A Visit To Chanel's M?tiers d'Art
In the orgy of opulence that was the Eighties, I remember so clearly my visit to the workshop of François Lesage. In the small, dark rooms, where buttons and threads were lined up in empty jam-jars on a worn wooden shelf, the world's most famous embroiderer would pull open drawers, grab a square of cloth and announce triumphantly, "Schiaparelli!".
A feather-coated Chanel Haute Couture spring 2014 outfit by Maison Lemarié
Then there was Andre Lemarié, who would treat the feathers all around his warren of rooms not as if we were backstage at the Folies Bergère, but as if each plume were a priceless jewel.
In the airy Pantin workrooms
What a difference Chanel makes!
As I walked into the light and airy premises of the Métiers d'Art in the Pantin district of outer Paris, the light flooded in from wide windows on to the talented workers who have been taken on since Chanel decided to preserve this French field of excellence by buying up the treasured specialist companies.
Embroidery by Lesage, made for the Elsa Schiaparelli Phoebus cape in 1938
The young generation in Pantin are embracing artisanal techniques
Almost the first thing I noticed in this complex, opened in January 2013, were the chic Chanel storage boxes that had replaced the shabby Lesage cardboard boxes. Then I was struck by the age of the petites mains - so young! And the fact that there were a lot of men, not just women, taking up these ancient crafts.
My visit started with a look at the beautiful work from the past, from Elsa Schiaparelli to a Valentino dress, rich with embroidered greenery, and from the spring and autumn couture.
Hubert Barrère, the artistic director of Maison Lesage
But I was impatient to see this "factory" of human hands in motion.
No one understands the art of the needle and thread better than Hubert Barrère, artistic director of Maison Lesage. He is responsible for all the fashion world's exceptional embroidery, carrying the torch for François Lesage, who died in December 2011.
The intricate embriodery of Lesage
Up close, it seems that these marvels of needlework can be applied to any fabric from finest silk to thickest velvet - including those Chanel sneakers with their couture decoration.
Featherwork by Maison Lesage for Chanel Haute Couture spring 2014
I talked to M Barrère after the Salzburg show and he told me how much he and his team enjoyed the Métiers d'Art Chanel collection because there was "time to think".
A detail by Lemarié, on a Metiers d’Art dress from the Paris-Salzburg 2014-15 collection, included featherwork with little leather flowers, beads and appliqué
"This collection was a gift," he said. "Karl just talked about Salzburg and then left us to do it. We researched Mozart, Von Hofmannsthal, the music festival - even the Grand Budapest Hotel film. We studied Empress Sissi, her history, the Romy Schneider movie and all that was romantic and poetic - but also joyous. We did all those little embroidered flowers and butterflies; we wanted it to be imperial - but also bucolic, historic and very romantic."
Featherwork by Maison Lemarié for Chanel Haute Couture spring 2014
The work was dense, intense - but never vulgar or showy. I could hardly believe that a chic bomber jacket worn by a model, who walked out casually with a small boy, had required 330 hours of needlework in gold braid yarn at the collar, with golden waves of metallic sequins at the hip and wrists.
A Maison Lemarié feather sample
No wonder Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, told me at the Salzburg show that Métiers d'Art was close to couture.
M Barrère surprised me by saying he was a fan of simplicity.
Maison Lemarié for Valentino Couture autumn 2014
A drum of feathers in the Lemarié workshop
"People think that embroidery has to be very precious - but it can also be fresh and simple - and Karl is a fan of freshness," said the king of embroidery, recalling the work his studio had done for the Métiers d'Art show in Edinburgh, making it relevant to Chanel. Last year's Dallas show he called "classic Western", while for the Paris-Bombay show they looked for the delicate and the metallic rather than the "land of the maharajas".
Maison Lemarié workshop
I moved on to look at the Lemarié feathers - multiple plumes like a nest of birds of paradise, made into the same effects as I saw at the Chanel show in Salzburg.
An array of Chanel camellia flowers at the Maison Lemarié workshop
I asked Nadine Dufat, managing director of Lemarié and Lognon, how many people worked on the feathers, and was amazed when she answered, "Sixty people and up to 110 before the collections". But she reminded me that this is also a house of flowers - meaning that extraordinary visual effects are also created, as well as the plumes. Not to mention the production of 40,000 Chanel camellia flowers a year!
Pearl-encrusted petals ready to be punched and pressed into Chanel's signature flower, the camellia, by Maison Lemarié
"It is a mixture of different savoir-faire," said Mme Dufat, using that French expression meaning what we might call in English a "skill set".
Individual petals being pressed with a heated implement at Maison Lemarié
She explained the featherwork that went into Karl Lagerfeld's imaginative scenic view where the paysage was created from the mix of colours and textures that I could imagine from seeing the box of feathers in front of me. These are the details of Chanel's Métiers d'Art delicate Mountain Landscape top and skirt: the pattern made from goose feathers, leather, woollen flowers, beads and crystal; on the sleeves, tie-dye sky-blue satin accordion pleats; and star-shaped flowers and forget-me-knots in blue leather with a bead at centre.
Total hours of handwork: 378.
Of course, the fashion point of these intricately worked designs is that they do not look heavy or weighed down by the decoration. It is just absorbed into the overall design.
Chanel a/w '14 hats stacked up for finishing
I liked the jaunty Tyrolean hats in Salzburg, with ostrich and chicken feathers set off by the Maison Michel black felt. But in my visit to Chanel's Pantin workrooms, I realised that hats were not so easy to make, even if there seemed to be hundreds of them ready to go in typically Coco-pink checked tweed.
Milliner Shariff of Maison Michel stretching a hat over a block
I watched milliner Shariff Hisaund making a Maison Michel felt hat - and he might have been a five-star chef, stretching the felt, dowsing it, stretching it again and popping it into a giant "oven" to cook into shape.
When Karl did his Paris-Edinburgh Métiers d'Art show in the ruins of a Scottish castle back in 2012, I made a visit to Barrie Knitwear, king of cashmere, which has to be made in Scotland, not France, because of the natural features in the river Tweed (which is the basis of the iconic Chanel jacket).
Lesage samples for Chanel Haute Couture autumn 2014
But at Pantin, there were still more specialists.
I am sure that embroiderersMontex, based in the 9th arrondissement of Paris will be super-busy completing orders for Karl's Salzburg loafers - embroidered with white leather edelweiss, white chenille yarns and small glitter balls. They could be as much of a hit as Chanel's decorated haute-couture sneakers.
Then there are the costume jewels from Maison Desrues based just outside Paris. The choker, inspired by Austrian embroidery, made from enamelled molten glass and velvet ribbon around a filigree metal heart, appeared in Salzburg with one of the most striking looks in the collection: Lederhosen cut into saucy shorts worn with high hose and the edelweiss shoes.
Le Jardin d’Eden dress by Valentino Couture spring 2014
I left Pantin with a feeling of elation that Chanel was not only keeping these Métiers d'Art alive, but they were in the hands of a new, young generation.
Somewhere up there, François Lesage must be lifting his head from embroidering for the angels and rejoicing that Chanel has kept his skills alive.
Lesage Chanel trainers from Spring 2014 Couture