Like me, you probably have a box of scrap materials lying around somewhere - patches of lace, a nice length of grosgrain ribbon, buttons and any other bits and bobs that in true "Mum" fashion, might become useful one day - she thinks wistfully. Sadly in my case, that box has become a cabinet stuffed full of such paraphernalia. I've long given up on any of it becoming actually "useful". Then again, my scraps are far and away from the scraps that Pascale Mussard, creative director of Hermès' upcycled line Petit h, has been squirrelling away over the years. Mussard is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the humble saddlemaker Thierry Hermès, and has long been a part of the Hermès establishment as the business has always been kept within the family. Mussard has worked as headed up fabric buying for women's ready to wear, advertising and public relations, visual merchandising before becoming co-artistic director in the noughts alongside Pierre-Alexis Dumas. Then in 2010, Petit h was born as a way of alleviating the amount of waste materials that Hermès produces, and it became Mussard's calling.
Speaking with Mussard at the Petit h atelier in Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris, her eyes literally light up when asked to talk about her love of Petit h. In many ways, it's an unorthodox initiative. Sustainability isn't an issue that many houses have directly addressed with many still choosing to destroy defected or surplus goods.
More important than sustainability though for Mussard is the word "care" or more specifically, "to take care". Petit h, is not a sanctimonious green initiative but rather, a unique metier that continues in Hermès' tradition of upholding values of supreme craftsmanship, unquestionable quality and longevity.
Mussard comes from a generation where postwar thriftiness was ingrained in her and whilst running around the then-small ateliers of Hermès, she was also taught to respect the materials and craftsmen at hand. "Make, do and mend" and "Waste Not, Want Not" although English in origin, were phrases that Mussard was more than familiar with as she grew up inventing recipes out of leftovers, taking part in school plays wearing off cut leather costumes (imagine a donkey costume made out of beautiful Hermès grey leather!) and wrapping up Christmas presents beautifully out of found materials (even if the contents weren't as illustrious).
As she progressed through her different roles at Hermès, thriftiness never left her. Mussard kept fabrics when she was working in ready to wear, hiding them away in a secret room. She instilled little changes such as issuing leather badge holders for work ID cards, instead of the crap plastic ones. She'd set up tables for bored children to play with scrap leather in Hermès stores, whilst their parents shopped.
And so it is that Petit h was born in 2010, giving Mussard a role that she feels is truly hers. She describes herself as naturally shy and withdrawn but somehow Petit h has given her a confidence and a tenacity - something to fight for and defy against the powers that be. Initially setting up Petit h proved to be something of a challenge. "Why?" was what every one in the company said at the time. Petit h is not a vanity project but an atelier in its own right that is part of the business.
She fondly remembers her uncle Jean-Louis Dumas telling her that Hermès was like a beautiful garden. "Be careful not to trample all over the flowerbeds," he would say. The analogy goes that icons like the Birkin and the Kelly were the tall towering trees and then you had the smaller shrubs like Petit h, which would grow out, spreading their way around the garden. Petit h is therefore a coming together of minds, relying on the expertise of craftsmen from all of Hermès verticals in order to create the objects.
If visiting Hermès' silk scarf atelier in Lyon taught me anything, it's that any slight defects are absolutely not tolerated. What ends up in Petit h's atelier may be more than acceptable to the naked eye but to Hermès, anything less than perfection isn't going to be sold. So scuffed leathers and exotic skins, scratched Birkin and Kelly bags and mis-printed silk scarves are dealt with in a creative and innovative way. Petit h feels more like a laboratory than a strict atelier where everyone has their designated roles. Designers are playing around with ideas, toying with possibilities, hence why Mussard is in her element in this space and describes it as a "dream".
Mussard's team of six designers are asked to be treasure hunters, to see a material in its best light. She invites her team to work backwards, looking at the materials first in the atelier's "Alibaba's Cave" stuffed with swathes of leather, reams of cashmere, boxes of hardware, zippers and other accoutrements and piles of signature silks, and then coming up with ideas. As objects are created in very limited quantities, there's little room for error (it would be ironic to waste the "waste materials" you were trying to get rid of in the first place). Mussard doesn't necessarily set a theme or a brief other than everything needs to be a functional object. "We are not an art gallery," she asserts. She doesn't want to delve into the idea of creating ready to wear or shoes either, being respectful of what Christopher Lemaire and Pierre Hardy do for the brand. Instead, Petit h is more like a cabinet of curiosities that uses the best of the Hermès' savoir faire.
Only Hermès craftsmen would know how to dismantle a defected Birkin bag and give it a new lease of life (in this particular instance, the bag's scratched sides would be removed and replaced with the bulge of a felt hat to create a completely new Birkin-hat hybrid). Only they would know that Saint-Louis crystal vases have the ability to be chopped up and turned into a lamp shade. The masses of surplus and damaged silk and leathers that come in have even more ingenious afterlives. The idea isn't that the defects and damage is reused but that Hermès cuts those parts away and repurposes the rest so that all Petit h products are still in their eyes, perfect.
Londoners will get a chance to experience Petit h firsthand as the Bond Street store will be taken over by all things Petit h from the 20th November, with what promises to be a stunning display, designed by Studio Toogood. It's worth saying that as Hermès price points go, Petit h objects such as a silk bracelet, a coffee cup holder or a necklace won't break the bank. Plus, it will be worth nourishing the mind and the eye with the quirkier side of Hermès. The "Don't throw it away, there's a use for it!" motto may be a grown-up sensibility but at the heart of it, Petit h is intrinsically playful. To "Remake, Renovate, Reinvent and Re-enchant" (just some of the re- words Petit h uses), you have to suspend logic at times. Mussard's Petit h journey certainly seems to be turning back the age clock, if her smile and vivacity are anything to go by.