team that is excited and agile in finding solutions to overcome hurdles because they want to push the envelope and make new discoveries.”
Hermès petit h is composed of dialogues between artists, designers and craftsmen and other team members who are part of the process of product development. He likes the idea of building bridges that extend out of the atelier, relishing the opportunity to work with talents around the world to gain the kind of savoir faire that enriches Hermès.
One day, he hopes to build a treehouse. “There’s something very intimate in its creation. You take a piece of wood, and when you construct something out of it on your own, you’re projecting your story,” he muses. “A treehouse is a symbol of liberty too. It does not have walls. You have freedom to put anything you like.
“I’m sure we can all make something that can be used in a garden. It can be a space that’s there all year long, where you can go in to rest, sing, draw… Or we can build the structure and invite an artist to fill the interior…” Virieu trails off, lost in building his house of dreams.
petit h is open to public from 22 Nov to 15 Dec at Liat Towers.