In conversation with the co-artistic director of Hermes
First published in the December 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
‘Generally in design you start with the idea and then find the materials, here it’s the other way around,’ says Pascale Mussard, director and initiator of the ‘petit h’ concept at the fabled French fashion house of Hermès. And her concept is brilliantly simple: she creates entirely new one-of-a-kind products from all the offcuts from the making of Hermès’ leather goods, glassware, jewellery and silks. Plus, Mussard, like a little hoarding squirrel, also snaps up the brand’s rejects for reuse. And because we’re talking Hermès here, this means anything with even the slightest, smallest, teeniest flaw, for the house principle is to purvey only that which exudes exquisite perfection.
Take its trademark silk scarves: each is printed by hand, involves up to 300 people and takes about two years to complete. Mussard pulls a reject off a nearby shelf; as I marvel over the glorious details, the softness of the silk and the vibrant colours, I struggle to find any flaw. Eventually she points it out: a single line, where one colour has slightly bled into another. Most, like me, would never have noticed it, but that’s not the point. It’s no longer perfect, and therefore, before ‘petit h’, it would have been destroyed. Now, Mussard says she can still ‘honour’ the scarf: ‘All that love and passion that goes into it is valued. It’s about respecting things.’ And yet, even before it’s transformed into something else (a string shopper fashioned from twisted silk ropes, for example), no matter how concealed the mistake might have been, the flawed portion is always removed. Imperfection cannot exist and be worthy of the orange boxes. ‘It’s about my integrity towards Hermès and the customer,’ she states. ‘It’s reconsidering that which has been put to one side, but still only the best bits.’ So is this haute recycling? Not really. The finished goods certainly aren’t cheaper, and the making is still done entirely by hand using the same skilled artisans that craft the rest of the company’s output. It’s easier to think of it as re-creation.
Based in Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris, the atelier smells deliciously of leather and hums with quiet productivity. This is where all of the Hermès leather is cut, and the ‘petit h’ workshops are tucked at the back. Here, the craftsmen work surrounded by offcuts small and large, plus bales of excess fabric and whole skins – from plain hides to crocodile – in colours no longer deemed au courant, not to forget the aforementioned scarves, bits of glassware, trimmings, buckles and so forth. It’s a toy shop of material possibility into which Mussard invites a changing cast of international designers to play – so far, names have included jewellery designer Gilles Jonemann, industrial designer Godefroy de Virieu and artist Christian Astuguevieille. ‘I think it’s the best atelier of Hermès because here you have a little flavour of all the work of all the treasure-hunters of Hermès,’ she says. And being from the sixth generation of the founding family, Mussard has had plenty of opportunity to observe the workings of her great-great-great grandfather Thierry Hermès’ company. ‘Since I was very young, I was always amazed that people could take such time over all the tiny details,’ she says. ‘I wanted to explain all the stories I had lived with.’
So what have they made? Almost anything and everything is the only possible answer as it depends entirely on the imagination of the invited designers, the inspiration they find in the accumulated materials discovered in the workshop, and the expertise of the Hermès craftsmen. ‘The materials spark the creative process and discussion between the craftsmen and designers to find a solution that is realisable and aesthetic according to Hermès values and procedures,’ says Mussard. Beyond this, anything goes. Thus far – the project started properly in 2009 when initial pieces were approved by the family for a first sale in Paris – profferings have included a life-size bear made from intricate, origami-folded patches of leather; a toy sailing boat with silk sails and a leather-covered hull; an aeroplane mobile fashioned from a teapot and a green glass vase with orange leather wings; crystal dumb bells made from ex-vases linked by a woven-leather cuff; and bracelets crafted from coils of crocodile skin where the line follows the uneven pattern of the scales, rather than the orthogonal precision revered by le grand H. But in some instances, the child has informed the master. A light, conceived originally from the belly of an upside-down St Louis crystal carafe and dismissed for an air bubble in its handle, was so admired by the mothership that it was swiftly reconfigured as a range piece, and debuted at the Maison et Objet fair in Paris.
And it’s this re-thinking of the dialogue between established and new, the artisans and the laboratory, that excites me into thinking this could be the dawn of a new experimental era for the house that began by making saddles. It’s what they refer to in Silicon Valley as the essential ability to pivot. But as Mussard puts it, ‘This is still the luxury business, and it’s our duty to create beautiful objects that age well. This is the only house that asks us to imagine something that will be better in 20 years’ time.’ So what’s next on her agenda? ‘Possibly making paper from silk, or terrazzo from our leftovers?’ she muses. And with that, she gracefully takes her leave. As they say, the best way to predict the future is to create it.
The Q&A Pascale Mussard
Tell me five words to describe yourself… That’s very difficult. You will have to ask others. Shy?
What’s your favourite colour? The colour I don’t like at all is pink! [Cue much exclaiming as she’s wearing bright pink for our photoshoot.] But I have no favourite colour. I like odd combinations.
What book are you reading right now?A book about Nicole de Vésian that’s just been re-issued by Actes Sud [titled Un Art des Jardins en Provence]. She was the first person I worked for.
Who is your favourite painter? I adore the Bloomsbury movement, also the Wiener Werkstätte and the Irish-born American painter Sean Scully.
What keeps you awake at night? To be honest, I’ve just moved to a new apartment in Brussels and I have to decide what kind of white for the walls – there are endless options! But my children first.
If you could be a different nationality, what would it be? I think I’d be a gypsy. I hear gypsy violin music and I think it must be in my blood.
You’re having a dinner party and can choose six famous people from the past or present. Who would you invite? My sons, all three of them. Calder. Apollinaire. Giacometti. And my grandmother [added when it was pointed out she’d chosen all men].
What was the first piece of furniture you bought? A pair of ‘Scissor’ chairs from the Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand studio at a flea market. The leather seats were a bit destroyed, but I figured I knew where to replace them!
Do you collect anything? When I was small my favourite comfort toy was an elephant; people have kept giving me elephants ever since. I have thousands now and I remember who gave me each one. I rarely buy an elephant for myself.
If you were an animal, what would you be? What’s the one that keeps everything in its cheeks… a squirrel! They seem so free.
When you were a child, what did you want to be? Two things. An architect like my father and/or a doctor.
What does luxury mean to you? It means simplicity, attention to details, trying not to kill ideas, fantasy or inspiration. Luxury is what I’m living now: to have time to do beautiful things.
What star sign are you? Scorpio.
Do you believe in luck? Yes. I think you have to help a bit but I’m lucky for sure.
Do you have a motto? Un mal point, un bien [for every bad thing, there’s something good].