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Hubert Barrère, the artistic director of the Parisian embroidery house Lesage, picks up a white plastic bag from the corner of his office and tips its contents onto his desk. “You see that?” Barrère gestures to the glittering pile of beadwork and delicate silken flowers, samples for Chanel’s most recent Métiers d’Art collection, which had taken the Lesage embroiderers two weeks to complete. “These were the rejects,” he says. Even the world’s finest embroidery atelier has to accept Karl Lagerfeld’s “No.”
Starting in 2002 as a low-key tribute to its company-owned workshops, the annual Métiers show has grown into a singular 21st-century fashion event—nearly a fashion festival and possibly the most important in the company’s calendar. Each show is held in a new destination, never on a regular runway, and floods social media with photographs of models and guests dressed in Chanel.
Lagerfeld invents a playful story for each show that connects with a moment in Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life, whether that be in Rome, Edinburgh, or Dallas. There are elaborate parties in castles or luxed-up beer halls befitting his chosen theme—way beyond the standard 20-minute runway show. These have become weekend-long events, their extravagant hospitality matched only by the precious, demi-couture clothes themselves that are usually priced between ready-to-wear and haute couture.
For the new collection, titled “Paris-Hamburg,” Lagerfeld returned to his German hometown with an elegant presentation at the Elbphilharmonie, a futuristic waterfront concert hall by architects Herzog & de Meuron. With mariner caps and nautical stripes as small references to Hamburg’s portside past, a sleek, youthful Chanel woman in timeless sailor chic came out to the contemporary music by British composer Oliver Coates.
“All we were told was: ’amburg,’” recalls Barrère of his instructions from Lagerfeld at the start of the design process. “That’s it. No words, no pictures.”
In the end, 10 of the 87 looks were embellished by Lesage, among them a tweed jacket run through with silvery leather threads and a twisted nautical rope of navy blue paillettes, edged with silver beads.
The name Métiers d’Art translates as “art professions.” Besides Lesage, these include the feather and flower maker Lemarié, the pleater Lognon, the Scottish cashmere company Barrie, the boot maker Massaro, the milliner Maison Michel, and 18 others. Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, boldly claims these have “no equivalent anywhere else in the world.”
Before Chanel came along, these small, traditional ateliers had been vulnerable to economic downturns and changes in fashion. They had aging workforces whose savoir faire was in danger of becoming extinct; some companies, like Barrie, were on the brink of liquidation. Since 1985, like a bouclé-clad fairy godmother, Chanel has swept in and bought them up. It even groups them together in an umbrella company called Paraffection—“for love.”
This hasn’t entirely been an act of charity. For its own survival, Chanel had to ensure the survival of its suppliers. As Lagerfeld says, “We are lucky to have the workshops who can do everything. The embroidery, the flowers, and everything require people who have that traditional quality. That is why Chanel bought all those companies. Without them, I don’t know how we could do it.”
Chanel’s competitors could say the same thing. Surprisingly, Lesage makes delicate embroideries not only for its parent company but also for other fashion brands. Upstairs in the workshops on the day I visit, every embroiderer is working on a Dolce & Gabbana collection. But Lesage, like its counterparts, has no contracts and no certainty of work, except for the Chanel collections.
At its start in 1924, Lesage was based in a ramshackle building in the Ninth Arrondissement. Longtime head François Lesage, who personally collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix, died in 2011. In 2013 his company moved to two floors of workshops—and a basement that stores 70 tons of beads—in a small empire of Chanel suppliers in Pantin, a gray, canalside Paris suburb. In the building are Lemarié and Paloma, among others; from the back windows the view is of a contemporary block, with an architectural façade mimicking tweed, that houses Chanel’s R&D headquarters, offices for its beauty business, and the archive. (Chanel has an ambitious plan to move all its Paraffection workshops to a sprawling new hub in Aubervilliers, on the outskirts of Paris, by 2020.)
“Here, it’s less charming, but more efficient for business,” says Barrère. In large, hushed rooms, petites mains—the workforce of “little hands” who stitch haute couture—sit over embroidery frames working on the delicate designs that are mapped out by tiny holes punched into paper patterns. Many are in their 20s. “More young people than ever want to do embroidery,” says Barrère. “When you arrive here in the morning, you have nothing. In the evening when you go back home, you’ve created something. Nothing virtual—it’s real.” According to Barrère, a new generation is discovering that the elite crafts of couture are an antidote to digital life and automation.
Next door at Lemarié, a slightly smaller workshop, the specialty is feather work and flowers, under the creative direction of Christelle Kocher, a French fashion designer who joined Lemarié as its artistic director eight years ago. Bought by Chanel in 1996, Lemarié is a 138-year-old company that uses both the latest laser techniques and ancient iron molds, heated over a flame, to shape petals.
For this collection, and every Chanel assignment, Kocher says, it’s always “How can we surprise him?” For the sailor looks, “we took some watercolors and experimented with painting them on the feathers.” Kocher hand-painted blue naval-style stripes on the smooth white surface of layered feathers. (She notes that the feathers used by Lemarié are only from edible birds.) From a distance, the final dress looks like a sailor-striped dress in a regular fabric.
It’s important for Chanel to make sure that all of this craftsmanship is seen—Chanel floods social media with making-of videos—and, of course, sold. “Our customer likes to know how things are created,” says Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, which was Chanel’s first U.S. retailer. “She’s knowledgeable on the handwork and why the clothes are priced at what they’re priced at.” He notes many customers will see the Métiers runway on Instagram and will send screenshots to their selling associate.
But he’s talking about the established Chanel customer. This collection, it seems, is also directed at the new customer who wants something real, which is to say handcrafted. She might not buy Métiers d’Art yet—perhaps she only owns a bottle of No. 5 and a Le Vernis nail polish—but already she’s attuned to matters of provenance.
Many refer to Métiers as demi couture (Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton offer similar elevated collections). It isn’t true bespoke, like haute couture, but it is made to dazzle. It is sold off-the-rack, in the same way as ready-to-wear; but its level of ornamentation is more elaborate. Métiers d’Art clothing and accessories are oftentimes made with more expensive materials—crystals, lace, high-quality paillettes—and the handwork takes longer to complete, so it’s more expensive than ready-to-wear Chanel. Jackets with Lesage tweeds cost up to $14,000, instead of around $6,000. The result is precious and almost as collectible as haute couture, but without the two-to-three-month wait.
“The Métiers customer is a fashion enthusiast. She wants rarity in her wardrobe,” explains Downing. “She really loves the special qualities created in those pieces—and they’re pieces she collects in the way that she collects art, because truly they are art.”
At the same time, the collectibility is enhanced by the way Lagerfeld sticks to Chanel codes, suggests vintage fashion expert Cameron Silver. “Even though there might be certain themes—say, a cowboy theme, or a Chinese theme—the core of it is extremely familiar to the client,” he says, “but it becomes a little more exceptional because you have more of those handwork couture techniques. I mean, Chanel haute couture is at an extraordinarily prohibitive price point. Métiers isn’t particularly affordable but offers the fashion lover something more artisanal than ready-to-wear.”
While Chanel created the destination fashion show, it’s currently competing with Louis Vuitton and Dior for the most-prized invite. For each event, no expense is spared during the 48 hours of lavish hospitality. For recent cruise shows, Vuitton flew customers and press to Bob Hope’s John Lautner–designed home in Palm Springs and to the Miho Museum outside Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, Chanel invited some 900 guests to a stage set in Rome’s Cinecittà and a fairy-tale schloss in Salzburg.
“It wasn’t just a show—it was a happening,” enthuses Texan philanthropist and hostess Becca Cason Thrash of the 2014 Métiers d’Art show in Dallas. “There was a barbecue, an electric bull that people rode, and a country-and-western band. They push it right to the edge of kitsch, but never cross the line, which is Karl Lagerfeld’s genius.”
For that Dallas show, Chanel spun a yarn based on Coco’s visit to Texas in 1957. Above all, the Métiers d’Art show has become an annual moment for mythologizing her life story. On more than one occasion Lagerfeld has directed short films about key moments in her life, one with actress Geraldine Chaplin in the lead, and screened them to the captive Métiers d’Art audience.
But this season, the 85-year-old German designer seemed to be staking a claim for his own myth: Hamburg is the city of his birth. Mademoiselle Chanel never visited. The subject of who might succeed Lagerfeld, should he ever retire, is delicate. But it does make his Chanel designs even more collectible. “People are reflective of where he is in his life, and it might create more of an urgency to own a piece of it,” says Silver.
As for Lesage and its siblings, they may be protected by Chanel, but Hubert Barrère is not complacent about the future of Parisian artisans. He believes the luxury fashion industry still needs to give more work to such suppliers. Otherwise, the rare handcrafts that define high fashion—the flower making, feather cutting, beading, and micro-scopic stitching—and justify its pricing are in peril. “We’re the property of Chanel, so we have a big chance. But the others....” He trails off. “They might have lots of work one season, and then the next season, nothing. It can’t survive. But I will survive!” sings Barrère, breaking into Gloria Gaynor, his laughter echoing through the hushed atmosphere of the workshop. “I sing that for our professions, all the métiers d’art.”