Small Hands Make Light Work: Alexander Fury Visits The Chanel Haute Couture Atelier
In the Chanel ateliers at 31 Rue Cambon, less than 24 hours before Karl Lagerfeld’s AW17 haute couture collection – his 70th for the house, although Lagerfeld refuses to celebrate anniversaries and claims to never look backwards – all is silent. Almost.
There is a hum of activity – lowered voices, padding footsteps, the occasional fast-paced descent or slow climb up the multiple flights of stairs that connect the maison’s warren of workrooms with Lagerfeld’s studio. But there are none of the usual cluttering sewing machines or sounds of industry that generally accompany the final countdown to a fashion show. Instead, women calmly stitch, crouched over tables. A sleeve quietly, magically takes shape. It is slowly attached to an armhole in tweed. A chain is stitched into the hem, to weight it. After hushed exchanges, the resulting garment is taken, in silence, downstairs, for Monsieur Lagerfeld’s approval.
Haute couture is fashion’s hallowed ground, where nearly every seam is sewn by hand, in rules strictly laid out by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. There are notable exceptions: the grain lines, showing the warp and weft direction, for instance, are sewn by machine rather than hand-tacked; some of the major tailoring seams can also be sewn by machine, but most aren’t. The hand- finishing of haute couture is one way for couture houses to differentiate their work from the ever-rising complexity of ready-to-wear, as is the fact that every piece is fitted to a client’s unique measurements. The day before the show – Lagerfeld’s – the petites mains (or little hands, the evocative term used to denote couture workers, whose minute stitches are frequently undetectable) silently finalise each piece.
Chanel has four ateliers – two devoted to tailleur (tailoring) and two to flou, which denotes anything that isn’t, such as the filmy, embroidery-speckled evening gowns, the satin dresses tufted with feathers at the shoulders, or the fat, crinolined silk Mikado wedding dress that Lagerfeld designed for this winter collection, played out under a demi-Tour Eiffel (125ft, rather than the life-size 985ft) and devoted to ideas of Paris and the Parisian woman.
The structure of the Eiffel Tower is perhaps a metaphor for haute couture itself. “Couture has to have a perfect, flawless structure,” stated Lagerfeld after his show. You see that structure in the Eiffel Tower, but at Chanel, it’s a structure hidden, smothered in fabric and embroideries. The exterior looks calm, while the interior is a hive of activity. The same is true of the ateliers, which are, incidentally, packed with Parisian women of their own – each takes its moniker from the Christian name of their respective première, the head of the workroom: Olivia, Cécile, Josette, Jacqueline. The first is the newest – just 35 years old, Olivia Douchez joined Chanel from Givenchy and rose within two months to head a flou atelier. Jacqueline Mercier is the longest-serving première: 20 years with Chanel – “Et 25 ans avec Karl,” she adds. Prior to Chanel, she worked with Lagerfeld at Chloé – “Prêt-à-porter de très grande luxe,” she says in expressive, easy-to-understand French, “comme un collection de haute couture.”
Mercier oversees one of the tailoring ateliers creating the tweed jackets that are Chanel’s trademark. She’s pressured – around her, clothes hang in organised chaos, many yet to be finalised. A short tweed dress, its hem dipped in feathers, is nearing completion. Several others are far from it. The last thing she needs is a journalist asking inane questions, so an understanding of her specific craft, chez Chanel, elicits appreciation. As she subtly indicates her approval, you understand what makes a première – that ability to galvanise, to motivate, to sparingly dole out approval. Even if it’s just to those asking questions that don’t annoy.
The interesting thing is that Chanel’s tailoring isn’t like any other in fashion – Gabrielle Chanel invented it in the 1950s, based on quilting the soft tweed of the jacket exterior to its silk lining, and relying on the weight of the chain in the hem, rather than interfacing and structure, to make the jacket sit straight. Mention that, and Mercier’s face lightens and she nods. “The way you make the jacket is different. You use the work of atelier Lesage, the fabric by Lesage – tweed made of ribbons. It’s not a normal fabric to work with. At Chanel, the jackets are flexible. It’s very different. Totally different.”
The fabrics in Chanel’s tailoring bear special mention, because they’re difficult to comprehend. A floor above is the second tailoring workroom, Atelier Josette, its première the 55-year-old Josette Peltier. She fingers a sample of the tweed Mercier mentioned, loosely woven from varied ribbons, as opposed to made from actual thread. The resulting textile is halfway between fabric and embroidery – Lesage, after all, are an embroidery workshop, often dubbed the “ reworks” of the haute couture. Over the past decade or so, Chanel have pulled them into new service, creating fabrics that don’t actually exist. Some are created from ribbon, others from embroidery stitches on chiffon, building imaginary tweeds, like an impressionist painting in textile form. “Fantasy tweed” they’ve always called it, but suddenly, these tweeds are truly fantastical.
“The real challenge is to make your pieces as close as possible to Karl’s idea, to Karl’s designs,” says Mercier. “There is always research to do. In every single collection, there’s a different problem to solve, because every collection is different.” For the AW17 haute couture, according to Atelier Jacqueline, sleeves are big. A day later, their plump volume – neither gigot, leg of mutton, nor puff, but an almost imperceptible swelling, a bowing at the bicep – rounds out the volume on top, a counterbalance to generous skirts. That is a challenge to build through Chanel’s signature weightless tailoring. “The main point of the haute couture is that you have a free laboratory for ideas,” states Mercier. “Karl experiments with every fabric that he wants. We’ve had concrete in collections, we’ve had wood in collections. Every time, we had to find that specific solution.”
Peltier has worked in fashion since she was 20. She spent 20 years at Yves Saint Laurent, five at Azzedine Alaïa and a spell at Jean Paul Gaultier, before joining Chanel a decade ago. “I have both hands,” she declares. Literally, that’s true, but she’s speaking technically. “With flou materials and with tailleur. At Yves Saint Laurent it was a flou atelier I worked with, but the head of the atelier was a tailleur person, so I have both.”
Traditionally, tailleur and flou were strictly demarcated in fashion houses – to the extent that it was only men who cut the cloth for jackets and coats, a custom dating back to the riding habits of the 17th-century French court. Today, however, with the demands of a newly global clientele, the boundaries are blurred. Women cut jackets now, and Chanel’s lightweight tailoring is today even more so, frequently crossing the line between tailoring and flou. “The tailoring here is something very light, so you don’t have to feel stiff. It’s something that goes with your body. It’s supple,” says Peltier.
The importance of the hand is paramount in haute couture. Outfits are generally made by a single individual working ceaselessly to complete garments that frequently take hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours of labour. The “hand” – the method of working that differs from individual to individual, the accident of the human, ensuring that no two outfits are precisely the same – is what allows haute couture to achieve the seemingly impossible. Some couturiers – Yves Saint Laurent, for one – would give the same sketch to two different premières, relishing in the subtle differences of interpretation inherent in each person’s hand and eye.
Saint Laurent closed his couture operation in 2002, but the manner of working is very much the same – everything starts with the designer’s sketch. “When you receive Karl’s sketch, you have to read it really deeply, because every single line means something,” says Peltier. “When he draws a piece, he’s building it in his head, so you have to really see how you’ll have to cut to get that volume. Everything is actually in the sketch.”
“It’s part of your job to know the people in the atelier who you can give the sketch to that will be able to realise it in that way,” adds Douchez. She is the youngest première, leading a team of 42, many of whom are well below the age of 30. “It looks like a classroom when you walk into the atelier now,” comments Lagerfeld. “I try to hire people between 25 and 30 years old, to renew the people who are leaving,” says Douchez. “I thinks it’s good to have all these ages. The most experienced one can teach in a way, or help, the ones who are younger.” The youngest in Atelier Olivia is 16, on a two-year placement mid-studies. “France is great for that,” she smiles. The young are replacing the old – one of Douchez’s most experienced staff members retired after this collection; as her parting gift, she was tasked with creating the white silk Mikado wedding gown.
“They are beyond important because somebody has to make the clothes,” states Lagerfeld, pragmatically, of the people who staff the Chanel ateliers. “I may have a few ideas, but I cannot make the collections.” How true.
Text by Alexander Fury
Photographs by Federico Ciamei
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…