Written By:

Leather Holden cars, porcelain dinner plates as surf boards, carafes melded together as an hour glass (well, actually 17 minutes counting down to be precise), a yacht with silk sails, an emu and a full size kangaroo! Yes, these are just a few of the objects to be seen and purchased at the petit h exhibition within the Hermès flagship boutique at the fabled Trust Building in Sydney. With the scenography created by the exceptional artist Daniel Agdag, it is a wonderland, a treasure trove of intricate ideas, fantasy and everything with upcycling at its heart.  The objects were two years in the making and in the countdown to the Sydney Stopover we spoke with Godefroy de Virieu, creative director of petit h at Hermès, for the new issue of 10 Men Australia who took us on a Zoom tour of the workshop in Paris as the pieces were still being created:

In preparation for this mammoth undertaking, de Virieu visited Australia in 2019. “We arrived on a little plane into Alice Springs and we were met by Karin Upton Baker [managing director, Hermès Australia],” he says. “The experience was extremely strong because I had a very intense sensation of what Australia was. Karin had organised something incredible out in the desert at the end of the day; watching the sun set, we had a picnic – it was a great experience. Then we visited Uluru and I really took in all the meaning it has as the heart of Australia. It was very powerful.”

De Virieu then went on to Sydney and the first thing he did was swim in the ocean. “This mix between the desert then the sea, and the people and the human scale of the town, I loved this,” he says. “I love the air and the nature in Australia, too, that really inspires me. And the attitude is completely different [from Europe]. The people are really open-minded, they smile! You feel extremely good in Australia.” The optimism he felt would become inspiration for the Sydney Stopover, which he passed on to the petit h team, some of whom we meet on our call.

“My process is to inspire and to speak with the artists that are here at the petit h workshop,” he says. “The most important thing is to try to tell stories about Australia to make them dream. Then they begin to collect fragments, pieces that we have here at the workshop, all the materials to try to build something for the project. I suppose the specificity of petit h is I don’t want to give specific direction to do a collection. They start from the material that inspires them.” 

Petit h was created in 2010 by Pascale Mussard, a direct descendant (great-great-great-granddaughter) of Thierry Hermès who recognised the value in all the luxurious “scraps” – offcuts of leather, discarded fabric, buckles, buttons, zips – that the métiers were generating and set about creating a department to give them a new life. The starting point for each piece can never be the same; nothing is replicated, giving petit h its true originality.

De Virieu, who took over from Mussard in 2018, says: “What’s interesting is every day we receive little elements from the different departments, every day is like a market day. Every day is different.” And so, with the gathering of “ingredients”, the recipe changes and adapts. “All the [available] materials change, so every day is a discovery. New ideas come. The ‘scrap’ at Hermès, if you know how to pick the good part, can become something, and each little fragment is the beginning of a new story.”

The workshop is lined with hundreds of boxes, each containing elements that may have been destined to be part of a Birkin bag or a Kelly bag, plus padlocks, keys, handles, rivets, studs, straps, rolls of leather, skeins of silk, threads. It is a deconstructed wonderland, a fragmented distillation of Hermès. There is glassware, too, and porcelain. And equestrian hardware – a rich resource for creativity. 

There is a sense of joy and achievement among the artisans we meet during our tour. Men and women stop to talk and explain what they are making. Australian Liz Stirling, who joined the workshop this year, has created a series of eye masks that resemble pop art sunglasses, the coloured pieces of leather stitched with lightning bolts and lined with cashmere. Arnaud is making a landscape of cockatoos, an emu and trees; leather “plates” are being moulded by porcelain plates, the result embossed, tactile; and underneath a porcelain cup, a clock is revealed (“As you don’t always want to know the time,” says de Virieu). Germaine finishes work on a leather-and-wood safe with a crystal bowl for the combination lock, inspired by the original bank vault at the Hermès flagship boutique at the Trust Building in Sydney, while Angélique crafts a vase of leather flowers that will hold real meadow flowers as well. 

“At petit h, the main purpose is not to create fantasy; it is to discover things and be surprised by the discovery during the creative process,” de Virieu explains. “A product is a like sponge: at the end it reflects the fantasy. For example, a saddle tree is a chair, it’s useful. Or a button becomes part of a salt shaker, it’s so simple.” De Virieu is referring to one of his favourite collections, which features pieces inspired by horse saddles. “We had a good experience last year when Marc Stoltz, the man in charge of the Conservatoire des Créations Hermès, called me and said, ‘Godefroy, I have some 1960s saddle trees. Would you be interested in using them?’ I didn’t even know what these were. So I said, ‘OK, send me one and we’ll see if we can do something… ’ We started to imagine what it could become. Many ideas evolved and, in the end, we did a whole collection using the saddle trees. We started working with the idea of a guitar and the petit h artisans met with a specialist instrument maker and they started working together making a guitar.” The saddle tree objects now include a chair, sleigh, seesaw and the handles of a large woven basket. Clever.

“Surrealism is something that really interests us,” says De Virieu. “The interesting thing with the salt shaker is that it concentrates all the essence of the house – the ready-to-wear, the tableware with the crystal, all the materials that come from different parts of Hermès – together they become a new object. This is the real fantasy.” 

Of course, the objects are highly collectable. But, de Virieu says, “we are not thinking of the collector. We first think of the object: how it can be used and actually be useful – it’s really important in the creation. It’s important in all of Hermès that there is function, it’s not purely decorative and not pieces of art. These are daily life products.” Sustainability, recycling and upcycling have become paramount at most luxury houses over the past few years, but they are “the roots of Hermès – upcycling has always been part of Hermès,” he says. “Even at the very beginning, when the saddle maker used the piece of leather, they kept the material from around the main part because they knew they would use it in another object. This material and the resources are so precious.”

During his visit to Australia, de Virieu was introduced to the work of Melbourne artist Daniel Agdag. After watching Agdag’s award-winning stop-motion animated film, Lost Property Office, with its poignant resourcefulness, de Virieu commissioned Agdag to make five short films and oversee the scenography for the petit h Sydney Stopover. 

“We like to work with musicians, illustrators and all types of creators,” de Virieu says. “Daniel is a maker: not simply a designer, not someone who just draws an object. And he is such a nice guy, he reflects the open-minded Australian attitude. I really appreciate that, it’s very important. And so I asked Daniel if he could make a film about our creative process at petit h. He was interested in this idea and for us, it’s very new. The brief that I gave him is that the scenography [for the Stopover] could fit in a shoebox, as it’s important we don’t overproduce the event. We need to be focused on doing everything with less impact.” 

Agdag uses cardboard in his work and the scenography will be made with recycled material. De Virieu plays a teaser for one of Agdag’s short films, which clearly reflects the meticulous attention to detail and resourcefulness that he and petit h both embody. And there’s a classic Agdag narrative, too.

De Virieu says there are many positive words that define the essence of petit h: dream, discovery, innovation, sharing, curiosity. Then he holds up a small object and says: “I was close to the work table of the craftsman using a piece of this beautiful natural leather and saw there was something very interesting with its elasticity, so I said, ‘Shall we do the little Australian animal that people love a lot, a little platypus? And so this little piece of leather became something… ” 

Generations of families work at Hermès. “It’s very difficult to leave,” de Virieu says. “The people here are all in love with the projects. Julien, for example, and his father work for Hermès. This year, they will celebrate 24 years. They are great, great craftsmen. Skilled. All of them.” 

De Virieu himself is in love with the magic that these skills and collective creativity produce. He takes pleasure from the unexpected. “That makes life very surprising,” he says. “It gives you an energy all the time. It’s part of the mood of Hermès.”  

petit h Sydney Stopover has opened at Hermès, Sydney from November 5th - November 25th.