If petit h – spelt entirely in lower case – was Hermes’ answer to Santa’s workshop, then Godefroy de Virieu would be its proverbial Santa. Taking on the position of its creative director last year, the affable Frenchman watches over his bevy of designers and artisans with his kind, twinkly blue eyes as they tinker away, fashioning objects that are at once toy, treat and archetype of good design.
A structured, leather-trimmed canvas tote affixed with short wooden legs – one with a webbed foot crafted from the same calfskin as on the bag – so that it can stand as a magazine holder. A sardine-shaped brooch created from adorning both ends of a safety pin with leather to form its head and tail. A hopscotch mat assembled from geometric patches of fabric and hide (of both exotic and nonexotic variety) in sophisticated Bauhausian colours. What makes all these inventions even more wondrous is the fact that the materials they were made with hailed nearly exclusively from the other ateliers and companies under the Hermes stable, left over or discarded from their production processes.
Over at the petit h studio in the quiet suburb of Pantin just outside of Paris, rooms burst with an array of supplies as dizzying in range as it is in quantity. Drawers of hardware that would have made it onto the French luxury maison’s coveted bags and belts except that they’re out of season, of surplus stock or sport the tiniest defects. Piles of its signature silk carres – or scarves – rejected by the brand’s quality control department for some reason or another (including the faintest of smudges that had occurred during printing). And possibly the most astounding: stacks of prized animal skin – calf, alligator, ostrich, you name it – riddled with cut-outs that hint at what it might have gone into making.
With the ongoing environmental crisis, it’s an alarming sight that jolts one into realising just how much fashion brands might consume and squander, explaining why the industry is reported to be one of the biggest contributors to the global waste problem (4 per cent annually, according to Forbes). De Virieu however is unfazed, and even inspired. “Petit h is a project of common sense,” he says, eyes lighting up. “We don’t look at waste as something terrible. We look at waste as an opportunity for creation.”
The atelier was started in 2010 by Pascale Mussard, the great-great great-granddaughter of the label’s founder Thierry Hermes, who had a natural prosustainable streak and was known to hoard and reuse scraps of material she had found lying around. There’s also the story about how a great-great-granduncle had picked up a piece of leather that was lying in the trash in the Hermes workshop, and turned it into a wallet that he later placed in the windows of the brand’s Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore flagship in Paris to see if it would get sold. It did. The atypical spelling of “petit h” hints at how it’s both playful and daring.
De Virieu points out that the culture of upcycling has always been a part of the Hermes family, stemming from an intrinsic respect for quality materials. All that “stuff” at petit h? They’ve been accumulated over time with new arrivals each week, and any remnants from the workshop’s own production process returned to the shelves. Yes, it’s a modus operandi that any other company can – and should – adopt (“it’s a pedagogic way of thinking”) and no, it’s impossible to use up every single bit, he admits – but he and his team try to. “Here we work on showing how even the smallest piece of leather has something to say.”
To do that calls for a preternaturally open mind. As long as one remembers that the end product should be useful, is produced “with excellence” and surprises – what De Virieu says are the three main traits of anything Hermes – the possibilities are indeed endless. He recounts how by accidentally tipping over a crystal wine glass (it didn’t make it to stores as it had a chip), he and a designer came up with not one, but three objects. The elegant bowl was fitted with a rope net and transformed into a hanging vase perfect for succulents. The stem became the chic pestle to a wooden mortar, and the foot – when combined with another – became an oversized (and highly luxurious) yo-yo.
Unlike at the other ateliers at Hermes, the creative team and artisans who work collaboratively at petit h aren’t given an annual theme or have to deal with regular deadlines. “Even if it takes six months to complete, we do it,” says De Virieu. “We are not under pressure to create objects. We are under pressure to create nice objects.” Factor in the unpredictable and eclectic nature of their resources and they develop just between 250 and 300 items a year, all handcrafted and most of which are one of a kind.
Adding to the somewhat mythical existence of petit h, the only permanent destination to see and purchase these idiosyncratic works of craft and creativity is the brand’s Rue de Sevres boutique on the Left Bank, housed in what was once one of Paris’ most beautiful, Art Deco-designed indoor swimming pool complexes. The studio also gathers some of its wares and wanders the globe, setting up specially curated, pop-up sales exhibitions at its stores in other cities, one at a time.
Catch petit h Tomorrow At Hermes’ Liat Towers Shop
From tomorrow to Dec 15, this upbeat, conservation-forward outfit lands at the Liat Towers shop on Orchard Road. The second time that petit h has made a stop in Singapore (it first did in 2013), the public event will feature an assortment of objects thought to reflect our local culture and environment. De Virieu and company – sparked by a visit to our garden city last year – have singled out the likes of giant, mushroom-shaped paperweights with caps bound in ostrich skin; a petite (no pun intended) shagreen top-handle bag with a woven base that resembles a mini fishing basket; and – one of De Virieu’s personal favourites – a wooden chair with sensuous, seemingly ergonomic curves, its back formed with the frame of a saddlebow (yes, Hermes still produces saddlery).
Setting the scene to this whimsical design wonderland is the local, Salon del Mobile-recognised multi-disciplinary artist Olivia Lee, handpicked by De Virieu who was bowled over by her storytelling prowess and how she – in her own work– plays with materials in unexpected ways. (He calls her 2015 exhibit The Marvellous Marble Factory, in which she reimagined confectionary using the patterned stone, “perfect”.) For this instalment of petit h, she’s dreamt up “Planet h”, a landscape populated by organic forms and resources with which a mysterious astronaut has created – in De Virieu’s own words – “some crazy things”.
Visitors, you’ve been warned. To quote De Virieu’s reply when asked if his artisans ever move on to Hermes’ other workshops after entering the petit h universe: “Once you’re here, you don’t want to leave.”
The event is free for all to attend and runs from 10:30am – 8pm daily. Browse the gallery below for a look at some of the items that will be on display tomorrow.