Creating with Discipline

A week before the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Rome, where thousands of hours of work was reduced to a fifteen minute whirlwind extravaganza, I visited the ateliers of Lesage and Lemarié, which since 2013 have been collectively housed in one place in Pantin, just outside of Paris.  Seeing these two most well-known savoir-faire maisons of Chanel’s Paraffection umbrella has long been on my I-love-seeing-things-being-made wish list. Some people have man/woman crushes.  I crush hard on craftsmanship in situ.

The mostly (female) and surprisingly young team of artisans may have been under the cosh to complete the last pieces of embroidered fabric and flower and feather adorned pattern pieces to send over to Chanel’s Paris atelier, in time for the show in Rome.  “It’s always like this,” said the PR looking after Paraffection.  “Everything is done in the immediate two weeks before the show.”  Be that as it may, nobody is rushing.  In fact, the working atmosphere is amazingly calm.  Everyone knows exactly what they must do and they quietly get on with it.  “Keep calm and love Chanel” reads one ha-ha motivation message on the walls.

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Our first stop is in Lemarié.  The house that deals with the feathers and flowers, which sounds airy-fairy but in fact they also have an expertise in creating intricate pleatwork, smocking and ruffles.  As the need for real feathers in our modern day wardrobes has diminished, Lemarié  has expanded their repertoire to create mimic flowers, feathers and other elements of the natural world movement out of every fabric possible.  Coco Chanel created the original camellia with Andre Lemarie in the 1960s and it of course has become a house emblem so that today, Lemarié makes 40,000 camellias for all of Chanel’s stores, with everyone of them containing a minimum of fifteen petals.  The more complex camellias, depending on the material, can take up to five hours just to make one.  Bear in mind, that these golf-ball sized pieces that most might consider to be a inconsequential bit of decoration.  I don’t know why in my head, I thought there was some quickfire camellia-churning machine and when I suggested the idea, the Chanel PR’s chortled.  Of COURSE, every Chanel camellia is created using the old fashion process of stiffening the fabric and then cutting out petals with a metal template.  Then the curves of each petal is created using specially made moulds.  And then assembled together delicately with tweezers, with distressed edges and any other special finishing done by hand.  All for one singular flower.

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0E5A8795The abundance of moulds used by Chanel over the years to create the different petal shapes

0E5A8822The cutting machine – loved the fact that it was stamped with a double C.

0E5A8808Cut out petal pieces

0E5A8832Mould used to give the petal pieces their shape

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0E5A8883Creating the tweed camellias for the Paris-Rome collection

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0E5A8902Adorning each camellia which additional strands of ostrich feathers

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From camellia making we move on to the physical garments that we would then see in the Metiers D’Art show.  The ostrich featherwork we saw would edge a heavily appliqued cape, all of its embellishment and surface detailing, done within Lemarié

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This cape piece with its collage work of cut-out patent leaves, delicate lace and gemstones is our first clue of what was to come at the show.  Misleadingly, seeing these decorated pieces first in Lemarié and Lesage did make us think they were the dominant motifs of the collection.  In fact, as per my write-up, the collection was a black and white ode to new wave French ingénues and what we saw was deployed in the latter part of the show, where hints of Italiano and colour would seep into the more heavily adorned showpieces.

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One of my favourite pieces was this beautiful backless cape and matching dress, tiered with dusky pink feathers and scallops of silk chiffon that have had marble-like streaks hand painted on them.

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That marble effect was replicated in black and white in a few of the silhouettes.

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I also loved the delicate smattering of black feathers mixed with strands of black cassette tape cellophane.

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François Lesage once said embroidery was like “creativity with discipline” and there’s little room for artistic license on the part of the craftspeople as Lagerfeld’s sketches as well as the direction from the atelier in Paris are specific and tweaked from the get-go when the savoir-faire houses send through their initial samples.  At this stage of a collection, the exact formation of every bit embellishment has been settled upon.  When we enter the main room of Lemarié, they are busy working away at two spectacular dresses that would give the show a soft and romantic nuance, in the form of rainbow ombré pastel lace and silk petal pieces hand-dyed in a dreamy colour scheme.

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The placement of these beautiful petals on delicate guipure lace is particularly arresting.  What appears to be random formation is a result of placing each petal on a mapped out diagram on tracing paper.  In a room of about twenty people or so, the concentration level is palpable.  After the show, I thought back to that collective energy working so hard on just two of the dresses out of eighty-seven looks.

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Then onto Lesage.  It is probably the crown jewel of the Paraffection group by virtue of François Lesage’s lasting legacy.  In the archive room (where no photographs were allowed), they have collated over 60,000 samples, representing the biggest collection of couture embroidery in the world.  They are listed by designer and year.  Boxes labelled with names like Schiaparelli, YSL, Balmain, Balenciaga and Givenchy indicate Lesage’s illustrious past, dating back to 1858 when the original embroidery house Michonet was founded and then taken over by Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage in 1924.  Today Lesage works for every house of note.  It was interesting to learn that Coco Chanel herself never worked with Lesage, because of its association with arch-rival Elsa Schiaparelli, which resulted in vivid embroidered motifs of circus performers and zodiac signs, which we gingerly leaf through.  It was Karl Lagerfeld who struck up Chanel’s relationship with Lesage that is of course still strong today.

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0E5A9004A small snapshot of Lesage’s supplies of tassels, rhinestones, ribbon, beads, crystals and cabochons.  In one year alone, they’ll get through thirty kilos of beads and one hundred million sequins.  

Having seen a different sort of couture embroidery in Jaipur India, it was interesting to contrast the techniques.  The same principles apply.  Paper drawing on tracing paper.  Puncturing holes through the lines so that chalk can be applied to imprint the pattern on to the fabric.  In India, the holes of the pattern are hand-punched whereas here in Lesage, the pattern is punched through with a mechanical pen.

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0E5A9018Embroidery frames

The hand woven tweeds for the Paris-Rome collection had already been completed and shipped off, but we took a peek at the looms that use threads, ribbons, leather strands and plastic spaghetti to create the very special tweeds for Chanel.

In the main workshop, Rome took centre stage as everybody was working on the farfalle  and white “caviar” pearl embroidery.  They would eventually be featured in a shift dress from the start of the show and a spectacular bridal empire line babydoll dress towards the end.  Again, watching the clusters of Lesage embroiderers furiously sewing leather farfalle shapes and tiny pearls onto fabric tricked us into thinking that the show would be full of this carb fest.  Everywhere we look – pasta, pasta, pasta.  No wonder we leave Pantin feeling ravenous.

The pasta dishes were of course limited in the final edit of the show.  Regardless of quantity or prominence in the show, from the perspective of these embroiderers, it is imperative that the work needs to be done at the highest level.  The thirty or so embroiderers – both young and old (Lesage has an excellent school that has seen an increased amount of interest in recent years) – will see looks number 5 and 65 from the show and feel immense pride.  A few of them are visibly giddy, when they see their handiwork on a skirt from the Paris-Salzburg collection, which the Chanel PR was wearing.

In the book, Haute Couture Embroidery: The Art of Lesage published in 1988, Christian Lacroix said: “A Lesage embroidery is first and foremost true luxury: a technique subsumed under art, limitless time spent on achieving the most intangible effect.”  On the contrary, our visit to Lesage made their embroidery a tangible reality – something that exists not because it makes pragmatic financial sense or commercial viability, but because collectively with Chanel, they’re producing and promoting a labour of love, that is about unparallelled surface.

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Meta Paris in Rome

Citizens of Rome must be slightly amused by the fashion cavalry that has passed through its marble monuments, ancient ruins and golden excess, not once but twice this year.  In the summer, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccoli of Valentino presented us with their ode to Rome – an outpouring of heartfelt love for their hometown.  The Frenchiest of French houses, Chanel taking their Métiers D’Art show to Rome was of course going to be an entirely different affair.  The hashtag would clue you in.  #ParisInRome.  Sure, before the show, journalists and editors had scoffed lashings of pasta, marvelled at the Sistine Chapel first thing in the morning when it was practically empty and gorged ourselves on Caravaggio’s, Bernini’s and enough varieties of marble and gilt that made your mind and gut full of pleasure.  So far, so very Roman. 

Then things took a very different turn when we arrived at the legendary Cinecittà film studios.  Behind the facade of a plywood Rome film set (incidentally this was where the BBC series Rome was filmed) and the polystyrene statues and inside Teatro No. 5, the movie stage favoured by Federico Fellini, it’s Paris that took centre stage.  But wait, it was a Paris that exists only in the minds of Japanese tourists before they suffer a severe bout of Paris Syndrome.  All quaint cobbled streets, charming cafes, boulangeries and boucheries, adorned with a classic Metro stop and Eiffel Tower twinkling in the painted backdrop.  It was a Paris that feels like it’s fast disappearing, given what has happened this year and so for some, this black and white set might have felt like a mythical wonderland. 

The fantasy was pronounced though.  We could see the film set lights.  We could see the exposed backdrops.  We could see the make-believe.  Lagerfeld was perhaps in a bit of a meta mood as his latest (and longest) directed film Once and Forever, sees Kristen Stewart tackling the role of a young Coco Chanel.  It’s meant to be a behind the scenes peek at the making of a brand film as you see Stewart throwing tantrums with the fictional director, doing rehearsal second takes as well as some very awkward French singing.  The world can’t all be about surface, gloss and perfection.  We know that.  Lagerfeld knows that. 

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And thus the scene was set for a show that affirmed a vague connection between Coco Chanel and Rome’s cinematic heyday (she dressed French ingenues like Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau when they starred in Visconti and Pasolini films) but ultimately gave Lagerfeld license to express Chanel at its haughtiest and Parisian best.  It was hard not to think about all those countless Paris-girls-dress-better-than-everyone-else books and articles that have been lobbed our way over the years.  It’s a tired trope that I’m not personally a fan of but it was hard not to be seduced by these beehived, smoky eyed Left Bank Beat-era femmes.  They wore sleaze-hinting patent, racy lacy tights and stuck to black and white for the most part, adhering to Coco Chanel’s favoured colour scheme: “I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”

Metal hardware like giant hooped earrings and ring zipper pulls made you think of sixties space age detailing.  And yet, as much as the retro-isms ran amok, the result was in fact a playful and deftly handled take on our collective imagining of French ingenue chic.  And begrudgingly I have to admit, as much as I hate oft-repeated mantras about timeless style, what Lagerfeld resurrected from black and white French new wave cinema, does in fact remain relevant today.  I’m just going to be crass and say it: these girls emerging from the Metro station steps looked cool.  It’s a silly word to use most of the time but in this instance, it’s difficult to refute.  

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It wasn’t all black and white though.  Just like that famous scene in Wizard of Oz or a more relevant reference for me, that charming 1998 film Pleasantville – colour did seep into this monochrome Paris.  So did some hint of Italiano.  Like an empire line floor length gown decorated with leather farfalle pasta and a pretty pink bow.  Or a delicate ovoid feather cape dyed with pink streaks to look like travertine marble.  Appliquéd autumnal leaves and rainbow dip dyed lace brought Métiers D’Art’s purpose to the forefront and that is of course showing off the wonderful and magical skills of the specific craft houses that are owned under Chanel’s Paraffection umbrella – namely Lesage and Lemarié.  That’s the next chapter of my Metiers D’Art journey, as I was lucky enough to go visit these ateliers in Pantin, Paris a week before the show.  Rome might have been the temporary backdrop but all roads in fact, lead back to Paris.

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Dream Strokes

>> Way back when I would have the time to kill a whole day watching obscure screenings and popping into galleries not for ‘content’ but for the eyes, I happed across the work of artist, animator and all around creative polymath Suzan Pitt – namely her most famous work, ‘Asparagus’, which was made in 1979.  It’s twenty minutes of brilliantly vivid stream of conscious, inspired by Carl Jung’s idea of images being pregnant – so that one beautifully painted cel scene segues into another seamlessly without any straight cuts.  The result is a languidly surreal vision that leaves you aroused and confused in the most positive way possible.  No wonder then that it became a seminal work of animation and propelled Pitt’s name into the limelight. This documentary Persistence of Vision is a succinct and fascinating exploration of Pitt’s work.

Rather than being prolific, Pitt has decided to give ample time to each film project, creating Joy Street in 1995, El Doctor in 2006, Visitation in 2011 and Pinball in 2013.  And all the while, Pitt – now based between Los Angeles and Mexico – teaches, travels and paints.  Out of the blue Pitt’s work came flooding back to me as she emailed me last week,  about her latest project of hand painted coats and trenches, which she used to do in the 1980s to much success.  Patricia Field Online recently commissioned them again and four out of the six styles have now since been sold.  That’s the persuasive power of Pitt’s saturated paintings.   Lichtenstein-esque characters, alien creatures and abstracted visions come flying at you in vivid acrylic colour blocks.  One jacket’s design is derived from Pitt’s latest animation ‘Pinball’, which is an almost dystopian depiction of a being panic-stricken, where pinballs and splatters ping about.

I love the exuberance and humorous generosity of Pitt’s work where it doesn’t matter whether it’s celluloid, canvas or an old London Fog trench coat, her sense of self and idiosyncrasy are communicated loud and clear. The questioning of whether it’s art or fashion seems pointless. A unique point of view doesn’t require finite definition.

More one-off painted coats by Pitt will be available at Dover Street Market New York from December 3rd onwards.  Trust DSM to celebrate the cult creatives of our time.  Pitt’s work leads a different life when painted onto vintage outerwear.  You’d surely get a lot of joy out of wearing one, hence why I’m pondering the Big Flower coat that will probably be snapped up imminently.

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NancyNancy jacket

painter front

painter backPainter coat

sailor1Sailor coat

crum back

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SP_painted_white_coat-3_1024x1024Crum coat

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SP_painted_beige_coat_ver2-3_1024x1024Pinball Coat

SP_ww_painted_coat_1024x1024_d6368ff7-4653-4544-a698-1445ee96f01b_1024x1024Women Comic Coat

big flower

SP_painted_beige_coat3_1024x1024Big Flower Coat

And just in case you’ve not seen Asparagus… take a trip why dontcha…

May The Fash Force be With You

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How does a film title become an adjective?  As in, “Oh, that’s very Marie Antoinette.’ in reference not to the historical figure but Sofia Coppola’s film, to denote anything pastel, frilly and vaguely 18th century rococo in feel.  Or “That jacket is so Blade Runner!” meaning it has 1940s shoulder pads that segue into the 80s.  Certain films and their associated aesthetics, have become part of our mainstream descriptive lexicon and it’s why even without reading the not-so-subtle title of this post, it’s not difficult to see from the line-up of models above, that the theme is… *Lucasfilm intro*… Star Wars!  

Despite the array of British designers that were invited to take part in Selfridges’ Star Wars extravaganza last night, somehow it created a collective tableaux that couldn’t have been inspired by anything but the most anticipated film happening of the year.  J.W. Anderson, Peter Pilotto, Thomas Tait, Agi & Sam, Bobby Abley, Claire Barrow, Christopher Raeburn, Phoebe English and Preen by Thornton Bregazzi were all in this stellar line-up and the results were impressive.  Especially when preceded in a show that had R2-D2 and C-3PO come out for a brief cameo as well as a marching mass of Stormtroopers, accompanied by the famously rousing soundtrack.  Unlike the scores of brand tie-ups and sponsorship deals that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has incurred, the pieces that the designers have created have creative merit to them, precisely because the theme is genuinely potent for the designers.

I love that the world of Star Wars always manages to encapsulate an environment with an aesthetic that balances between the future and the past,” explained Thomas Tait as to the appeal of Star Wars.  His black cut-out floor length cape and space age dress with patent boots had a hint of retrosuperture that is evident in the original Star Wars films.  Other designers also went down an abstracted route to create their outfits.  For Agi & Sam, the intensity flash of colours of battling light sabers translated into layered plastics in various hues seen in the refraction of light.    For Phoebe English, it was the strength of the Stormtroopers and the movement of space travel that inspired her textural black and white looks with a controlled fringe detailing.  Moments like the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive powering it into light speed gave Peter Pilot the linear motif on their dress.

Many of the designers looked directly at the attire of characters like Rey from the forthcoming film, who inspired Nasir Mazhar’s womenswear look.  Or the kimono silhouette of a Jedi knight influencing Preen’s black and red graphic dresses.  When we think of Star Wars it’s always the light and the dark,” explained Justin Thorton and Thea Bregazzi.  Christopher Raeburn too also played with the film’s central theme by using light reflective panels in his Jedi-esque outfits. 

Bobby Abley’s childhood memories of Star Wars led to his graphic-heavy sportswear looks featuring the classic Stars Wars logo as well as an ode to Captain Phasma from The Force Awakens.  Rather than going for direct representation of the film’s characters or themes, J.W. Anderson pays homage to the obsessive cult-like adulation of the film, using transfer stickers, cotton patches and Star Wars-esque illustrated imagery to adorn quilted crop tops with padded tops.  It’s the spirit of intense fandom, which fascinated Anderson and the result is a pseudo sci-fi aesthetic that hints at Star Wars rather than referencing it literally.

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Peter Pilotto:
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J.W. Anderson:
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Preen:
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Phoebe English:
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Thomas Tait:
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Christopher Raeburn:
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Nasir Mazhar:
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Claire Barrow:
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Perhaps one of the most meaningful pieces belonged to Claire Barrow.  Her signature paintings depict beings listening to Captain Phasma on a sleek silver satin dress.  To go with Barrow’s black body suit covered with Swarovski® crystals is a bionic arm created by progressive prosthetics company Open Bionics, modelled by amputee model and vlogger Grace Mandeville.  They’re paving the way in affordable bionic hands that are 3D printed to reduce the costs.  Their black lit-up design created for this Star Wars show, blended seamlessly with the catsuit and more importantly, is more than functional for Mandeville (who doesn’t wear a prosthetic in her day to day life).  Star Wars might deal with sci-fi fiction but companies like Open Bionics are bringing us closer to bionic reality, which made this particular ensemble memorable in more ways than one.

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All the outfits featured in the show are currently being auctioned online with proceeds going to Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.