If fashion is fantasy, then Chanel’s Métiers d’Art shows have always been dreams come true. During these runway presentations, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director who died in February, would highlight the work of some of France’s oldest ateliers — shoemakers, lacemakers, and the like — all of which have been in business since the late-19th century.
In 1985, beginning with Desrues, a maker of buttons and costume jewelry, Chanel began acquiring these ateliers, including Lemarié, best known for its intricate feather work and for originating the iconic Chanel camellia-flower accessory, and Massaro, a couture shoemaker. In 1997, Chanel founded Paraffection (meaning “for the love of”), the subsidiary under which the now-12 ateliers reside, ensuring these artisanal traditions continue for another century.
The most recent Métiers D’Art show, inspired by ancient Egypt, was shown at the Temple of Dendur in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The traveling version has also taken place in Havana, Rome, and Hamburg.) Beyond the glamorous supermodels with their gold-painted legs, and the celebrities sitting front row and walking down the runway (Pharrell!), the clothes still cut through the noise and sparkled like Tutankhamen’s treasure. Up close, a Chanel tweed fabric was revealed to be made up of metallic gold ribbons, and a long evening dress in a red and blue herringbone pattern was not a jacquard but individually cut feathers that were colored and then glued by an expert hand. Truly a work of art.
Ahead of its presentation in New York, Chanel invited No Man’s Land to Paris to visit five ateliers and meet the new generation of women making these fashion fantasies come alive.
Pauline Cavret works at Massaro, a shoe atelier established in 1894.
As a child, Pauline Cavret always loved to draw, especially shoes. Eventually this passion intensified and she started buying cheap, “crazy” shoes she came across at flea markets, whether or not they were her size. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated from art school. “I wanted to do something beautiful without having to explain it or have [to do a speech about it].” Of course, the answer was shoes. Still, it was easier said than done.
“[Maybe] because I was 23 and a girl — because this is really a men’s business — no one wanted to meet with me and apprentice me,” she explains. “I got lucky because Massaro is the best, and they were the only ones that called me back.”
“When I came here, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna learn how to do shoes for two years and then I can start my business,’” says Cavret, who is 28. “Because I was from the university, I was pretentious.” She adds, “I was maybe naive.” Her passion for the heritage and history of the house is such that she’s begun to organize its archives in her spare time, taking advantage of the memories of her colleagues, some of whom have been at the atelier for decades. “Nobody’s really interested in it besides me, but I think if we don’t do it while my colleagues are here, it’s going to be a waste, a shame, because we have a beautiful history.” Although originally she thought she’d be working at Massaro for only two years, Cavret now can’t imagine not being there every day. She says, “It breaks my heart [to] think, ‘Oh my God! I will never see all these shoes again!’”
Flett Bertram works at Lesage, an embroidery atelier established in 1858.
“When I first started working here, I didn’t speak much French, so it was really, really stressful,” says Flett Bertram, a 31-year-old from Cambridge, England, who is part of Lesage’s creative team. “I really panicked, because the women who work here are real embroiderers. I come from a creative-arts background, and I just learned it’s going to take over 20 years for me to become as good as these ladies. That was real pressure.”
Bertram studied textiles at the London College of Fashion and did a stint at Alexander McQueen before getting her master’s at the Royal College of Art. There she met Hubert Beret, Lesage’s creative director, when he gave a talk about the atelier at her school. “I was really panicked at first because my role as part of the creative team is to propose design ideas,” she recalls. “I would do some swatches and then I’d panic and think, ‘Oh, it’s not good.’”
In her three and a half years at the atelier, she has learned that a lot of magic can come from the mistakes. “Sometimes something that I thought had really gone wrong would be something that would please a client. For the creative work, it’s actually good to make mistakes.”
Eléanore Stoll works at Lemarié, a feather-and-flowers atelier established in 1880.
Lemarié is one of the ateliers that has played a pivotal role in developing one of Chanel’s signature accessories, the camellia, which was first created in the 1960s. Now, Eléanore Stoll is one of the women who makes such flowers. “It’s very humbling,” the 27-year-old says about her work. She studied the history of art in school and started working with theater costumes before doing an internship at the atelier. “I always knew I wanted to work in an artistic field, I just didn’t know with what material,” she explains. “I started doing pottery, then working with glass, and then I really fell in love with making clothes.” Her parents are relieved she’s found a stable job while being an artist. “My parents are very proud — they can breathe now. Like, ‘Okay, she works in art, but she works for a beautiful atelier,’” she adds, laughing.
Stoll once worked on a single leather camellia for 12 hours. “I love to be in the workshop with the ladies who have been here for more than 30 years,” she explains. “A lot of techniques you need to learn in the actual workshop, and it’s essential to always learn more, to be able to teach the younger generation that will come after.”
Victoria Fuchs works at Montex, an embroidery atelier established in 1939.
Victoria Fuchs, 21, didn’t know what a Cornely machine was when she first arrived as an intern at Montex, a workshop specializing in embroidery that was founded in 1939. Now she has one of the machines at home — it looks like a regular sewing machine but has a handle underneath that acts as a way to guide the needle to create intricate designs. “I love how playful the Cornely machine is, how you can draw with the machine,” she explains. Fuchs is still a student; she’s studying embroidery. “I spend two days at school and three days here,” she says. “Right now I’m learning about all the different materials, working with beaded sequins.”
Embroidery is generally thought of as embellishing fabric with beads, threads, or anything else you can possibly imagine. At Montex, the embroidery becomes the fabric. That aforementioned flapper-esque dress comprised of gold and blue beads? It was made at Montex.
Although her life is all about embroidery, Fuchs knows she is learning different skills at school and at the atelier. “At school they tell me that stitches need to be regular and always look the same, and here I have learned that you can create something irregular on purpose as a way to explore your creativity,” she says. Still, she doesn’t mind devoting all her time to her craft. “I spend a lot of time here and I don’t have that much homework,” she says. laughing. “But I do have fewer holidays.”
Claire Manceau works at Lognon, a pleating atelier established in 1945.
Claire Manceau loves couture. The 33-year-old worked at Lemarié for six years before decamping to Lognon to manage the atelier. “I was doing a lot of work with plissé samples when I was at Lemarié, and I was interested in learning something new,” she says about the change. “I’m a perfectionist, and I love to get into the nitty-gritty details, [like] the difference one millimeter can make in a final design.”
At Lognon, Manceau manages six women, the youngest of them 23. The studio is quiet and extremely organized, perhaps a reflection of the exacting work that is required to make pleats. Everything must be measured exactly, fabrics perfectly rolled in their molds, molds baked at the exact temperature in industrial ovens. Manceau enjoys it all. “I love working on pyramid designs, the way they can bring to mind something ancient,” she explains. “I love working with light, sheer fabrics. I love seeing what ideas a client starts with and figuring out how we can make them a reality.”
Even with all the personal satisfaction that Manceau derives from her work, she knows that her work is also part of a bigger story. “It’s amazing that Chanel has been able to save so many of the ateliers, because they surely would’ve closed by now,” she says. “The industrial revolution changed everything, but these crafts are part of French culture, part of our national history. It’s like saving a museum.”