Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Arts & Crafts

The most fertile layer of fashion's search for quality is haute couture. At the ateliers of a handful of prestigious fashion houses like Dior, Chanel and Givenchy, the skilled hands of highly trained seamstresses (baptized "petites mains") transform the couture maestro's designs into custom-made concoctions that may require up to 100,000 stitches to complete.

The creation of each frock demands the highest cutting and stitching techniques, all by hand. Couture, for the most part, follows the rules laid down by its founders—it still demands the craftsman’s expertise and precision shown by Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret when they were the best of their age, at the beginning of the 20th century. But the number of haute couture clients has been radically shrinking in the past few decades.

Consequently, the number of skilled craftspeople—the mainstay of the French fashion tradition—is diminishing dramatically: While there were thousands of French embroiderers in the 1920s, only a fraction exist today. And the toll is just as devastating among other couture fournisseurs, or supplier, such as the ornamental flower and feather makers, the button carvers, and the hat and shoe craftsmen who were still flourishing 50 years ago.

“Fashion isn’t necessarily about concept but about craftsmanship. You need the people to make the best ribbon, the best lace, the best hats. This is essential to keeping French fashion prestigious and creative,” Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, told The New York Times.

How to save the Frech artisanal fashion tradition from an untimely demise? Enter the knight in shining armour, bedecked in Chanel. Several decades ago, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, a renowned perfectionist, had already begun to worry about the future of the craft ateliers supplying the house. For the past 10 years, the house has been quietly purchasing some of the French capital’s oldest ateliers, which were disappearing one by one. Among the acquisitions: the mythical embroiderer Lesage, founded in 1920; Goossens, a jeweller since 1896; Massaro, a custom boot maker since 1896; Michel, a milliner since 1936; and Lemarié, a feather designer since 1880. And hot off the wires is the latest Chanel purchase: Maison Guillet, prestigious maker of fabric flowers, has also just landed under its wings.

“Quality, exclusivity, innovation: These are the reasons we have been working with these houses since the beginning,” says Francoise Montenay, the president of Chanel. “We are betting on creativity above and beyond the preservation of a patrimony and a unique know-how. And we are also allowing these crafts to develop and innovate their art independently of us. The purpose is clear: It is not about Chanel buying up these suppliers to be used exclusively by the house but to support the artisanal tradition, which is the lifeblood of Parisian haute couture and prêt-à-porter de luxe.”

[ PHOTOS above:Chanel Fall/Winter 20011 ©Elizabeth Pantaleo right:Elie Saab Fall Winter 2011 ©Elizabeth Pantaleo ]

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