Bag charms made out of leftover leather. Necklaces fashioned from remnants of earlier garments. Toys handcrafted from unused material found in workshops.
French luxury house Hermès has long been synonymous with quality and sophistication. So to outsiders, the 2010 launch of its Petit h line specialising in limited edition pieces made out of odds-and-ends may have seemed like a risky proposition.
But fashion lovers quickly proved the cynics wrong. They instantly loved the repurposed products and their unique quirky touches. They shared Petit h’s belief that balance materials from Hermès’ main line need not go to waste. As the world moves towards sustainability for its long-term survival, Petit h’s motto of “Waste not, want not” resonates now more than ever.
From Nov 22 to Dec 15, Petit h showcases its unique and limited-edition products at Hermès’ Liat Towers store – proof of how sustainability and creativity can make good business sense. In Hermès’ case, it takes the form of a pony-shaped bag, mushroom paperweights, animal bag charms and other eye-catching objects.
The studio’s creative director Godefroy de Virieu says: “Petit h is about knowhow and respect for the material. This is not a marketing strategy, but a common sense response to the issue of sustainable development and the preservation of exceptional materials. All materials are valuable, even those that are not used. It’s like a carpenter who makes a table and then uses the remaining wood to create another object.”
Mr de Virieu took over the role in 2018 from Pascale Mussard, a 6th generation member of the Hermès family who founded Petit h in 2010, before ‘sustainability’ was even a buzzword. It was she who envisioned a new kind of atelier for Hermès which reclaimed materials from its many workshops to create objects that are whimsical yet functional.
He says, “I met Pascale 15 years ago and we share the same values – not to seek novelty at all costs, but to inscribe objects of the past in the present, the continuity of life, to put modernity in ancient objects. We also have in common a great love for hand craftsmanship. When she invited me to join Petit h in 2010, I immediately said yes.”
Today, Mr de Virieu works with a team of designers and craftsmen to dream up objects that are unique and covetable: “The specificity of Petit h is to have a horizontal point of view. Hermès has various metiers, specialising in leather goods, jewellery, watches, silk, crystal, porcelain, and so on. The idea of Petit h is to combine materials that aren’t typically used together, such as crystal and leather, to create something new.
“Petit h is above all a laboratory of creations and experimentation within Hermès. Petit h aims to enrich the heritage of the house, to elevate knowhow both in France and in the world, to create new types of objects and uses.”
To wit, many of Petit h’s popular creations such as its bag charms and keyrings have been adopted by Hermes’ main line. Material that would have been left on the shelf has evolved into beloved possessions. It’s what everyone in Petit h refers to as “reverse creation” – taking unused material and transforming it to an object of value.
Mr de Virieu credits this ingenious vision to founding creative Mussard: “When she led the team, she always had a story or an anecdote to tell us. She knew how to make us dream… That is what she has passed on to us.”
A touch of Singapore
One of the things that Petit h does when it makes a stopover in a country is to work with a local designer to create the scenography for the showcase. For Singapore, Mr de Virieu picked industrial designer Olivia Lee who had graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 2008 with First Class Honours and now runs her own eponymous studio.
Ms Lee has conceptualised a backdrop for the two top floors of Hermès Liat Towers that is both contemporary and futuristic. She likens Petit h designers to imaginary astronauts who make use of spare available resources on a distant planet to create a sustainable living environment.
She explains: “I was drawn to the optimistic imagery of space travel in the ‘70s and the ideas being introduced at the time, such as the Stanford Torus and Buckminster Fuller’s book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth… I was also struck by the correlation between the tropical futuristic aesthetic of Singapore, the visual language of space habitats and the notion that constraints forge innovation. There are many parallels I could draw between space exploration and Singapore. So, the scenography also serves as a little nod to Singapore, one that looks to the future for inspiration rather than our past.”
At the start of the year, Ms Lee flew to Paris for an immersion into the history and design philosophy of Hermès. She watched Mr de Virieu and his team at work in their atelier, which she describes as “a cross between a laboratory and a patisserie where the ‘ingredients’ are a dizzying assortment of off-cut leather, crystal, haberdashery and ceramics. They are constantly exploring and inventing new ‘recipes’ and producing unique functional objects.”
She gushes: “Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès, also made time to visit the Petit h atelier while I was there to share with me the philosophy of Hermès. I was awestruck by the magnanimity of this gesture. It underpinned all the things I love about the Hermès ethos – to use sincerity, ingenuity and craftsmanship to bring delight to others.
“I had come prepared with little gifts for everyone, and I’m glad to say I was able to gift Dumas one of those small inflatable paper balls from a mama shop that any Singaporean child of the ‘80s would recognise.”
Although the paper ball doesn’t completely fit into Petit h’s ethos of being made out of reclaimed materials, it corresponds perfectly with the studio’s love of colour and whimsy, as well as the idea that something small can transform into something big.
Petit h will be showcased at Hermès Liat Towers from Nov 22 to Dec 15.
Other fashion eco-warriors
At the UN Climate Summit this year, 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg made world headlines with her passionate plea on climate change: “It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage…I ask you to please wake up and make the changes required possible.”
Some are listening – notably the fashion industry. Notorious for its blatant indifference towards the environment, the efforts to become eco-conscious and sustainable have gained immense traction since. At the 2019 G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, host president Emmanuel Macron launched the Fashion Pact. It is the first initiative of its kind, comprising a set of common objectives aimed to champion an environmental, social and ethical conscience within the fashion industry.
Kering’s CEO Francois-Henri Pinault was appointed to carry out these objectives at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. He laid out three goals, revolving around the fight against global warming, restoring biodiversity and preserving the oceans.
As of now there is a promising list of 150 brands uniting the biggest names in fashion, even competitors. They include Gucci (which is Kering-owned), Chanel, Hermès, Prada, Ermenegildo Zegna, Nike, H&M as well as online retailers Net-a-porter.com and Matchesfashion.com.
Luxury brands making the change
In July, Prada partnered with textile yarn producer Aquafil to launch the Prada Re-Nylon capsule collection. ECONYL® nylon is a regenerable nylon made from ocean plastic. Through a process of depolymerisation and re-polymerisation, it can be continuously recycled without compromising its quality.
To control plastic pollution in the ocean, the Fashion Pact aims to phase out single-use plastic packaging by 2030. Instead, plastic will be recycled into clothing. Just like Prada, Gucci and Burberry have also started using Econyl.
The goal for Prada is to substitute the brand’s use of nylon with ECONYL® nylon by the end of 2021. Incidentally, the invention of ECONYL® is also in line with the sustainability pact made by Prada and its sister line Miu Miu to go fur-free. Other brands championing the anti-fur movement include Versace, Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein. From December last year, Chanel also banned the use of exotic skins such as crocodile, lizard, snake and stingray.
Another brand active in its sustainability mission is one of the world’s largest menswear brands, Ermenegildo Zegna. For its Fall/Winter 2020 collection shown in June this year, the brand pledged its commitment to upcycling, with 20 per cent of its looks – around nine pieces – made from recycled fabrics.
This #UseTheExisting initiative was developed by the Zegna textile division as part of its commitment to use existing wool and technical fabrics and eventually be waste-free.
Online luxury retailers are also getting into this worthy ecological cause. A prime example is Net-a-porter, which launched Net Sustain a few months back. Launching with 26 brands and comprising 500 products, it’s a platform to highlight and celebrate the brands sold on site that meet the business criteria for sustainability.
Says Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-porter’s Global Buying Director, “Our sustainable edit provides our customers with the knowledge they need – they can trust that these brands have been carefully reviewed and meet our criteria for inclusion.”
(Related: Sustainability in fashion: A to Z)
Impact on local fashion
Fashion is big business in Singapore, with the textile and apparel industry made up of 4,818 establishments — 4,212 wholesalers and retailers, and 606 manufacturers. In fact, Singapore is now ranked second after Hong Kong as a textile and apparel business sourcing hub in the Asia-Pacific region.
There have been more encouraging conversations of late on sustainability in Singapore, as more local labels actively try to cultivate an eco-conscious culture in their businesses.
There are also platforms like Fashion Revolution, which is pushing for more transparency in the industry. First formed in the United Kingdom, it is now a global movement with a volunteer team in Singapore. Susannah Jaffer is an active member of Fashion Revolution Singapore, as well as the founder of Zerrin.com — a multi-label e-commerce platform in Singapore that curates and works closely with conscious fashion and beauty labels.
Since launching Zerrin two years ago, Ms Jaffer has noticed a considerable growth of independent sustainable fashion brands entering the market.
One relatively new brand is Source Collections, which was launched in 2018. Founder Vincent Ooi explains the brand’s core business: “We are focused on using only natural or ‘eco-friendly’ fibers such as organic cotton or Tencel™ — hoping to reduce the reliance on plastic-based fabrics as much as possible.”
But brands like Source Collections do not just concentrate on an ethically conscious production and business. They are equally invested in educating their consumers about the impact of fast-fashion and the importance of having their products ethically produced.
Just like Source Collections, Devonne Niam, who is part of the team at Matter — an ethically and environmentally conscious local brand — explains why it’s integral for consumers to take the time to research before making hasty purchases.
“We need to be more aware of what the word ‘sustainable’ means. A garment could be made from organic cotton but stitched in a sweatshop. Vegan leather may sound cruelty-free, but often it may just be polyester.” Ms Niam also asserts that sustainable fashion is about “wanting less, buying less, disposing less”.
This leads to the subject of ‘circular fashion’ – a buzzword in sustainability these days. This philosophy, says Alicia Tsi, founder of eco-conscious label Esse, encourages companies and brands to adopt a mindset where they design and make products with their next use in mind. “As such, people are designing for ‘end of use’ as opposed to ‘end of life’,” she explains.
To continue producing ethical and sustainable garments, Ms Tsi does her level best to meet the sustainable standards of ‘circular fashion’. As such, her business philosophy starts with designing a timeless garment, then selecting sustainable materials and ensuring that production is fair and ethical. Most importantly she stresses, “… once the piece has been worn out, it should be repaired or redesigned, rather than tossed away.”
While there’s a lot more to be done as an ethically and environmentally conscious brand, Ms Tsi is optimistic about the direction the fashion industry is heading. “At the end of the day, the road to being sustainable is about progress, not perfection, so any effort undertaken by companies is worth celebrating.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.