“Each designer has their own style, and it is our job to make their dream come true. We work in the shadows.”
A sea of iridescent beads is spread across a table in the MA studio, shimmering in the harsh, fluorescent light. A particularly intricate design lies in the middle of the mass: a swirly blue sky made of pastel sequins frames a cluster of scarlett tulle poppies centred with beaded 3D stigma – the sample was for Saint Laurent in 1997.
This is the work of Maison Lesage, one of the oldest embroidery houses in the world, owned by Chanel since 2002, but rich with a history of great partnerships. Customers and friends have included Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Christobal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, Karl Lagerfeld and Pierre Balmain. Today the house maintains these relationships, and continues to develop new ones, creating beautiful fabrics for haute couture and ready to wear. New customers include Mary Katrantzou and Alexandre Vauthier.
François Lesage set up his first studio in 1948, but the family legacy of embroidery had existed long before. His parents, Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, ran the Michonet embroidery atelier which was founded in 1858. Maison Lesage has racked up a stunning 70,000 samples in their archives over this long period.
Laure du Pavillon, a representative of the house, explains: “Archives are very important for us. We have some pearls from the very beginning of haute couture. Although this is our history, we think that this is also the future, because any designer can come and take inspiration.” Pavillon speaks with an elegant, French-throttled English accent. “We never make the same sample twice.”
At the moment, the samples are only available to design studios. When asked whether these will ever be made public, Pavillon replies with a wry smile, “that, is a secret.”
“There are people who have been here for 30 years and they love embroidery. It is a commitment, and you have to be committed when you are working for 12 hours, or the day before a fashion show.”
Pavillon also declines to reveal some of the famous pieces that were created by Maison Lesage, laughing and brushing the question away with her hand, “I can’t tell you that, we have so many.” The modesty of the maison is admirable, working away anonymously behind great designers. “What is important is that with each designer, there is something incredible and important. Each designer has their own style, and it is our job to make their dream come true. We work in the shadows.”
In 1992, after the bedazzlement of the eighties, a new wave of minimalism surfaced, and the demand for couture and embroidery waned. This, along with the effects of the Gulf War, saw an economic crisis hit the house. Lesage refused to let his staff go (“he saw the embroiders as his daughters,” Pavillon claims) so he made a new role for them: teachers of embroidery. This way, he could save their jobs, and prevent the craft from dying out by passing on the knowledge.
This is no easy feat, however, as on average it takes five to seven years to be fully trained. To achieve this, you must be able to fulfill any request thrown at you.
The school Lesage founded now takes in 400 students a year, who come from all over the world to learn embroidery. Hours of lessons range from 12 to 350, and some students stay for over a year. Occasionally, the house will hire from within the school.
The maison is diverse, the 70 embroiderers range in age. “There are people who have been here for 30 years and they love embroidery. It is a commitment, and you have to be committed when you are working for 12 hours, or the day before a fashion show,” says Pavillon. The school and the house are closely linked; all of the teachers in the school are embroiderers in the house.
Ecole Lesage has exchanges with schools all over the world, including The Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins in London, Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Maison Lesage has come to Central Saint Martins, enabling students to pour over an abundance of beautiful samples, and receive one on one tutorials from the embroiders of the house. They are teaching the method of the luneville hook. An embroiderer explains: “It is not so easy, because they work on the reverse of the fabric. If the fabric is opaque, you can’t see what you are embroidering at the time.”
“We are still working the same way as decades and decades ago, but we are always creating new samples and new materials.”
Qiao, a second year BA Fashion Print student, believes it is necessary as a designer to learn the skills of embroidery and embellishment. “Right now, it is a fast fashion industry. Most students are interested in something edgy, like Vetements, but there is still so much embroidery in fashion,” she muses.
Everything made by Maison Lesage is done by hand – as it was in the 19th century – even for their ready-to-wear buyers. With so much time and effort (some pieces take over one hundred hours of handy work) put into single items of clothing, it is a wonder how the house survives in today’s rapidly paced industry.
Pavillon assures me: “We don’t compete in that way. But of course, we have many assets which are very important to designers.”
Alongside Alessandro Michele’s fuss and frills method at Gucci, we have also seen a move toward Scandi style and clean, minimalist designs, but Maison Lesage simply rides the waves of trends fearlessly. “Of course, we are suppliers. One season a designer can have a lot of embroidery and another none – that is normal. But, that is why we have many different clients and different activities. We keep a good balance for the business.”
Under the creative direction of Hubert Barrere (François Lesage died in 2011), the house strives to stay contemporary while honouring their historical legacy. “We are still working the same way as decades and decades ago, but we are always creating new samples and new materials. This is really the spirit of Francois Lesage.”
In the midst of an industry filled with factory–made fast fashion, it is refreshing to see that such delicacy and craftsmanship can continue to flourish.
Words by Abigail Southan
Photography by Liam Leslie