For three years, Mussard, a sixth-generation member of the Hermès family, has been leading the Petit h line, a unique salvage mission: to retrieve discarded materials from Hermès’s workshops and turn them into new objects. The line isn’t exactly a bid by the Mother of the Birkin to be perceived as sustainable, though a few blogs seemed to think so and mocked the effort as “upcycling.” That may be a fair assessment of a jigsaw puzzle made from leftover crocodile skin, an object nobody really needs. On the other hand, this view may be too literal minded. The objects of Petit h — which boasts a roster of designers like Gilles Jonemann, Christian Astuguevieille, Alice Cozon and Adrien Rovero in addition to the company’s artisans — are not toys, but they do express childlike qualities: innocence, playfulness, creaturely allusions. “Hermès is all about stories,” as Mussard says. More important, these objects also extend a warrant upon which Hermès was built: the possibility to own something that can be repaired. Years ago, when Mussard was starting in the family ateliers, a great-uncle, Robert Dumas, explained that this was the fundamental difference between Hermès and other companies selling expensive goods. That ethical standard — repairing instead of replacing — infuses the Petit h line. But be prepared to be surprised and taunted.
I peer into the crate. There, resting in a state of repose, is a giant rabbit, its floppy ears, like the rest of its squashy body, made in classic Hermès orange leather. My first thought, once I stop laughing, is to imagine the absurd pleasure it will give the lucky stiff who manages to buy it. For, despite the pleas of disappointed customers, Mussard has no plans to reproduce the rabbit, or indeed the other animals in the Petit h menagerie, which include a panda, a fawn and an enormous camel in crocodile. (The rabbit, fawn and camel have all been sold.)
In early November, some 2,200 Petit h objects will go on sale for three weeks in the New York flagship, as part of a tour that began last winter in Paris. While that total is impressive, given that everything is made by hand, it includes duplicates of objects, like coiled silk-print necklaces or leather sleeves for your morning Starbucks cup, that were relatively easy to reproduce because the materials were available. That isn’t the case, though, with most of the Petit h objects, which present a seeming paradox.
Mussard says it was never her intention to create a permanent trove of objects, even if customers seem willing to pay for them; for Petit h, the prices range from $40 for a leather charm to $100,000 for the panda. Recently Mussard had to tell a Chinese customer that, no, he could not put an option on the panda, which will be offered only in New York. She is not being snooty. The whole point of Petit h is to find new and creative uses for leftover scraps of leather and silk or defective china and crystal — not turn out more products, however delectable. “I hate wasted things,” says Mussard, who spent afternoons as a child watching the Hermès leather workers, or the three women who repaired clients’ gloves. Economy was always built into the process, she says: “At the end of each day, the craftsmen who were making bags took their leftovers to the people making bracelets or belts. So everything was kept and reused. In fact, I didn’t invent this at Hermès. The smallest pieces were for watchbands.”
Three years ago, after giving a speech about luxury at the Villa Noailles in Hyères, France, Mussard was approached by Gilles Jonemann, a jeweler. He told her that without money to buy stones early in his career he had turned to other materials. By then, Mussard had spent 30 years at Hermès, and she’d developed sharp instincts. She asked Jonemann if he’d like to collaborate. Over the next six months they created some 80 objects from leftovers and rejects. Then Mussard gathered the family and made her pitch for Petit h.
Hermès’s aesthetic demands, as well as the problems inherent with scraps — not enough material, the wrong scale for the task — provide Mussard and her team of designers and artisans with challenges that, she says, have transformed their thinking. She recalled how a young designer, Godefroy de Virieu, wanted to play around with silk. She introduced him to Gérard Lognon, whose firm does pleating. “They had a real love at first sight,” Mussard says. “This old man who has been four generations in pleated fabric for haute couture, and Godefroy.” The young man wanted to pleat silk three-dimensionally, a technique he resolved — to Lognon’s surprise — with marbles to form shapes and later a corrugated tube, not unlike a vacuum cleaner hose. The results were the coiled silk necklaces. “Now we are making our own profile,” Mussard says. “I always say at Hermès we must have our own mold. . . . I like easy things but I also like to add something.”
This is a pretty good description of Hermès’s aesthetic: keep it simple but be sure to add something. “We are surrounded by things that you don’t need,” Mussard says. “It helps Hermès to grow.” The Petit h studio is now working on a crystal vase with decorative pleated leather.
I tell Mussard that one of my favorite objects is a doorstop made from a translucent cylinder of white crystal and the handle of a Kelly bag. “Of course,” she says, “you could use a piece of marble to stop a door, but to me this object has an honest quality. It’s more than a perfect product.”
In a sense, Petit h is about finding harmony between two opposing values — those of perfection and imperfection. As Mussard says, “I want to be like my uncles and my grandmother. They were always, until the end, pushing everyone. Yes, it’s the way it has to be.”