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.
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.
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
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.
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.
That marble effect was replicated in black and white in a few of the silhouettes.
I also loved the delicate smattering of black feathers mixed with strands of black cassette tape cellophane.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.