Again, chronological oddness here as I revisit Chanel’s haute couture collection. During London Fashion Week, for the first time, Chanel had bought their S/S 15 couture collection over for those that couldn’t make it to January for the show, to peruse or yes – if you’re one of the elite few – to buy. It was a two-way view on a haute couture show that normally drums up column inches, sweeping panoramic photos of the set and effusive but blurry descriptions of clothing because there are seventy or so looks to dissect. Our main takeaway is the overall theme – (this season it was simple – “SPRING!”) and the set – 300 mechanical flowers that took six months to develop that opened the show when watered by Baptiste Giabiconi.
I went into Chanel two days later to have a glimpse of the working reality of the ateliers of what is the oldest and arguably, the truest haute couture house. With four ateliers – two for tailoring, two for “flou” (or draping) and a “Madame” manning each one, there’s a system in place that works for what is in fact a profitable (although Chanel won’t say how much…) business. Speaking to Madame Josephine, who heads up one of the tailoring ateliers, the emphasis is always on the “client”. “Haute couture is unique because there is no boundaries,” she said. But that they can always modify and adapt designs to suit a client’s needs. She smiles discreetly when asked about the relationships she has with clients. It is a secret closeted world where the house won’t divulge much and you’re left guessing and fantasising about the sort of woman that can sink tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds on an outfit that actually isn’t about the brand (there are no Chanel labels sewn into haute couture outfits) but about hidden secrets that only the wearer can enjoy. These are the things that we got to discover (although only partially) at the London haute couture presentation.
Walking around the atelier, the pattern cutters and seamstresses were already busy drafting up orders. The show had finished but the work still carries on. Jacqueline only had a few minutes to speak before she had to go to attend to a fitting. The passion though was evident enough. “We work so hard but it’s always worth it when you see the show,” she said. “This season, we loved the lightness and the prettiness! Tres jolie!” That lightness was communicated through a lot of the daywear which is a particular strong point for Chanel, which they do very well on.
Chanel emphasise repeatedly that daywear is their couture forte. And for S/S 15 – there are a myriad of options entered around the new Chanel suit – with a narrow shoulder (shaped with what the atelier call a “hammer” sleeve) and a cropped shape that Lagerfeld had come up with to elongate the body by bringing the waist higher up and lengthening the skirts. Can the midriff be adjusted for the customer should they wish – yes, but only ever so slightly. Jackets are differentiated with bias cut seaming at the back or as they put it, “couture sans couture”. On a simple little black dress. mesh strips are built in and lined up with a precision that was difficult to achieve. These seams and lines only look like great technical feats when seen up close and also when compared to a conventional off-the-peg piece side by side.
“We are the only ones that do things this way,” said Jacqueline about Chanel’s ‘true’ approach towards haute couture. Perhaps she was referring to the way Chanel makes uses of its Paraffection companies – Lesage, Lemarié, Massaro, Montex, Lognon, Desrues to name a few. Within one haute couture collection, practically all of them were put to use. Maison Michel did the cloud-like tulle hats. Massaro made the leather booties. Montex made specially cut flower sequins. Desrues the bejewelled buttons. Lognon, an origami pleated fabric. And of course Lesage and Lemarié who took care of all the feather and flower embellishment and embroidery. It’s a back and forth process between these metier d’arts ateliers and the central Chanel atelier. Sometimes there are logistic nightmares where pieces can’t be transported. Jacqueline recalls that the final wedding gown was too large and delicate to travel so the people from Lesage had to come over.
As the looks begin to blossom and really flower in decoration, the details get mind bogglingly complex. Lagerfeld’s flowers were all fantasy – he didn’t really refer or replicate specific species but instead in his laboratory created new breeds. An orchid tweed woven by Lesage (yes they also weave fabrics too), with strands of lace, ribbon and tulle that pop with vibrancy when seen up close. The ends of the tweed jacket above were unravelled carefully to fit the model, who was switched at the last minute. Delicate lace cut with holes the shape of petals, are then folded in and double stitched to achieve a sort of origami lace that is was significantly time consuming for the ateliers to achieve. Underneath all those hours of embroidery, the thousands and thousands of sequins, beads and hand-cut flowers are yet more layers for the wearer to enjoy. Flowers embroidered on the lining for instance so that your legs might brush up against soft organza blooms or a voluminous tulle skirt with poppy red painted patches that can really only be seen if you lifted up the layers. And of course for extra Chanel appeal, a soft pink quilted cushioned lining to contrast with the hard flower shaped sequins and beads on a heavy coat.
Whilst the secret is never going to be fully revealed, Chanel have endeavoured to open up their worlds of savoir faire so that we can understand the real point of haute couture. It exists both as a real endeavour to outfit the women that can afford it but also as a way of pushing techniques to a limit. “There are no limitations,” said Josephine repeatedly. In these sets of in-process photographs, you can see specific looks from toile to model. Look number 65 for instance with its hooded cape in two-tone tulle, embroidered bustier and organza skirt adorned with hand painted flowers, which takes over 750 hours of work just to get the embellishment correct. I don’t quite know how to imagine it but Lemarié cut feathers into the shape of petals and applied each one individually with tweezers and they’re then hand painted and appliqued onto the organza skirt. The sequins adorning look 56 are hand dyed individually so that they gradiate in plummy pink from outside. From a front-on picture, you just see a mass of pink. Getting close to haute couture is no easy feat unless you’re working in the industry or are a customer but with every high definition image, our general perceptions of haute couture surely has to change. It isn’t just a spectacle. It isn’t just a two hour wave of social media frenzy. It’s a living and breathing thing with hands and heart, and despite Chanel’s presentations and behind the scenes reportage, there are thankfully still a sea of hidden secrets embedded into those clothes. Mystery and fantasy – two components that are slowly ebbing away in today’s fashion world.