“There is only one person who knows how to make this piece; this lady has been working here for thirty years.” This, and many other such factoids are the type of geeky nugget one gobbles up on a visit to the Lesage couture embroidery workshops on the outskirts of Paris. On an industrial estate that’s a step up from your average (think sun-dappled and tree-dotted), it’s where the hands of dedicated embroiderers stitch and bead Chanel’s finest couture showpieces.
Last October I spent two days in Paris as a guest of Chanel, exploring these workshops and the accompanying archive, as well as the Chanel apartment on Rue Cambon, where Mademoiselle Chanel’s belongings rest exactly as she left them. Couture week took place last week of course, and the mainstream appeal of modern fashion means that more people than ever are intrigued and informed about this once-secret world. What’s interesting though is that the Lesage studio, which painstakingly produces embroidery for most of the biggest couture houses, doesn’t just work with incredible gowns, but runs the whole gamut of fashion including – unbelievably – watches.
And embroidered watches are what we came to see, as the trip was timed to coincide with the opening of Chanel’s grand three-floor watch and fine jewellery boutique on New Bond Street. Oh yeah, just another
am-I-dreaming-no-it’s-really-happening-moment-of-fabuloisity day at the office…
First we’re shown where the raw materials are kept. Cue shelves exploding with colour and silks, and boxes upon boxes of baubles and beads, some still wrapped in paper packages. While elbow deep in one box, I’m aware of gesticulating a few feet away as I’m ushered out of that particular corner for fear of death by the mechanical moving shelves. Oh but what a chic way to go!
We’re informed that there are 60 tonnes of supplies here, all labelled and categorised for speedy identification. While the House of Lesage was founded in 1924 by Albert Lesage and later inherited by his son Francois, it was acquired by Chanel as part of its Métiers d’Art division in 2002. Along with other couture specialists (Massaro shoes, Barrie knitwear) it also supplies other fashion houses, keeping the century-old techniques alive and ever-evolving.
These premises aren’t what I’d imagined of a couture embroidery workshop. They’re bright and modern, and peopled by cool young things as well as more mature, experienced petites mains. The mood is calm and industrious and everywhere you look is evidence of extraordinary magic happening before your eyes; from elaborate Chanel tweeds to other mysterious projects that are destined for other brands (and as such our cameras are rapidly averted from them).
Watching the masters at work is a privilege and I think they secretly enjoy showing off their skills. I love watching processes, from the materials and tools to the precise but swift actions that have been honed, in some cases over several decades. For our demo, we watch the technique of perforating tracing paper with a design, which is then transferred stencil-style onto fabric via a fine chalky powder to guide the embroidery. For complex pieces, three people work on the same design. They sit at wooden work benches made of gauze stretched across a frame, with silk panels stitched in place to hold the embroidery.
Remember, we’re here to watch watches. So skilled is the workforce that it’s easy to forget how detailed the process is. Lesage is known for pushing boundaries and achieving the seemingly impossible. Why? Just because they can – is that not the idea of couture? The first Chanel watch that Lesage worked on was three years ago, which took years just to test the fabric. Dust-resistant silk has to be used so the fabric won’t be damaged once inside the watch case. And care must be taken to ensure the fabric won’t get bleached under the glass.
Other challenges? Extremely fragile thread, so thin that the embroiderers can only do a few stitches at a time. Which then necessitates the thinnest needle you’ve ever seen. (To help things along, a magnifying loupe is called for – Chanel-logoed naturellement). Later, diamonds and pearls might also be added, the finished embroidery then being sent to Switzerland to be assembled into a watch that will eventually sell in the region of £300,000. Of course, they’re made in extremely limited quantities…
Our session of embroidery education over, it’s on to see the archive. This is where we spend the funnest half hour,
playing with examining fabric swatches that go back to old Vionnet samples from the 1910s. All the samples live in acid-free boxes and are stored in a fire-proof, temperature-controlled room, which happens to be guarded by a giant Coco Chanel Bearbrick doll…
To be honest, I’m surprised but pleased that we’re allowed to inspect these treasures sans white gloves. Each swatch tells a story, from the 1940s scrap decorated with bead-encrusted seashells, to flamboyant eighties designs destined to swathe a Dallas debutante. In fact, the eighties was boom-time for Lesage, with 100 embroiderers on staff to decorate the excessive gowns of the time. We haven’t experienced such decorative times since, but who knows, post austerity-minimalism, those days could yet return. In any case, the house of Lesage seems to be keeping busy enough, with its dedication to the artful and impossible, be that couture gowns, bejewelled tweeds or £300,000 Chanel watches…
WORDS AND IMAGES: Navaz Batliwalla/Disneyrollergirl