“Without great ateliers, you cannot make a beautiful collection,” said Karl Lagerfeld.
Speaking ahead of the unveiling of what would prove to be his final haute couture collection, Lagerfeld was keen to explain that, although it would be him the world congratulated, the success of every collection hinges on countless people toiling behind the scenes.
Chanel’s spring 2019 haute couture offering was presented on January 22 in a snowy Paris. As was his wont, Lagerfeld completely transformed his venue of choice, the Grand Palais, by transplanting a Tuscan villa, surrounded by orange trees, rose bushes and a reflecting pool, into the Parisian landmark. There was even a faux summer sky.
With a keen understanding of the theatricality of fashion, Lagerfeld knew that elaborate settings were a key element of any runway presentation. As the scale of his productions grew (from icebergs and spaceships to a custom-made beach), so did his audience. Increasingly, Chanel had to put on two shows in one day to accommodate everyone.
One day before, I was invited into the sanctum that is Chanel’s atelier, where the couture pieces are actually made. It is here that, seemingly spun from thin air in just six short weeks, ethereal dresses are shaped from sketches entirely by hand.
Inside the fabled 31 Rue Cambon in Paris, which in fact takes up almost an entire block, I was guided up a staircase, past the ground-floor boutique, to the first atelier, which specialises in “flou” or lightweight fabrics such as silk and chiffon. I ascended another floor, past the famous panelled mirrored staircase immortalised in countless photographs and the curious time capsule that is Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s old apartment, and found myself in the second atelier – referred to as “tailluer” or tailoring, where heavier materials, such as wool, leather and tweed, are worked. I was acutely aware that somewhere amid the labyrinth of twisting stairwells and narrow corridors, sat Lagerfeld’s studio.
Opening the door, less than 18 hours before the first show, I braced myself for a scene of flustered panic but, instead, all was calm. We were welcomed by quiet, unhurried workers, fabric, needle and thread in hand. These artisans (mostly female but a few male) are the “petits mains”, which literally translates as little hands. They are the secret weapon behind Chanel’s success.
A curious universe, haute couture is consumed by only a tiny number of customers worldwide, and yet its influence is felt by all. Its closest cousin lies in the unlikely noise and fumes of Formula One, from where innovations trickle down to hatchbacks and family cars. As with engineering, so the techniques and methodology of couture – although impossible to mass-produce – filter through into everyday clothes, exerting a subtle but omnipresent gravitational pull.
Lagerfeld’s sketches lay scattered all around the space. They were small and intense, apparently dashed off in a frenzy, with scribbled instructions, largely unintelligible. And yet, somehow, from these inscrutable drawings, the studio heads, or premieres, knew precisely what the designer wanted. Each look was assigned to a specific artisan, who would oversee its creation from start to finish.
The brightly lit room of the flou atelier was filled with large, high tables, set almost too close together. A glance across the surface showed scraps of fabric and panels of embroidery – all done by hand – casually abandoned, along with Lagerfeld’s sketches, now with snippets of fabric pinned to their edges.
Dressmaker’s dummies were clad in simple cotton shapes, with more drawings strategically pinned on to them. These are the toile, the prototype dresses, on which final placement of embroidery and pockets is made. The casual appearance belies its importance, as the toile is the first time the team will see the dress in three dimensions.
With its own ateliers, Chanel is able to complete many of the intricate techniques needed for couture in-house, but for methods outside even its realm of knowledge, there are small specialists dotted around Paris. Founded during the golden age of couture, when all clothes were handmade, these tiny ateliers have faced an uncertain future as demand for their services has dwindled.
Lagerfeld, understanding the irreplaceable value of these tiny studios, encouraged Chanel to acquire them, for every couture house to use. One such house is Lesage, which specialises in embroidery. Famed for its lightness of touch, the studio is behind much of the elaborate – but never gaudy – beading of couture.
Lesage worked on many of the pieces for Lagerfeld’s final collection, but one of the most extraordinary creations was look 20, an ethereal column of white scattered with pastel-coloured spring flowers. A scene as light as a breeze on a summer’s day, it took the expertise of three ateliers to bring it to life.
Once Lesage received the sketch for look 20, the house had to decide how best to interpret Lagerfeld’s loose instructions. To create the trails of fragile flowers, fabric was stretched taut in a frame, as the embroiderer pushed a tiny Luneville crochet hook through to catch a single sequin, bead or crystal. The resulting trails of delicate petals in soft pink, lemony yellow and periwinkle blue required 10,000 bead tubes, 25,000 sequins and 880 slithers of crystal to be stitched into place, one at a time.
Another house, Goossens, hand-dipped 250 real flowers and buds into resin, immortalising their delicate beauty, and cut a further 150 flowers from brass, hand-painting each with yellow petals and pink hearts. An additional 350 organza flowers (each one outlined in a halo of delicate stitches) were added, along with 60 starchy-white raffia blooms, to create a three-dimensional effect. Meanwhile, the house of Montex created the backdrop for the flowers, using 1,080 tubes, 15,700 sequins and 1,700 beads to craft glistening lines like raindrops. It took more than 800 hours to complete, which means that even if they were working around the clock, it would take one person more than 33 days to finish.
Due to the scale of the beading and embroidery, many pieces are only returned to Chanel the day before a show, and we were there to see them arrive. With fewer than 18 hours to go, the work of many of the petit mains seemed to be just beginning.
Strips of gold leather were gently added to the hems of a halter top and skirt. Another table clattered with the sound of thousands of ceramic flowers being moved, as a lining was hand-stitched into place. Elsewhere, frothy tiers of black net were teased into shape, not yet attached to anything. In the corner stood a mannequin dressed in a trompe l’oeil skirt, silently awaiting its matching jacket.
Seemingly entirely untroubled by the colossal task at hand, the women all smiled and assured us that they expected to be home at the normal time that evening. I left, unconvinced.
And yet, the following day, sitting in a make-believe Mediterranean scene in the centre of Paris, we watched 62 exquisite looks sweep past – all perfect and complete. I was once again awed by the skill and dexterity of those master craftsmen.
Only when the final bow came, and we realised that Karl Lagerfeld was missing, did the atmosphere shift. His right hand and second-in-command, Virginie Viard, took the bow in his place, and received the applause she so readily deserves. As Lagerfeld himself explained in the 2018 Netflix documentary 7 Days Out: "Virginie is the most important person, not only for me, but also for the atelier, for everything. She is my right arm and even if I don't see her, we are on the phone all the time."
However, the absence of Lagerfeld was telling, and it hung in the air, breaking the spell of the stunning clothes on show. We know now that this was the maestro’s last haute couture collection. Looking back, it is hard not to feel sad that, after such a long, lauded and tireless career, Lagerfeld was denied his last theatrical flourish – a final bow to an audience that adored him.