Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Paris Couture’s Secret Weapon: The “Fournisseurs”

It is the handwork that defines haute couture just as much as the three fittings required to create a garment for each client, and one of the secrets behind couture’s longevity are the "fournisseurs," the artisans who work in outside workshops that provide the couture industry with intricate embroideries, exotic feathers, custom shoes, gloves, and even millinery. But today they have become an endangered species. In St.-Junien, a small city that is the center of glove production in France, there were once 120 glove makers in the early 50's. Today only three remain; amongst them is Agnelle, a family-owned couture glove maker.

Right column:Lesage

Don’t be surprised to find the lights still blazing at 1 am from the attic space of a ramshackle five-storey building overlooked by the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, for this is the House of Lesage. In the weeks leading up to the haute couture collections, the House’s 45 embroiderers can be found defying the official French 35-hour workweek, hunched over wooden frames, feverishly stitching fantastical scenes out of sequins and crystal beads onto gossamer cloth. While lining the house’s tiny corridors are calico sheets stretched over wood frames, waiting to be embroidered. Rushing to finish some 50 or more designs for Paris’ haute couture house’s is a twice yearly event at France’s oldest embroidery house.

It has been called the most guarded asset of French fashion for over 50 years and at 77, François Lesage has presided over this 130-year-old establishment. He inherited it in 1949 from his father, who bought it from the embroiderer to Charles Frederick Worth, Albert Michonet, who founded the house in 1868. There is even a story of Francois, as a child, being bounced on the knee of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Inside this fabled house is a warren of tiny rooms housing drawers and boxes filled with more than 60 tons of beads, sequins, threads and 100-year-old jet. There is also a cluttered archive of over 65,000 swatches of embroidery, dated, labeled and stacked to the ceiling in brown cardboard boxes, which has seen its fair share of famous visitors searching for inspiration. John Galliano once holed himself up in the tiny room until midnight, with only whiskey and cigarettes for company, poring over chiffon swatches stitched with glass beads the size of sugar grains, produced in the late Twenties for Madeleine Vionnet; while Yves Saint Laurent himself picked through the Surrealist embroideries commissioned by Elsa Schiaparelli in the Thirties.

François Lesage readily admits that he’s incapable of stitching a single button, yet his true talent lies in his ability to translate what he calls “the fog in the brain of the designer." He once recalled a phone call from Yves Saint Laurent. "Francois, make me something that is like a chandelier," the designer instructed him. "Like a chandelier reflecting in the mirror on my bureau - with the sky of Paris in the background." Yet from such whimsical and tall orders, Lesage has been able to meet a designer’s demands for over fifty years.

According to Monsieur Lesage there were once about 10,000 embroiderers employed in France’s haute couture industry. Today that number has dwindled to 200.

Center column: Lemarié

Behind the huge graffiti-covered doors of a shabby but grand building on Paris’ Rue du Faubourg St.-Denis lies a world of rare and exotic feather’s. It was here in 1880, that the “plumassier” André Lemarié’s grandmother set up shop to supply feathers to the couture houses. At the time, this gritty street near the Gare du Nord was once lined with similar establishments. 60 years ago there were 300 people employed in the craft, but today the atelier is the sole remaining feather workshop on the street and one of a handful still specializing in feather work in Paris. As their competitors closed their businesses one after the other, André Lemarié went about buying their stock of feathers, some from species no longer in existence.

Inside the atelier racks of boxes, stained tobacco-brown with age, are inscribed with labels that read "South African Ostrich," "Prince of Wales," or "exotic orchids." In one box amongst layers of tissue paper lies Lemarié’s last stock of Birds of Paradise, tanned in China in the days of the last emperor, their colors still vibrant.

Lemarié is also known for supplying the couture industry with luxurious ornamental flowers, most notably Chanel’s iconic Camellia. The House’s young artisans use centuries old hand tools, such as a heated tool that looks like a lollipop to curl the edges of petals. Together they produce more than 20,000 camellias annually for the House of Chanel; made out of silk, cotton, velvet, leather, and even vinyl.

When André Lemarié, who bares a striking resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock, retired in 2000, Eric Charles-Donatien became the firms’ new young director after having worked at Hermès sewing men’s wear. "When I got here, the use of materials was very ladylike," he said. "I mixed the flowers and feathers together. I made the designs more abstract and concentrated on texture." "To make something more edgy I've ruched organza and shredded the edges to make them look like feathers, so you're not really sure what you're looking at."

That modern approach seems to appeal to many of the couturiers working today. For his Fall 1997 haute couture collection, Jean Paul Gaultier asked Lemarié to create a shaggy fur coat entirely out of densely packed ostrich and marabou feather’s that became a highlight of his show.

Left column: Massaro

The House of Massaro has been creating luxurious footwear since its inception in 1894. Presided over today by Raymond Massaro, the 76 year old founder's grandson, both Massaro and his father worked with Coco Chanel to create her iconic two toned shoes, their tips looking as if they had been dipped in black ink.

Often dressed in his lab coat, Massaro still works closely with Karl Lagerfeld on the shoes for each new Chanel couture collection. "We are really craftsmen. The business is only 10 people. Everything is done here," he said pointing to the backroom where the workshop is located. "The head of the workshop has been with us more than 30 years. Once someone starts working here, they don't leave. It's the guarantee of good work. We're a tight-knit team," he added. Massaro's staff turns out more than 1,500 pairs of shoes a year, 150 of which are for Chanel.

Although none of the workshops were willing to disclose what they charge the fashion houses, Massaro has also attracted a steady stream of 3,000 regular clients. Although he doesn’t share his current client list, in the past these have included member of the Kennedy family, Elizabeth Taylor, the Duchess of Windsor, and Marlene Dietrich, for whom was created a beige pump with a jewel ball wrapped around the heel. Clients can expect to pay around $3,000 for a pair of shoes that require up to 40 hours of work to fabricate. "Everything is handmade," according to Massaro. "A shoemaker's work is to achieve perfection."

Entering his tiny shop with its racks lined with carefully crafted men's and women's shoes, clients can often create their own custom shoes designed to fit on their feet perfectly. An imprint of their foot is taken and a mould is made out of wood, which is kept for future orders. The allure of Massaro’s shoes is similar to that of an Haute couture garment in that it provides the client with opportunity to own something that is virtually unique to them alone.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

1 comment:

Zaz said...

so true, crafts ateliers is what once made france. they are disappearing... are an extincting "race". they used to give work to thousands of "petites mains". what a shame...
i am an artisan in the sense that i do not own a high priced atelier with thousands of people who work for me, i get ideas and just have to get down to making them, besides, would i want to work for an establishment the way they have become today? just you get money at the end of the month and you have to know people to get in? sheesh i just want to be happy making my own things work even if it means a life of non recognition!