Saturday, 12 April 2014

Lesage Velour magazine April 2013


Envisage a five-story building over looking the beautiful Sacrè Coeur in Paris. Picture that within this immaculate building lies the entire history of the most innovative embroidery house to date. Imagine the artisans feverishly hunched over glorious gowns, needle and thread in hand ready to put together the final magical touches to opulent pieces days before the Spring Summer couture shows; their surroundings entwined with stretches of tulle, organza, glass beads, sequins and rhinestones. Welcome to Maison Lesage home to an exquisite archive of embroidery dating back to 1860.

Haute Couture for years has been associated with a range of connotations from those who continue to be in awe of the most desired fashion creations, through to others who believe it to be dated and unattainable. For the latter, it is hard to conceive that it can take over eight hundred hours to make a dress, which can cost in the region of anything from around twenty-five thousand pounds to a million – as was the case for the 1977 regal coronation gown of the Central African Empress Bokassa. Whether it is interest or indifference, there is something decidedly beautiful about couture gowns and their construction - works of art that are inimitable in any other form.

In 1868 Albert Michonet founded the original embroidery house becoming a supplier to Charles Frederick Worth – a man who is recognised as the first ever couturier. Albert and Louise Lesage soon obtained the house in 1924 and together the young couple combined their passion for business, fashion and the decorative arts and formed the foundations of a house that would soon become known to the world over. Following the boom of the twenties and early thirties, the Lesage’s’ were struggling to co-manage a company that was losing its clientele to cheaper and more affordable ready to wear lines. Faith however was restored when Elsa Schiaparelli introduced her captivating garments that required lavish embroidery – note the 1938 ‘Circus’ collection. Her depiction of surrealism and fantasy began to dictate the fashion of the decade, hence bringing Lesage to the forefront of the industry once more.

At the time, a young François Lesage spent his days in the workroom surrounded by eager and careful hands that longed to embroider anything, including his childish drawings. As a young adult, when Lesage heard the news of his father’s illness he immediately returned from the US, where in sunny Los Angeles he spent his days designing stunning gowns for the Hollywood starlets namely Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner. After Lesage succeeded his father in the late forties, he continued to support his mother and push his samples during a time when many of the maison’s old patrons where no longer alive or around. His drive to seek out new customers in order to replace lost ones, introduced him to a new generation of designers such as Pierre Balmain and Cristóbal Balenciaga who allured to the Lesage way of embroidered perfection. Following their path, the seventies bought with them customers such as Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent who in turn took delight to François’s Californian inspiration that only enhanced their whimsical dreams. In order appeal to the new design generation, Lesage innovated embroidery by turning traditional repertoire on its head through the addition of metal studs and other playful materials on the work produced.

For Lesage and his dedicated artisans no request was deemed impossible.  Seamstresses would turn up to the house from all over France to spend a summer learning the craft but would end up staying and remain there still; there was a certain allure about Lesage that drew people in. Once Parisian houses had started generating a wealth of profit from perfumes, ready to wear and high concept commercials, the eighties saw a financial boom and once more a shift towards ostentatious fashions reflecting the image conscious era. Labour intensive embroidery, whimsical shapes and silhouettes were at the disposition of women who wanted to flaunt their glorified lifestyles. Christian Lacroix, a dazzler of the decade would request the most theatrical designs based on spectacles such as the infamous opera Georges Bizet’s Carmen, much to the delight of François who was never out of ideas. Even today, days prior to the couture shows you will find up to 50 seamstresses working away on a piece with intricate detailing that takes hundreds of hours to complete. The astronomical prices attached to couture provide somewhat of an explanation when you take account needlework so intricate that is gives the Arabella spider immense competition.

It is the small-refined details that really play the large part when it comes to couture gowns. This detailing evident in the embroidery, entirely made by hand (extraordinary in the modern era) is what has kept houses like Maison Lesage alive for so long. Long enough to acquire a library of over 60,000 embroidery samples that boast the largest collection of couture embroidery in the world alongside the names of design greats residing within its walls. Lesage, renowned for its technical innovations and the development of avant garde motifs of shells, circus performers, vermicelli and ombre beading, to name a few, has become as important as couture itself, for one could not exist without the other. Such a truth was confirmed when Karl Lagerfeld acquired the house in 2002, swearing his loyalty to the exceptional talent and dedication that Lesage beholds. With the dwindling of true couture, Lagerfeld made sure he added Lesage to Paraffection (the Chanel subsidiary company), which consists of seven other ateliers committed to the preservation of exceptional craftsmanship.

Whilst the modern era continues to develop in the world of design and technology, the petites mains (tiny hands) have changed very little over the last century and are just a valuable today if not more. These treasured women, situated in workshops like those in Montmartre, use their incredible skills to transform dresses into works of art and wonder, leaving nothing to imagination and making the wildest of dreams a reality. With the long hours that defy the French working week and skills that surpass an ordinary seamstress, you begin to see that these women are driven by their history and what is stands for. When Charles Worth founded French Couture, he opened up a path of fashion that for some would be come a lifelong commitment, and a definition of their heritage. If you were to rid Paris of a house that was founded in this age, you would diminish couture altogether for one cannot exist without the other.

Lesage is an example of the importance that a particular component plays within high fashion. Today when everything is manufactured by machinery, Lesage embroidery represents the idea that you can never really replace true handwork. The artisans behind the house have dedicated their entire lives to constructing perfection from silk ornamental flowers to gold plated bow shaped buttons and theatrical motifs that adorn jackets and dresses. Their magical story bares strong resemblance to Roald Dahl’s fictional Charlie and the Chocolate factory, with Lesage playing a true to life Willy Wonka. An extraordinary man who takes joy in making dreams come true.

The Maison’s instinctive flair for embroidery has not been seen since the time of Poiret, bringing to couture the glamour it requires. No task is too big hence Lesage’s’ love for mere wit and innovation amongst his clients over extravagance. Above all, François Lesage was a businessman. When instability of the economy came about in the nineties, the company halved its staff knowing it could afford the same amount of labour at half the price – a sad loss for those who had embedded themselves within the workshops. Other sensible investments were made into the history of the house when Ecole Lesage opened its doors to aspiring seamstresses in 1992, safeguarding the future of this unique venture. Following the death of François Lesage last year, his legacy not lost, the school and the maison will continue to bring knowledge to aspiring seamstresses who want to be part of its rich heritage and immerse themselves within the world of embroidery and decadent designs.

There are many things that the French are notoriously renowned for, perhaps fashion being the most obvious of these talents. Lesage is the common thread between design houses such as Chanel, Givenchy, Dior, L’Wren Scott and Jason Wu. Monsieur Lesage was one the greatest artisans that dedicated his entire life to serving embroidery that most people couldn’t even conceive of let alone bring to life. The evident success of using over thirty kilos of beads and one hundred millions sequins per year is granted each season during the couture shows. There really is no questioning the genius of a man who could not even sew a button himself.

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