How often have I typed the words “petite mains” on this blog? Or “atelier”? Or “craftsmanship”? You’ll have to bear with this broken record of mine because they’re words that constantly bear repeating. Even if within the fashion industry, those words are thrown at us consistently to the point where the seasoned journalist becomes weary, but beyond that, it’s still a special insight into a world that isn’t necessarily widely known about. Case in point, anytime I put up a video of a craftsman or woman working away in an atelier on Instagram, the pouring-in of love is evident. Whilst there may be a hardened cynicism over the nuts and bolts of the business of fashion, at the very least, there’s still still unadulterated admiration for what skilled hands can do.
And so we come to Chanel’s AW16 -7 haute couture show, which took place back in July. It’s a collection that has a life in it that goes beyond that singular show, because as I learnt, orders for haute couture pieces were still being taken at trunk show events in London, Hong Kong and Dubai as late as mid October (I believe the collection is currently in Hong Kong), and the meticulous fitting and making process means that orders are still being fulfilled long into the next year. See now – buy for a good half a year or so – wear forever… it’s buying pattern based on patience and longevity. Despite the selling beginning as soon as the show finishes, I love that the process and lifeline of the collection extends far beyond that.
This particular collection spelled out all that hard work, back and forth fittings and waiting in a way that was literal. No razz-ma-tazz mechanical set or kitschy theme. Instead you took the time to round the circular catwalk, looking at the very real petite mains, drafting up calico toiles, pattern cutting, handling pieces of embroidery from Lesage, draping on the mannequin – all related to the collection that would be shown. The set-up mirrored the ateliers down to the minutiae of personal knick knacks of the seamstresses, chains of thread bobbins and paperwork that accompanies this very real and working atelier. In a way this collection carries on neatly from the ‘eco’ couture of the SS16 collection with its zen message. Here, the takeaway was, “Look at the hours of work work that goes into this fifteen minute show.”
Flash forward to September in London, and the collection was made available for prospective clients to see up close, in all its pleated and embroidered glory. Despite SS17 ready to wear shows taking place, Chanel’s AW16 haute couture is in the midst of its world tour, going directly to the customers that couldn’t make it to Paris for the show. Orders and fittings were being done in London ready for the ateliers in Paris to tackle.
Last time I was allowed into the Chanel haute couture workrooms of Rue Cambon, I saw one of the tailleur (tailoring) ateliers, headed up by the most longstanding of all four Chanel HC premières, Jaqueline. During Paris time round, I went in to take a wee peek at one of the flou (draping) ateliers, overseen by Cécile, who was at the time busy with a client fitting. I was interested to contrast the day-to-day functioning of Chanel’s HC ateliers versus the mightily impressive display of over hundred petite mains working away at the show at the Grand Palais back in July. The difference wasn’t as stark as one might thinks. It seemed the seamstresses were just getting started on the orders, dealing with measurements and pattern pieces rather than doing the finishing touches. It can take up to two months to finish a piece depending on how the client takes to each fitting of the toile replica before receiving the final piece.
Just to illustrate the length of time that haute couture warrants, even at the beginning of October, Cécile’s atelier were still working on pieces from the January SS16 eco couture collection for clients. That’s nearly ten months after the collection was first shown. No doubt the same lifecycle will occur for this AW16 collection as its lampshade pleats, Edwardian-esque silhouettes and sharp shouldered suits are adjusted for the individual clients. No radical changes though as Lagerfeld’s sketches must be respected and adhered to more or less. With each Chanel haute couture collection that I get to go behind the scenes at, I seem to be gathering another piece to what is a mysterious puzzle, one that will probably never be completed, no matter how many times I enter those hallowed ateliers.