On a frosty night last december, the couture salon at the Chanel headquarters on rue Cambon in Paris was transformed into a Byzantine mini-palace with gleaming gold and silver mosaic carpets, gold sequined walls, stained-glass tables, Ottoman chandeliers, glass candelabras, and couches covered in metallic silk fabrics. At Chanel, staging provides an essential environment to showcase a new collection. The décor each season compliments the mood of the clothes.
During a recent visit inside the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Mr. Karl Lagerfeld photographed the delicate mosaics on the walls and floors. (These pictures became a monograph on parchment recently published by Steidl called Byzantine Fragments.) Among the colorful mosaics on the high walls of the church is the portrait of the Empress Theodora, a dancer, actress, and the wife of Emperor Justinian I, not to mention one of the most influential woman of Byzantine Empire (circa 500 A.D.). Standing with a group of attendants, the Empress Theodora wears a dark purple floor-length cape—with gold embroideries depicting battle scenes—over a white dress decorated with large colored beads covering the entire neckline. Atop her head lies an embroidered headdress with dangling jewels.
This mosaic portrait of Theodora served as the inspiration for “Paris-Byzance,” the 2011 collection for Chanel’s Métiers d’Arts pre-Fall showcase. The collection featured a loose, dark-aqua, silk-satin dress with shoulder cutouts defined by rows of Lesage-embroidered colored stones, a black organza cape of finely-cut Lemarié goose feathers with painted gold dots, a purple pleated-satin dress with stone-embroidered sleeves, and a shimmering gold one-shoulder dress—these pieces reflected the shapes and draping, the vivid colors, and the ostentatious ornamentation crucial to Byzantine culture and visual arts. Sasha Pivovarova was transformed into a modern day version of Theodora, adorned in a wool and silk knit cape with a gold-beaded neckline hand-embroidered at Lesage over a layered, gold-waisted skirt, her tall chignon wrapped with a gold headband and her hands covered with large gold amethyst and rutilated quartz-inlayed Goossens bracelets.
Back in 2002, when Chanel unveiled the first Métiers d’Arts collection and pioneered luxury ready-to-wear, the big news of Yves Saint Laurent’s retirement overshadowed the launch. The Paris fashion set was already murmuring about the coming demise of haute couture in a world obsessed with “It” bags. The current fast fashion was taking root then. But for Chanel, preserving the savoir faire of French couture craftsmanship remains a central tenet of the house, not only because its haute couture business depends on these skilled people, but excellent craftsmanship is inherent in the Chanel heritage and defines the brand.
Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Arts collection relates in some manner to Ms. Coco Chanel’s own personal affections. The 2008 Paris-Moscow collection commemorated the period when she created the costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; last year’s Paris-Shanghai show paid tribute to her fondness for Chinese artisanship, as reflected in the furnishings of her rue Cambon apartment; and this Byzance collection evinced her early work with Byzantine and Egyptian-influenced jewelry. But, most importantly, Métiers d’Arts serves as an ode to the seven artisanal ateliers that work with the Chanel brand.
In 1984, Chanel acquired Desrues, a custom jewelry and buttons workshop founded by George Desrues in 1929 on rue Amelot (Desrues has made buttons for Chanel since 1965). Paraffection, a holding company, was established in 1996. The first addition to their portfolio was Lemarié, the feather and flowermakers founded in 1880. With that acquisition, it became apparent that the strategy of Paraffection was to save the different types of small artisans that supply the couture business—most were then under financial strains. A string of purchases ensued: the millinery Maison Michel (founded in 1936 on rue Sainte Anne) in 1996, the embroiderer Lesage and the shoemaker Massaro in 2002, the custom jeweler Goossens in 2005, and the flowermaker Guillet (founded in 1896) in 2006.
Under the Chanel umbrella, this network of specialized artisans working around Paris continues to flourish, operate independently, and collaborate with other fashion houses and clients as they always have. In fact, their businesses have boomed in recent years as consumers once again are embracing heritage and luxury products. These seven artisan houses weave together not only Chanel’s couture and luxury ready-to-wear business like a mosaic, but they continue on as the blood and spirit of Paris fashion.
Raymond Massaro, the grandson of the founder commonly known as “Le Roi des chausseur,” or the King of the Shoe, expanded his grandfather’s small custom business by teaming up with the major Parisian couture fashion houses, including the close collaboration with Chanel that has sustained since 1957. “For all the handmade shoes we do for Chanel, Mr. Lagerfeld will draw a sketch and we make a sample and send back to Chanel. We work together until we have the definitive version. This final result can be changed many times from the first model that we made based on the drawings and inspirations,” said Philippe Atienza, the current Director who succeeded Mr. Massaro in 2008.
On the second floor of an old corner building a block from posh Place Vendôme, behind the glass drawers displaying the famed Massaro’s archives of pumps, moccasins, boots, mules, and sandals, a small door leads to the backroom factory where a team of 13 people work in three separate areas: the bottom part of the shoe, the upper section, and the finishing. There is a healthy mixture of elder workers, who have been with the company for much of their working life, and youthful apprentices, who are learning the craft.
At Massaro, the process of custom shoemaking has remained remarkably the same since the company was founded in 1894. A couture or custom-made pair of shoes begins with measurements of the client’s feet made on cardboard sheets in order to carve a preliminary Beachwood shoe form. A sample is then crafted from scrap leathers, and then there is a fitting to finalize a definitive form. Pieces of fine leather are cut to the new size, assembled, lined, and, finally, polished. (Until six styles of men’s shoes, called “prêt-a-chausser,” launched two years ago—two derbies, three oxfords, and a pair of buckled shoes—Massaro only made special order women’s shoes.)
“It’s a process of trial and error—to make the perfect balance of how high the heels are to correlate with the correct body’s posture—and we sometimes makes several models and have to readjust them when the clients comes in for fittings,” says Tom Chardin, the man responsible for the first round of models after the initial measuring or the original sketches from the fashion designers come in.
Chardin presents several types of heel that Massaro makes. “This is for a client who is a bit older and requires a degree of support from the shoes we make for her. The heels are little low and there are extra cushions on the sides. We have always made special orthopedic shoes, so we have an extensive knowledge of the foot and what’s best for the body and posture,” Mr. Chardin, 32, explains. He shows me around the different areas of the workshop: “In this area, we take care of the lower part of the shoes—the sole and heels. The upper part is done in the back.”
I wander to the back, where I meet Manuel Viera Barbosa, 65 years old, who retired two years earlier after working at Massaro since 1995. “I come in during a very busy period where we have to deliver shoes for fashion shows and for clients orders,” he says as he polishes and stretches the long piece of thin tan leather that makes up the upper portion of a boot. “I am here by myself today. My apprentice is off for the day.” He has just spent four hours sewing together and testing zippers. “These here are the near-finished boots from the Byzance collection,” he says. On the table is a chocolate thigh high boot. The inside is made with a suede so thin that it feels like it could melt in your fingertips.
After the top-leather is mounted onto the sole, the boot goes back to the front workroom where 51-year-old Denis Chauvel, here since 1999, uses a candle’s flame to warm a small round steel tool, which he rolls back and forth to smooth the soles. “The temperature can’t be too hot as it may damage the fine leather,” he says as he administers slow rotations onto the sole. The painstaking process takes about three hours to complete. For the last stage, light glue is applied to the boot, which fastens a small piece of suede on top where the leather seams meet.
Embroidery at Lesage, as Paris’ premier brodeur is known, has a precise schedule and rhythm similar to the process of making a pair of shoes at Massaro. The commissioning fashion house furnishes drawings, the team begins to map the drawing with the minute details etched onto the opaque paper with an electric needlepoint gun, and then they sort the beads into bowls and use colored pencils to put dots on top of the holes that correspond with the specific beads. The finished technical map is given to a particular embroiderer who specializes in needlepoint or Lunéville techniques.
Lesage began in 1924 when Albert Lesage and his wife, who had worked with Madeleine Vionnet, bought the small embroidery shop of Albert Michonet and continued to work with Paquin, Poiret, Redfern, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Vionnet. François Lesage, their son, was barely 20 years old when he took over the business after his father died. “Monsieur Lesage,” as everyone calls him, still runs the company today. It was he who made Lesage integral to Parisian couture, both providing exceptional and innovative techniques in response to the requirements of each designer’s specifications. Nowadays, Lesage works with Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Christian Lacroix, and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Maison Lesage occupies two floors of a large building on rue Grange Batelière in the 9th arrondissement. One floor is devoted to the École Lesage, a school for embroidery that is open to the public with courses varying in depth and duration. A massive embroidered figure, resembling The Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor, looms above you as the elevator opens onto the fifth floor. Inside, amongst the different workrooms, resides over 42,000 embroidery samples, the world’s largest collection of such. Each sample is classified by season and placed in a brown cardboard box stacked on the shelves. Peeking out of a box marked “Été 1965” is a sample pattern of black-and-white sequins made for Yves Saint Laurent. Next to the archive room is the house’s massive collection of beads, rumored to be over 60 tons in total weight.
“It’s like grabbing the mini-pearls from the strand, pulling them up, and locking them onto the tulle,” says Murielle Blanchard, 48, a Lesage employee since 1985. “One pearl at a time. It’s an old process called Lunéville.” Lunéville itself is a small town near the German border famous for being the birthplace of Emilie du Châtelet, an 18th century mathematician known for her prediction of infrared radiation, her work on kinetic energy, and her translation of Isaac Newton (as well as being Voltaire’s lover for decades). It makes sense then that Lunéville embroidery is such an intricate, almost mathematical technique. “It’s a very fine and slow process of embroidery that uses this special type of hook. [You use different size pearls] from different strands to create volume,” she explains while pulling tiny pearls along a string she holds underneath the white tulle tightly stretched out on a rectangular wood board.
In the back of one room, I notice an embroiderer finishing up her work on the belt of a Byzance satin dress. On the wall near her are photographs and annotated sketches of several looks from the Byzance show that are currently under special order. On the other side of the room is an unfinished black leather swatch with small gold beadings—possibly the sleeve of the black leather-silk skirt suit embroidered with three sizes of beads and interwoven with alternate rows of small chains dangling in uneven stripe patterns.
It’s hard to fathom what fashion’s future would be if these companies and their handiwork had been lost without Chanel’s support. From the workers at Lesage meticulously and patiently threading their needles on the tulles to create embroideries so detailed, to Mr. Chauvel repetitively polishing the heels and soles of a boot at Massaro to a perfect sheen, it is impossible to ignore how invaluable these skills are—and yet these segments of fashion are so often invisible. Fortunately, thanks to Chanel, the adage “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” may now not become true.