I was around thirteen when I was introduced to the world of couture. Like many, I had my first taste of this faraway world through the printed pages of Vogue. My mother had a subscription and would let me cut up the pages to paste my favourite photographs into my variously themed scrapbooks. I spent hours lost in those images, and my imagination, which led to many more hours hand-beading two of my own dresses for my textiles subject in my final year of secondary school. Even with thousands of sequins catching the light, their detail seemed insignificant to those I had seen on the Paris runways. I could only imagine the amount of time that would have gone into each of those pieces.
On the industrial outskirts of Paris some fifteen years later, I no longer need to imagine. I have arrived at Lesage and Lemarié, the two adjacent Parisian ateliers behind the hand embroidery, feather work and flower making for couturiers such as Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Valentino.
As I move between the rooms where the artisans—known as petites mains (little hands)—are at work, I’m greeted with a myriad of colours and a subtle but textured soundtrack. Each room has its own track. One has a rhythm of gentle wooden blocks slotting into place as the artisans weave Chanel’s custom tweed, looping each thread by hand on the loom. In another room, over the quiet sound of concentration, you can hear fingers shifting between materials as miniature flowers are made by hand: feather, sequin and thread, completed with the sharp snip of the scissors. The pattern repeats, for hours. Each room is working on its own collection; each room has its own speciality.
“François Lesage—who took over the atelier from his parents in 1949—estimated that the archive holds up to nine million hours of work.”
Then there’s the room that, if I stand still in it, is completely silent. This is the Lesage archive—the largest of its kind in the world. Archival boxes literally line the walls from floor to ceiling preserving over 70,000 samples that date back to the 1850s. François Lesage—who took over the atelier from his parents in 1949—estimated that the archive holds up to nine million hours of work. It acts as a museum in a way—preserving and celebrating the work of the ateliers—but it’s also a space for the creative directors and petites mains to come in search of inspiration. Each box is numbered and correlates to a specific collection: perhaps Elsa Schiaparelli Summer 1938, Chanel Spring 1986 or Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 1998. Each includes the samples that never made it into the final collection and, of course, all of the samples that did.
“Two jackets, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises and Sunflowers, made their way down the runway, each requiring 600 hours of Lesage embroidery. The Iris jacket featured 250,000 sequins in twenty-two different colours.”
The ateliers were born in another time; it was the mid-nineteenth century and it was the beginning of haute couture. It wasn’t just fabrics that were being made by hand; everything was. It was an era that favoured craftsmanship and a time when sumptuously adorned designs were in demand, especially in Europe. Men, women, children and homes were all decorated from top to bottom in the most exquisitely detailed fabrics. They were a sign of affluence in an era of romance.
Originally named Michonet, the embroidery atelier now known as Lesage was purchased in 1924 by Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, who expanded their catalogue of materials to include Murano glass, hammered coins and turquoise rocks. When François Lesage took over in 1949, he assumed the task of ensuring hand embroidery remained relevant as the technology developed and minimalism became a design feature. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1988 collection was testament to this next level of Lesage embroidery. Two jackets, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises and Sunflowers, made their way down the runway, each requiring 600 hours of Lesage embroidery. The Iris jacket featured 250,000 sequins in twenty-two different colours. There were 200,000 individually threaded pearls and 250 metres of ribbon. It is estimated to weigh just over eighteen kilograms.
And then there’s Lemarié, which now resides adjacent to the House of Lesage. During the Belle Époque when feathered millinery reached its peak, Palmyre Coyette founded an atelier dedicated to meticulously cleaning, trimming, curling and dying feathers of every imaginable kind. But it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century, when Palmyre’s grandson André Lemarié took over Lemarié, that the atelier began to work with Paris’s most esteemed couturiers. All of a sudden, ostrich, peacock and swan feathers were making their way down the runway. At the same time, Lemarié expanded its areas of specialty to include the art of flower making—roses, tulips and camellias were made from tulle, feathers, velvet, and lace. It was Lemarié that was behind Chanel’s iconic camellia, a sixteen-petal emblem crafted with metal forms or white-hot curling irons.
“Today, Chanel hosts its annual Métiers d’Arts runway, a show dedicated to celebrating this love, while shining the spotlight on the artisanal and laborious work of the ateliers.”
The history of the ateliers is vast. Its future, like so many things in our modern world, remains somewhat unknown. While the ateliers once employed thousands of seamstresses, today they’re somewhat the endangered species of the fashion world.
While Karl Lagerfeld has worked closely with Lesage since 1983, when he became the creative director of Chanel, it wasn’t until 2002 that he purchased the atelier as a way to protect its future. Today, Chanel has purchased a total of twelve ateliers, including Lesage and Lemarié, under a subsidiary company. It’s aptly named Paraffection, translating to “for the love of”, and is tasked with preserving the craftsmanship of these artisanal ateliers who remain independent and continue to work for a range of couturiers. The ateliers are part of Paris’s history; they are part of fashion’s history. Paraffection is not only about preserving the artisanal handwork of the past; it’s also about carving out a space for it in our future. This isn’t about business; it’s about creating something so magical that it feels like it’s from another world, for the mere love of it. Today, Chanel hosts its annual Métiers d’Arts runway, a show dedicated to celebrating this love, while shining the spotlight on the artisanal and laborious work of the ateliers. It’s a spectacle, as one can imagine: an otherworldly feast for the senses.
“He told me how Karl would come in and show a photograph or say something as simple as a colour—one time it was blue—and Hubert’s role was to design a collection of samples from this single idea.”
While there was a time when we only ever heard the names of the creative directors of the labels themselves—Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Alessandro Michele—we now hear the names of the creative directors of the ateliers. I spoke with one during my visit: Hubert Barrère, the creative director of Lesage.
Hubert Barrère was appointed creative director of Lesage in 2011, having previously worked with Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and John Galliano at Dior. For a time, he was also the art director at Hurel, an embroidery atelier that had worked with Chanel since 1921. It was here at Hurel that he began to work with Karl Lagerfeld, a working relationship that would end up lasting more than twenty years. Hubert described it to me as “continuing a creative adventure”.
He told me how Karl would come in and show a photograph or say something as simple as a colour—one time it was blue—and Hubert’s role was to design a collection of samples from this single idea. After some back and forth, the final samples were decided on and from these pieces Karl would then design the lines, the shapes, the garments. Today, Chanel and Lesage collaborate on eight collections each year—a new collection every six weeks. Hubert explains the process: they have one week to imagine; two weeks to create the samples; and one month to complete the finished embroidery. Some pieces take up to two thousand hours each, but the average sits around the five hundred-hour mark.
“The world today is more technological and less human. Embroidery in particular talks about humanity—it’s what you do with real hands. And this part of humanity is very important to touch people.”
Hubert Barrère isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a creative director of Lesage. One might assume that whoever is at the helm of such a historical atelier would be someone who values tradition and history above all. Hubert values tradition and history, but he also values fashion. “We are not a museum; we are fashion!”, he told me. So his role is, as he put it, to “imagine what was not possible to imagine before: imagine something unusual, surprising.”
And that’s exactly what Hubert does. He searches for ways to marry the old and the new: embroidering onto laser-printed fabrics; 3D-printing their own fabric; weaving Chanel’s classic tweed with new materials. He explains: “it is important to be in tune with today, and today it is important to use new technology.” For Hubert, the idea is that they can use the knowledge and skills of the past to take their vision into the future. “Because in fashion,” he says, “if you stay in the present you are out, because we change all the time. What we love today, we don’t love tomorrow or yesterday. We change all the time.”
But while he continues to look for ways to innovate, he simultaneously sees the value of hand embroidery in the modern world. It’s an art that, in many ways, is part of the global slow movement. In a world where speed is the default setting, hand embroidery is almost meditative by nature—there’s a certain calmness to it, and there’s a preciousness to that. “The world today is more technological and less human,” Hubert tells me, “embroidery in particular talks about humanity—it’s what you do with real hands. And this part of humanity is very important to touch people.”
I was touched by the work I saw that day. I was touched by the work in the archives—their history, their stories, the romance of it all—but I was also touched by the work I watched being made—from seeing people use their hands in that way, to make something that will become part of history: something that will be treasured for years, likely decades, perhaps even centuries to come.
So the next time I see a haute couture collection making its way down the runway, I will no longer imagine another world. Instead I’ll imagine the real world in which these precious garments are brought to life. I’ll hear the wooden blocks of the loom gently slotting into place and I’ll see the petites mains carefully stitching onto a perfectly measured grid, and I’ll be enamoured by the art of making something so patiently and tenderly in this fast and disposable world.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.