Most of us understand "haute-couture" as THE definition of luxury, clothing that is made entirely by hand and to the custom measurements of one person. But I suspect that most also find it irrelevant to our lives. If I will never own or wear it, why should I care?
From the beginning of mankind, we've been ornamenting our tools and our surroundings. I see this as a human impulse to express ourselves and describe our lives through the things we create, to make something we find beautiful, and to challenge ourselves by going beyond what has already been created. To me, a couture garment is special because it is a synthesis of the highest level of many different expertises. The designer that dreams it up, the fabric that is woven, the patternmaker who builds the garment's form, the hands that sew it, the decorative arts that adorn it. Even without being worn, the couture garment is a synthesis of the decorative arts - a masterpiece. As such, I see these crafts as an expression of our humanity that must be preserved. The artistic director of Lesage puts it beautifully: "The work of the hand is something deeply anchored within us and that makes us aware of the value of humanity."
During my sabbatical in Paris this past month, I was reminded again why this city awes me. Everywhere I go, I discover ateliers d'arts et métiers (artist and industrial artisan workshops) that are preserving historical craftsmanship, whether it's stained glass, marquetry, bookbinding, or gold leaf gilding. There is a dedication and reverence to upholding these skills that I rarely see elsewhere.
But today's blog post is focused on couture. I was thrilled to visit le19m, a new building at the northern edge of Paris opened last year by Chanel that gathers 11 historic couture ateliers, and over 600 artisans, into one new campus. These are embroiderers, hatmakers, shoemakers, pleaters, and more, that have long worked with Chanel on its haute-couture collections, but are also at the service of other creators. The work that these ateliers do are absolutely exquisite; they each demonstrate the highest level of their craft. I wanted to share four of my favorites; I highly recommend checking out the linked 2 minute videos for a glimpse into the work of these incredible artisans.
Founded in 1727, Legeron specialized in artificial artisanal flowers from feather and silk. Lemarié artisans today make featherwork, fabric flowers, and needlework for haute couture and luxury ready-to-wear, mixing contemporary techniques with artisanal knowledge. Watch the video here to see the irons they still use from 1880 to cut the flower shapes and the countless ways to prepare feathers.
As Hubert Barrère, Lesage's artistic director, says, "The history of fashion can be seen through its embroidery." Founded in 1924, Lesage's archive now holds 80,000 embroidery samples that provide endless inspiration. Watch the video here to see the meticulous process in which a drawing is transferred to fabric for embroidery. Lesage also creates the hand-woven tweeds that Chanel is famous for.
Les Ateliers Lognon
One of the techniques that awes me the most is how fabric is pleated into the most complex origami patterns by layering it in between folded paper molds. Even knowing how it's made, I'm still entirely amazed that it works. Since 1945, les Ateliers Lognon have been creating fabrics in this way, amassing more than 3,000 paper molds, yet there is still someone in-house who is inventing up new pleating patterns which she hand-scores and bends in cardstock. Watch this video to see how a simple knife pleat is created.
A shoe - custom made for your foot only. Can you imagine? Massaro has been creating these since 1894. Watch this video to see the hand-sculpted beech and hornbeam wood lasts that are made to the client's measurements. Actually having had some experience with making shoes (For NOT's Spring/Summer 13 runway, I collaborated with Brooklyn-based shoemaker Chris Coulthrust to construct 15 pairs of my own design), I have the utmost respect for this extremely technical process.
Couldn't get enough? Check out all of the ateliers here and to learn more about le19M.