“You have to look very carefully to see the tiniest of defects on the skin,” says one artisan. He’s using a white crayon to mark inconsistencies like a stretchmark or an uneven dot—mistakes often invisible to untrained eyes—with small circles or X’s. Any products with the subtlest of flaws are rejected by Hermès’ fetishistic quality control standards.
“We used only the top five percent of highest quality leathers,” mentions another artisan, “like Porosus Australian saltwater crocodile, known for their small defined and evenly shaped tiles, tundra Sikkim calfskin for texture, Togo calfskins for anti-scratch or the clemence taurillon for dexterity.” He’s preparing black crocodile for the hand-cutting process specific to the 35-centimeter Birkin bag.
Pascale Mussard, the artistic director of Petit h and the sixth generation of the Hermès scion, has spent over 35 years working at the fashion house—tackling everything from textile buying to being the co-artistic director. Mussard initiated the Petit h project in 2009 by working with the jeweler Gilles Jonemann in Aix-en-Provence, using a combination of rejected wares from the ateliers at Hermès. Mussard convinced the family to establish Petit h—first as a test—featuring collaborations with designers Christian Astuguevieille, Alice Cozon, and Adrien Rovero that paid homage to the Hermès heritage of craftsmanship and innovation.
“Here is the Ali Baba cave where we recuperated many of the discarded materials from all of the departments at Hermès,” says Mussard. Items like zippers, belt buckles, padlocks and keys for Kelly bags, silk scarves, ties, Clou de Selle buttons, crystals and luggage tags surround her in a storage room, and more are collated, waiting at the ready. As a jeweler with limited resources, Jonemann has to use different materials for his jewelry rather than precious stones (a few of Jonemann and Mussard’s early prototypes still reside on Mussard’s desk, among them, a broken teapot lamp adorned with crocodile wings and a camel made entirely of top-quality calfskins).
“The generous dialogue between the artisans and the designers is primordial to Hermès,” says Mussard. “The idea and the making of each product are [a] very serious undertaking even though Hermès has always celebrated creativity with a degree of fantasy. Here, the proposition is surely never one about marketing but one of how to make life more joyous with objects that will last and will stay with the customers for a long time. Each of these Petit h objects can—on their own—tell the story and the history of Hermès.
She continues: “A gesture that one forgets is a gesture that is lost forever. When lifestyle changes over the course of decades, skills can be lost. Excellence in craftsmanship requires both a continual process of repeating the same tasks to perfection in addition to being open to innovation by learning from others with different skills. In today’s ever-changing environment of advancing technology, there is a real appreciation for the handiwork in a similar way to the demands for sustainable and ecological means of productions. Petit h isn’t a big collection of products. Although we reproduce the sum of objects, there are no permanent items.”
Due to the limited and often unique products, an assortment of Petit h is sold during special exhibitions that started at the Faubourg Saint Honoré headquarters store in 2010—then travelled to Tokyo in May 2011, Hong Kong in September 2012, London this past November, and finally to South Coast Plaza in mid-June. About a year ago, Petit h had a permanent home at the front of the rue de Sèvres left bank store, where Mussard had built a display wall made from a series of rectangular pieces of wood, where rods could be pulled or pushed to form different structures showcasing a range of items.
“About 30 Petit H objects have entered into Hermès—like these pleated silk necklaces,” Mussard says. “I refuse the projects that would require the team to repeat the tasks or those [that] are already concurrent at Hermès. Godefroy de Virieu, a young artist, worked with Gérard Lognon, a specialist in haute couture, to make three-dimensional silk pleating that can guard their shapes. Eventually they pleated fine leathers. This transformative aspect of the Petit h project can produce the necessary innovation that Hermès can absorb and grow.”
The preservation, transformation, and innovation of savoir-faire ancien—an age-old master craft—stand at the heart of all Hermès activities. Adapting handicraft skills required for making a harness into crafting a handbag has transformed Hermès into a diverse conglomerate. Likewise, in four years the creative endeavors by artists and artisans at Petit h have transformed the once-small project into a proper métier.