A week before the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Rome, where thousands of hours of work was reduced to a fifteen minute whirlwind extravaganza, I visited the ateliers of Lesage and Lemarié, which since 2013 have been collectively housed in one place in Pantin, just outside of Paris.  Seeing these two most well-known savoir-faire maisons of Chanel’s Paraffection umbrella has long been on my I-love-seeing-things-being-made wish list. Some people have man/woman crushes.  I crush hard on craftsmanship in situ.

The mostly (female) and surprisingly young team of artisans may have been under the cosh to complete the last pieces of embroidered fabric and flower and feather adorned pattern pieces to send over to Chanel’s Paris atelier, in time for the show in Rome.  “It’s always like this,” said the PR looking after Paraffection.  “Everything is done in the immediate two weeks before the show.”  Be that as it may, nobody is rushing.  In fact, the working atmosphere is amazingly calm.  Everyone knows exactly what they must do and they quietly get on with it.  “Keep calm and love Chanel” reads one ha-ha motivation message on the walls.

0E5A9019

Our first stop is in Lemarié.  The house that deals with the feathers and flowers, which sounds airy-fairy but in fact they also have an expertise in creating intricate pleatwork, smocking and ruffles.  As the need for real feathers in our modern day wardrobes has diminished, Lemarié  has expanded their repertoire to create mimic flowers, feathers and other elements of the natural world movement out of every fabric possible.  Coco Chanel created the original camellia with Andre Lemarie in the 1960s and it of course has become a house emblem so that today, Lemarié makes 40,000 camellias for all of Chanel’s stores, with everyone of them containing a minimum of fifteen petals.  The more complex camellias, depending on the material, can take up to five hours just to make one.  Bear in mind, that these golf-ball sized pieces that most might consider to be a inconsequential bit of decoration.  I don’t know why in my head, I thought there was some quickfire camellia-churning machine and when I suggested the idea, the Chanel PR’s chortled.  Of COURSE, every Chanel camellia is created using the old fashion process of stiffening the fabric and then cutting out petals with a metal template.  Then the curves of each petal is created using specially made moulds.  And then assembled together delicately with tweezers, with distressed edges and any other special finishing done by hand.  All for one singular flower.

0E5A8846

0E5A8801

0E5A8795The abundance of moulds used by Chanel over the years to create the different petal shapes

0E5A8822The cutting machine – loved the fact that it was stamped with a double C.

0E5A8808Cut out petal pieces

0E5A8832Mould used to give the petal pieces their shape

0E5A8842

0E5A8857

0E5A8883Creating the tweed camellias for the Paris-Rome collection

0E5A8864

0E5A8902Adorning each camellia which additional strands of ostrich feathers

0E5A8850

From camellia making we move on to the physical garments that we would then see in the Metiers D’Art show.  The ostrich featherwork we saw would edge a heavily appliqued cape, all of its embellishment and surface detailing, done within Lemarié

0E5A8844

0E5A0113

0E5A8908

0E5A8910

0E5A8930

0E5A0162

This cape piece with its collage work of cut-out patent leaves, delicate lace and gemstones is our first clue of what was to come at the show.  Misleadingly, seeing these decorated pieces first in Lemarié and Lesage did make us think they were the dominant motifs of the collection.  In fact, as per my write-up, the collection was a black and white ode to new wave French ingénues and what we saw was deployed in the latter part of the show, where hints of Italiano and colour would seep into the more heavily adorned showpieces.

0E5A8745

0E5A8773

0E5A8781

0E5A8987

One of my favourite pieces was this beautiful backless cape and matching dress, tiered with dusky pink feathers and scallops of silk chiffon that have had marble-like streaks hand painted on them.

0E5A0183

0E5A8926

0E5A9001

That marble effect was replicated in black and white in a few of the silhouettes.

0E5A0174

0E5A9000

0E5A0121

I also loved the delicate smattering of black feathers mixed with strands of black cassette tape cellophane.

0E5A8933

0E5A8809

François Lesage once said embroidery was like “creativity with discipline” and there’s little room for artistic license on the part of the craftspeople as Lagerfeld’s sketches as well as the direction from the atelier in Paris are specific and tweaked from the get-go when the savoir-faire houses send through their initial samples.  At this stage of a collection, the exact formation of every bit embellishment has been settled upon.  When we enter the main room of Lemarié, they are busy working away at two spectacular dresses that would give the show a soft and romantic nuance, in the form of rainbow ombré pastel lace and silk petal pieces hand-dyed in a dreamy colour scheme.

0E5A0158

0E5A8948

0E5A8950

0E5A8946

0E5A8945

0E5A8999

The placement of these beautiful petals on delicate guipure lace is particularly arresting.  What appears to be random formation is a result of placing each petal on a mapped out diagram on tracing paper.  In a room of about twenty people or so, the concentration level is palpable.  After the show, I thought back to that collective energy working so hard on just two of the dresses out of eighty-seven looks.

0E5A0103

0E5A8976

0E5A8977

0E5A8968

0E5A8956

0E5A8970

Then onto Lesage.  It is probably the crown jewel of the Paraffection group by virtue of François Lesage’s lasting legacy.  In the archive room (where no photographs were allowed), they have collated over 60,000 samples, representing the biggest collection of couture embroidery in the world.  They are listed by designer and year.  Boxes labelled with names like Schiaparelli, YSL, Balmain, Balenciaga and Givenchy indicate Lesage’s illustrious past, dating back to 1858 when the original embroidery house Michonet was founded and then taken over by Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage in 1924.  Today Lesage works for every house of note.  It was interesting to learn that Coco Chanel herself never worked with Lesage, because of its association with arch-rival Elsa Schiaparelli, which resulted in vivid embroidered motifs of circus performers and zodiac signs, which we gingerly leaf through.  It was Karl Lagerfeld who struck up Chanel’s relationship with Lesage that is of course still strong today.

0E5A9016

0E5A9004A small snapshot of Lesage’s supplies of tassels, rhinestones, ribbon, beads, crystals and cabochons.  In one year alone, they’ll get through thirty kilos of beads and one hundred million sequins.  

Having seen a different sort of couture embroidery in Jaipur India, it was interesting to contrast the techniques.  The same principles apply.  Paper drawing on tracing paper.  Puncturing holes through the lines so that chalk can be applied to imprint the pattern on to the fabric.  In India, the holes of the pattern are hand-punched whereas here in Lesage, the pattern is punched through with a mechanical pen.

0E5A9017

0E5A9018Embroidery frames

The hand woven tweeds for the Paris-Rome collection had already been completed and shipped off, but we took a peek at the looms that use threads, ribbons, leather strands and plastic spaghetti to create the very special tweeds for Chanel.

In the main workshop, Rome took centre stage as everybody was working on the farfalle  and white “caviar” pearl embroidery.  They would eventually be featured in a shift dress from the start of the show and a spectacular bridal empire line babydoll dress towards the end.  Again, watching the clusters of Lesage embroiderers furiously sewing leather farfalle shapes and tiny pearls onto fabric tricked us into thinking that the show would be full of this carb fest.  Everywhere we look – pasta, pasta, pasta.  No wonder we leave Pantin feeling ravenous.

The pasta dishes were of course limited in the final edit of the show.  Regardless of quantity or prominence in the show, from the perspective of these embroiderers, it is imperative that the work needs to be done at the highest level.  The thirty or so embroiderers – both young and old (Lesage has an excellent school that has seen an increased amount of interest in recent years) – will see looks number 5 and 65 from the show and feel immense pride.  A few of them are visibly giddy, when they see their handiwork on a skirt from the Paris-Salzburg collection, which the Chanel PR was wearing.

In the book, Haute Couture Embroidery: The Art of Lesage published in 1988, Christian Lacroix said: “A Lesage embroidery is first and foremost true luxury: a technique subsumed under art, limitless time spent on achieving the most intangible effect.”  On the contrary, our visit to Lesage made their embroidery a tangible reality – something that exists not because it makes pragmatic financial sense or commercial viability, but because collectively with Chanel, they’re producing and promoting a labour of love, that is about unparallelled surface.

0E5A9024

0E5A9023

0E5A9064

0E5A9784

0E5A9026

0E5A9059

0E5A9097

0E5A9037

0E5A0072

0E5A9070

0E5A9068

0E5A9055

0E5A9076

0E5A9092

Comments (37)

  1. Sun Moon says:

    Great post! I love to see how the magic happens!

    http://sunmoonstyle.blogspot.rs/

  2. Rena says:

    They are true artists! It must have been so interesting to visit them.
    xx from Bavaria/Germany, Rena
    http://www.dressedwithsoul.com

  3. ZERO NONO says:

    Un post brillante como siempre, nos encanta!

  4. Linda B says:

    Like you, I adore seeing the actual handwork that goes into these garments. The processes are totally captivating. I myself love doing hand-sewing and embroidery (and knitting) but this is just a whole rarefied level of craft, so spectacular. Thanks for sharing so many pictures of the processes!

  5. Ellie says:

    This is so interesting! So inspiring to see behind the scenes, also so many inspiring techniques! I loved this post, thank you Susie <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.co.uk/

  6. MAVA says:

    Truly astonishingly! Thank you for the wonderful post about the embroidery house of lesage and lemarie.

  7. Beautiful Workmanship. Seriously takes dedication and keen eye to make a beautiful piece of Chanel.

  8. Great read Susie! We love Chanel and are always looking to see more behind the scenes articles! Pinning it and saving it for another read later! Keep doing what you do! 🙂
    Love from LesRebellesSquad x x x

  9. Such a joy to see a garment come to live, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Admittedly, very envious since this is one of those “wish I was there” moments I may never get to experience. but still so wonderful to see the photos. Thank you!

  10. Thank you for sharing your photos and impressions. Fascinating to see what goes into these beautiful pieces.

  11. Alice says:

    Thank you so much for showing us how these works of art are made! Truly impressive!
    http://fashion-soup.com/

  12. Aya says:

    The amount of time and detail that goes into the embellishment is incredible! I love those tiered feathers – gorgeous.
    xo Aya
    http://www.girlfromnorthlondon.co.uk

  13. Aarav says:

    Interesting Article!

  14. Barclay says:

    Thank you for your introduction.
    http://www.shopstylebrand.com

  15. artadorned says:

    Gorgeous pieces, great talents.
    http://artadorned.com/

  16. […] of No. 5’s creation and there were also echoes in these intimate presentations of the way I previously experienced Chanel’s […]

  17. MY PHAM OHUI says:

    These garments delightful. I really like them, and want to experience. Thank you!

    My pham Ohui

  18. Thanks for revealing this impressive art work.

  19. Like you, I adore seeing the actual handwork that goes into these garments. The processes are totally captivating. I myself love doing hand-sewing and embroidery (and knitting) but this is just a whole rarefied level of craft, so spectacular. Thanks for sharing so many pictures of the processes!

  20. Midula says:

    Fabulous to see from concept, to garment construction, to the catwalk. Love it. All of that craftsmanship is pretty special. Midula

  21. fatima says:

    I really love it.

  22. design hub says:

    Indeed discipline creates great designs.

  23. scs says:

    Brilliant post! Thank you for sharing your experience with Chanel’s artisans. Your excellent writing and lovely photos made me feel as if I were there with you!

  24. Stacie says:

    This post is amazing!

  25. […] big brands are very careful with licensing out their brands, even for high fashion blogger like Susie Bubble she was allowed to post pictures of Chanel’s archive but she does not make direct profit […]

Comment below