Petit H – Artistic atelier

7 December 2016

But if an artist proposed to make a teapot with leather wings and a crystal base, then we will all gather around the table and work out how to do it. It's more of a collaboration

In an unassuming street in Pantin, the north-eastern Parisian suburb that has become something of an industrial hub for the luxury fashion industry, you’ll find the petit h workshop. Hidden off a leafy courtyard, the open-plan, well-lit room is a laboratory of sorts that houses the exceptional métiers of Hermès under the one roof. The mission here is to transform discarded items from the Maison’s many ateliers, and craft treasures from the odds, ends and off-cuts with the help of a roster of artists and designers like Christian Astuguevielle, Parme Marin, and Isabelle Leloup.

In the corner of the atelier, one room resembles a lively haberdashery stocked with buttons, buckles, and ribbons. Elsewhere, scraps of leather and pieces of irregular glass and porcelain wait to be changed into one-off works of art. On another side of the room, a petit h craftsman is adding coloured zippers to the metal frame of a sculpture of an Afghan hound by French artist Marie Christophe. Here, creativity has no commercial limits.

The mistress of this domain is artistic director Pascale Mussard, a sixth-generation descendent of the Hermès family. Mussard has been in the business since the 1970’s and was co-artistic director of Hermès with her cousin Pierre-Alexis Dumas for years, before she began petit h in 2010. Ever since, her pet project has captured the imagination of the fashion and art world alike.

Mussard looks at home here, dressed as she is today in an apple green knit and tan leather overalls, with an animated silk carré tied jauntily around her neck. Her bright blue eyes twinkle with warmth and sincerity. She’s preparing for the petit h ‘holiday factory’ in New York, a month-long pop-up at the Madison Avenue store that sees it decked out like a mythical workshop, with windows hosting a large-scale advent calendar of creations — a project she worked on with her son the artist Alexandre Mussard. In addition to Madison Avenue, the petit h universe will also make a guest appearance at the Wall Street boutique and the Parfumerie throughout the holiday period. In the lead-up, I spoke with Mussard about the enchanting world in which she inhabits.

CEREAL: Pascale, what was happening to all of the cast-offs before 2010 when you started this project?

PM: I was keeping it all and hiding it anywhere I could. I knew every centimetre of the Faubourg Saint-Honore building and every inch of the garage, I also had some of it in our cellar at home… I knew it was not mine, but I was safeguarding it for something. When I started petit h I had quite a lot to work with. I also gave many, many things to Marc Stoltz, who is the curator of The Conservatoire des Créations Hermès. Sometimes I ask him to give certain things back to me, but he always says no [laughs].

CEREAL: So you’re a hoarder?

PM: Yes, I keep and collect everything! If you give me a gift, I will keep the wrapping paper, the ribbon, and the card! But Emil Hermès was like that too, if you’ve seen his private collection you will know this, and he did the same thing at home.

CEREAL: This is such a wonderful place, how does the process of creation here differ to the way Hermès works?

PM: At Hermès we have one artisan working on a single item from start to finish, but here it is more of a laboratory. For example, if I want to make a teapot, we would not just make a Hermès teapot — that is the Hermès skill and know-how. But if an artist proposed to make a teapot with leather wings and a crystal base, then we will all gather around the table and work out how to do it. It’s more of a collaboration at petit h, and there is a certain language between craftsmen here that is unique.

CEREAL: How do you choose the artists you collaborate with?

PM: At first I called on artists I had met when I was working at Hermès but hadn’t been able to work with because their ideas were difficult to reproduce. And now, I go to exhibitions, I meet students and look for new talent, and a lot of people write to me. I do try to see everyone but it is difficult and I try not to disappoint the people who bring us their wonderful ideas, but we are small, so we can’t take on everything.

CEREAL: Are you good with your hands?

PM: No, I’m not really, but I have always said I am very lucky, not only because I was born into the Hermès family, but because I’ve been surrounded by people who appreciate beauty. There was always this great feeling of joy around beauty. It’s important to continue to pass that on. We, as a family, have to transmit everything we have seen and learned, and there are many different ways to do this. I don’t know how to write, I don’t know how to sing, I don’t now how to make a movie, but I think I can pass on the values I have learned, from the different generations I have been lucky enough to work with.