One of the most interesting parts of the course I just finished in Paris was a visit to Lesage, an embroidery atelier that has been an integral though quite unknown facet to the world of haute couture since its inception with the first 'fashion designer', Charles Frederic Worth. While I was really looking forward to seeing first-hand some beautiful embroidery and beading, I had no idea what I was actually in for. The history of not just Lesage but of ateliers across the country is fascinating and somewhat mysterious.
When you watch the haute couture shows, you imagine the drawings being made by the creative directors (Karl, Raf, Valentino) and then busy worker bees in their studios tirelessly creating the looks with a watchful eye over them. And this can be rather true. What is more of a secret, however, is the origin of the parts of the garments that are the actual show stealers. When you watch a Chanel look stride down the runway and your breath is taken away by embroidery and beading designs fit for a king, you never think that component is actually something created by someone else entirely.
Saying that these smaller ateliers creating the embroidery and beading, the hats, accompanying accessories are 'masters of craft' that are 'the hands and eyes of haute couture' may not be enough to fully explain the depth of their involvement. These silent heroes of couture have a very interesting process in their involvement in each collection which may help in understanding:
1. The designer visits the Lesage atelier during the early planning stages of their collection and delivers the inspiration and theme.
2. Embroiderers take the inspiration and create samples of embroidery and beading to present to the design house.
3. The designer returns to view the samples and to choose which they would like to use in their collection. It's important to note that all samples are made just once and only presented to one designer. Confidentiality is key at Lesage, as is the constant creation of new ideas. A visit to their sample archive is both beautifully overwhelming and almost a bit sad. Stacks of some of the most beautiful hand work sits before and will never be used.
4. The designer delivers final plans, designs and fabric and the incredible talent at Lesage creates the pieces of the garments with their embroidery or beading which are then sent to the design house atelier for construction.
Kind of insane, right?! Yves Saint Laurent used Lesage exclusively (if you're familiar with the amazing beaded jackets directly replicating Van Gogh paintings, they were made at Lesage) and the atelier is owned by Chanel (though they work with all couturiers).
Our visit was fascinating, complete with a presentation on the French fashion industry and its rich history, followed by a tour of the actual ateliers where we not only got to see people hard at work but also were treated to one on one demonstations...and let me tell you, this work is not for the faint of heart. Lesage is committed to keeping their methods traditional...you'll only find one sewing machine in the 6 floors of the building. Everything is done by hand, from hand drawn designs to almost archaic methods of transferring designs onto fabric before they are taken to be embroidered or beaded. All embroidery and beading is also done upside-down, meaning that the work is done on the back of the fabric and the embroiderer cannot see what the final product looks like, as it is underneath where they are working. I can't even imagine what that is like when you're working with fabrics that aren't at all sheer!
Photos were not permitted in most of the atelier due to confidentiality (yes, I got to see people working with a drawing by Karl Lagerfeld sitting next to them) but we did have free reign when it came to areas of the beautiful materials being used. Even in these parts of the atelier, you feel like you've gone back in time. They do not employ any kind of computer system to keep track of materials, those who know where things are just know where things are...and that suits Lesage just fine and has done for over a hundred years.
Lesage has recently opened a school which includes courses for leisure but also those for professionals. Almost makes you want to rethink your career path when you see the work and finished products, until, of course, you remember that these people have more talent in their little pinkie than I probably do in my entire clumsy hand :)
So what I've been trying to say this whole time is that when you next watch the most incredible garment you've ever seen walk the runway, give a little more thought to the hands and eyes that really made it the work of art that it is.
A huge thank you to all the staff at Lesage for giving us such a wonderful experience and education. (Photos courtesy of my fellow classmate and blogger, Vogue Epilogue.)