Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hermès Spins Castoffs Into Quirky Line

Petit h Turns Discarded Materials Into Pricey Tchotchkes

Hermes is turning the company's waste stream--flawed silk scarves, broken glassware, discontinued-color leather and crocodile skinss--into whimsical new products, called "Petit H." 

It is an awfully strange recycling program. Here in this working-class Paris suburb, rejected leather pelts, broken bits of porcelain, decapitated crystal goblets and strips of silk scarves are being assembled into pricey objets d'art.
Each shard, strip and skin comes from an Hermès product that failed to make it through the company's famously persnickety design scrutiny. A felt-and-leather file folder came from the handles of a never-finished Birkin bag. A horse sculpture is covered in purple crocodile in a discontinued shade. Cockamamie candleholders are assembled from porcelain Fil d'Argent-pattern tea cups and coffee mugs that have been attached to crystal wine stems.
The concept is the brainchild of Pascale Mussard, a member of the often eccentric Hermès clan. A bit of a magpie with a distaste for waste, the 57-year-old collected flotsam and jetsam while working at her family's factories in various jobs, including co-creative director. She started Petit h, a collection of artful objects made from castoffs, four years ago.
At the factory in March, Ms. Mussard—great-great-great-granddaughter of company founder Thierry Hermès—grasped a soft brown-dyed mink skin produced for the company's ready-to-wear clothing line. "This didn't do well and they took it out of the collection," she said. "But it's beautiful."
Behind her hung dozens of crocodile skins and leathers in a rainbow of colors. A nearby storage room was filled with boxes of belt buckles, zippers, luggage tags, rope and other materials that would no longer be used as originally intended. A tub of lace, labeled "Gaultier," came from the first clothing collection that Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Hermès in 2003. Artists are set loose amid this waste stream to conceive of ideas for the small atelier to develop.
"This is a laboratory," Ms. Mussard said. Nearby, a half-dozen artisans clustered around a work table discussing how to assemble a new design for Petit h. (The "h" is pronounced "ahsh," the way the French say the letter.)
The designs can be kooky, but to anyone familiar with Hermès designs, they feel oddly familiar. For instance, a large orange bookcase, shaped like an angular squirrel from one angle, is made of steel encased in Togo calfskin once destined for Hermès leather goods. 
Petit h objects are as expensive as they are rare. Each item is either unique or produced in very limited quantities. The bookcase, titled "Origami Squirrel Sculpture," is priced at $112,400. An alligator and calfskin tablet case costs $8,250. A buffalo leather sailboat whose sail was once a "Petit Duc" silk scarf is $10,200. A calfskin elephant is $58,200, while a crystal bowl is a relative bargain at $1,925.
Unlike regular Hermès goods, Petit h items aren't widely distributed. They are sold regularly only at the Hermès store in Paris's St. Germain neighborhood, though there are traveling exhibits. In the second half of June, the Hermès store at South Coast Plaza in Southern California will display and sell Petit h objects. A few will be sold at as well.
The quirkiness of Petit h might seem jarring to people who think of Hermès as a maker of Kelly bags and pricey scarves. Hermès's profit margins are among the highest in luxury goods, and the company—whose customers tend to be among the world's wealthiest—has been more insulated against economic downturns than rivals such as LVMH. Its sales rose 7.8% last year to 3.75 billion euros ($5.13 billion). Though publicly traded, the company is controlled and operated by the family.
But the broader ethos of the company is apparent in its flagship stores. They are stuffed to the brim, like peculiar department stores, with beach towels, jewelry boxes, sports equipment, sculpture and even equestrian saddles and bridles, all finished with a penchant for artisanal perfection that borders on pathological. The Petit h boutique within the Paris flagship amplifies that reverence for craftsmanship with gallery-like displays of objets d'art.
Petit h "expresses the values most dear to Hermès," says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès's artistic director and Ms. Mussard's cousin. He adds that it remains "faithful to the artisan spirit of the house using exceptional discarded materials to create and reinvent beautiful objects full of fantasy which are unusual."
Petit h also allows Hermès to boast—as the company does on its website—"We don't throw anything away." (The company does have other re-use efforts. For instance, scarves with very tiny defects are shredded and used to stuff pillows.)
The recycling message reverberates today, but Ms. Mussard attributes the concept of frugality to her mother, who grew up during World War II. "We saved everything," she says. Her mother insisted the family finish yesterday's bread before starting on a fresh loaf. "By that time the (new) loaf was no longer fresh," says Ms. Mussard.
Years later, Ms. Mussard would wince as she witnessed defective Hermès products being destroyed so that they couldn't be sold as seconds or on the black market.
Ms. Mussard ferreted boxes of useful detritus out of Hermès factories for years. Then she met Gilles Jonemann, a jewelry designer working under his own name who held no reverence for Kelly bags or silk scarves. "I knew nothing about Hermès," Mr. Jonemann says, "except for things I didn't like."
When she asked him to work secretly for a year, without pay, he helped her squirrel more rejects out of Hermès factories in the trunk of his car. Together, they created 100 prototypes, many of them whimsical. With a broken teapot, Mr. Jonemann said, "We'll make a lamp." He added wings and hung it so the pot would seem to fly. They made a tall leather-covered camel and named it "Raul."
When she took the concept of selling Petit h goods to her family, Ms. Mussard read her written proposal verbatim because she was so nervous to stray from the paper. "I said, I have a project and you cannot say no. I know you all think I'm crazy," she says. The family agreed to test the concept, though she had to find legal means to re-use the previously copyrighted products. (Artists hired by Hermès own the copyright to their designs.) "The lawyers said, "Impossible!" she recalls. She met with artists to seek their permission.
These days, there is no more sneaking around. "Now," she says, "the factories save leftovers for me."
The artisans were selected by Ms. Mussard to join the Petit h atelier after proving themselves at Hermès's larger factories. One spent 20 years making prototypes for leather collections, another made suitcases, and yet another came from the repair department, where he learned to identify design flaws. There are silversmiths, and a seamstress who is learning leather work.
The objects created at Petit h must be made to Hermès's standards. When asked if a thin leather shelf was wrapped around cardboard, Ms. Mussard replied, "No, it's Hermès. We never use cardboard."

Christina Binkley, Wall Street Journal

Photo: Hermes. Pantin, France

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