Métiers d'Art: How Chanel is preserving centuries-old craftsmanship

Métiers d'Art: How Chanel is preserving centuries-old craftsmanship


Text: Dora Aljoofri-Shrestha

In an age where time-honoured craft is taken over by industrialised mass production, one luxury fashion house takes it upon itself to safeguard the skill set behind traditional savoir-faire

Every year, Chanel pays homage to the petite mains — artisans and craftspeople — whose exceptional craftsmanship brings to life the many creations, showcased at the Métiers d'Art shows. A unique fashion event staged in different cities (Rome in 2015, Salzburg in 2014, Dallas in 2013 and Edinburgh in 2012) and outside of the official fashion calendar, the Métiers d'Art shows are more than just collections of beautiful and extravagant clothes — it's also the house's longstanding effort to cultivate artisanal savoir-faire.

The storied French maison has taken great steps over the years to safeguard these ateliers, artisans and crafts. As of late last year, Chanel has acquired eleven independent ateliers known for their specific skills and expertise. These maisons fall under the umbrella of Paraffection ("for love" in French), a subsidiary established by Chanel in 1985  with the goal to conserve and preserve these artisanal ateliers from extinction. The current list of workshops under Paraffection are Lemarié, Lesage, Massaro, Lognon, Desrues, Goossens, Guillet, Montex, Causse, Barrie and Maison Michel. 

On 5 July, Chanel's latest haute couture fall 2016 show — where the entire Rue Cambon atelier took centre stage — honoured the house's artisans, a clear sign that the brand will continue to perpetuate the art of craftsmanship within and outside its storied house. And what better way to begin to appreciate the importance of the art of savoir-faire than to understand the workings behind four of the eleven ateliers. Step into the workshops of Lemarié, Lesage, Massaro and Maison Michel.

"It's made in an artisan way, in the very best sense of that word, because in artisan there is 'art'. The art of doing things well. An applied art. And that is truly wonderful." — Karl Lagerfeld

What: Feather atelier
Established in: 1880
Acquired by Chanel in: 1996

The history: Founded by Palmyre Coyette during a time when hats were predominantly adorned with feathers, Lemarié was France's most famous and reputed feather studio. In 1946, the founder's grandson, André Lemarié joined the family business and diversified the business into flowers.

Expertise: The house works with precious feathers — peacocks, ostriches, vultures, rheas, pheasants and more — cleaning, tinting and colouring them, before refining each delicate feather into artworks applied on fabric. Lemarié does not use feathers from endangered birds.

The maison is also the company who worked on Gabrielle Chanel's iconic camellia when she first started designing it in the 1960s. Today, the atelier makes 40,000 flowers (dahlias, peonies, anemones, tulips) crafted in organza, tulle, leather and velvet. The workshop creates some 20,000 blossoms each year just for Chanel's six annual collections. 

What you should know: In 1900, there were more than 300 feather workers in Paris, but by 1960, only fifty remained. Today, Lemarié is the only remaining atelier that is skilled at working with feathers.

What you might not know: Lemarié is also the official plume and blooms maker, and supplier for other fashion houses such as Dior, Balenciaga and Nina Ricci.

What: Embroider maison
Established in: 1924
Acquired by Chanel in: 2000

The history: In 1924, Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage took over Albert Michonet's workshop, the most famous pioneering embroidery atelier founded in 1858. Michonet supplied the first names of haute couture — Charles Frederick Worth, Jean Paquin and Madeleine Vionnet. At 20, François Lesage took over the reins after the death of his father in 1949.

Expertise: Till this very day, Lesage is the most trusted embroidery atelier and supplier in the industry. Using technical innovations in embroidery such as straight-grain 'vermicelli' beading and ombré method of blending tones together, the workshop is known to bring even the most complicated designs to life. The atelier and its artisans work around the clock every season skilfully embroidering artworks onto clothes and accessories only by hand.

What you should know: The Lesage archive holds over 75,000 samples dating back from the beginning of Maison Michonet. It is the largest collection of couture embroidery in the world, collected over a period of 150 years. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano were known to go through the archives looking for inspiration and embroidery ideas for their collections. No same embroidery work is ever repeated.

What you might not know: The atelier houses more than 60 tons of supplies such as ribbons, beads, tassels, rhinestones and crystals. Thirty kilos of beads and one hundred million sequins are used in a year, for samples and actual pieces.

What: Shoemaker
Established in: 1894
Acquired by Chanel in: 2002

The history: In 1957, the grandson of the founder, Raymond Massaro created the first ever-iconic two-tone beige sandal with a black satin tip for Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel. It is also the shoe that broke convention with a 6cm heel during a time when women were only seen in stilettos. It was after that successful creation that a long-standing collaboration naturally developed between the shoemaker and Chanel.

Expertise: Massaro is one of the rare and few made-to-measure shoemakers who can design, create and build shoes for both men and women, as well as for haute couture. The craftsmen in the workshop only use traditional shoemaking methods which starts with sculpting a shoe model (called a last) from beechwood, to using scrap leather to make a sample for the first fitting, before a definitive pattern is created, cut and assembled together. This entire custom-made practice has remained unchanged since the maison's beginning. One pair of shoes passes through at least a dozen craftsmen, starting from the lastmaker to the shoe assembler, and requires at least a minimum of 40 hours to produce.

What you should know: The atelier houses over 1,000 wooden lasts that enables them to immediately work on a design requested by a regular client without the need of their physical presence.

What you might not know: Massaro creates on average 50% of Chanel's runway shoes. The remaining shoes the workshop works on are for their clients, which include Lady Gaga and the Princess of Monaco.

What: Milliner
Established in: 1936
Acquired by Chanel in: 1997

The history: Founded by Auguste Michel, Maison Michel became the go-to milliner for luxury fashion houses in 1968 thanks to expert modistes, Pierre and Claudine Debard. In 1975, Pierre Debard set out to restore old straw-sewing machines (called the Weissman) and train a pioneering generation of seamstresses to create new hat styles stitched from straws. It was this passion which made designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Dior take notice, thus sparking a new trend first adopted by Pierre Cardin.

Expertise: Unlike other milliners, Maison Michel has been known to push the envelope, crafting the most unique and innovative styles and designs. With over 3,000 soft linden wood forms in their library and an extraordinary inventory of vintage felt and straw, the workshop is able to craft unconventional headwear.

What you should know: Maison Michel employs a small group of specialised artisans to work on specific roles. A hat maker only shapes the hat to form. The milliner then sews, embellishes and finishes the hats.

What you might not know: From boaters with beaded bands to pill-box hats, felt cloches and hair ornaments, clients are known to challenge the millinery with daring requests that only the maison has the skills to take on.