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.”