Virginie Viard was just 10 months into the job as artistic director of Chanel when she embarked on her most ambitious undertaking yet. The Métiers d’art show, which took place on a quiet winter’s evening in Paris at the tail end of 2019, was shown to fewer than 900 people – a mixture of clients, journalists and Chanel’s inner sanctum of celebrity friends and ambassadors, including Vanessa Paradis, Kristen Stewart and Penélope Cruz.
It did not have the usual scrum of paparazzi, influencers and voyeurs at the entrance to the Grand Palais, where the show – like many of Chanel’s shows before it – took place. Neither was there a huge spectacle waiting inside; the fashion house being famous for having transformed the cavernous Palais into everything from an alpine village to a space station over the years. Instead, Viard had laid down cream carpets, a mirrored staircase and huge crystal chandeliers that hung high above the attending audience – an homage to Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment, after which the collection, 31 Rue Cambon, had been named. This all meant that – when the lights went down and the models finally appeared, walking slowly, delicately, down the stairs – all eyes were firmly on the clothes they wore.
Viard had already produced two impressive collections since becoming Chanel’s artistic director in February that year: the pared-back but rarified haute couture show in July, which took place five months after the death of Viard’s mentor and Chanel’s former creative director Karl Lagerfeld. This was followed by a beautiful, modern spring/summer 2020 show in October. But the Métiers d’art show was different. Not just because Viard had truly settled into the big two-toned shoes of the top job at Chanel, but because this was a show she knew and understood intimately.
Conceived by Lagerfeld 17 years earlier, the Métiers d’art collection is a love letter to the artisans behind the house of Chanel, where clothes are, in some respects, an elegant conduit by which to show the virtuosity of these ateliers. Over the course of the show, Viard sent out belts encrusted with gemstones; tweed jackets trimmed with the finest of feathers; T-shirts edged with silk crepe camellias; and dresses embroidered with so many pearls that they made the gentle, almost-lyrical sound of maracas being played as the models moved. As Viard took her bow, the audience was left slack-jawed. ‘Well, that… was a show,’ one fashion editor whispered. It was something felt by all, not least the artisans to whom it was dedicated.
The Métiers d’art collection is unique to Chanel; the only one of its kind by any fashion house in the world. Taking place every December, the collection falls somewhere between ready-to-wear and haute couture – which is to say it exhibits the same expert and dreamlike craftsmanship as couture, yet there are pieces within it that are as simple and wearable as a sweatshirt. What makes it different to both, however, is that at its heart, Métiers d’art is about casting a spotlight on the master artisans and ateliers upon whom the fashion house rely every season.
You will probably be unfamiliar with their names – Lesage, Lemarié, Desrues, Goossens, Guillet – but you will almost certainly recognise their work. Almost every silk, tweed and leather camellia you see on a Chanel product is meticulously made by the house of Lemarié. While every signature button on a Chanel jacket is created by Maison Desrues. Goldsmiths Goossens, meanwhile, fashions Chanel’s elegant costume jewellery, while the embroidery house of Lesage is responsible, among many things, for the myriad variations of Chanel’s signature boucle tweed. There are others, too: shoemaker Massaro, milliner Maison Michel, pleater Lognon and specialist embroiderer Montex. And let’s not forget glovemaker Causse, and cashmere specialist Barrie Knitwear.
In France, artisans are affectionately called ‘les petites mains’ – a nod to the expert skill required by the workers who rely on nothing more than the artistic dexterity of their hands. For many years, France was the epicentre of these niche but vital ateliers whose work was the lifeblood of everything from haute couture to the fashion on the street. But globalisation and a reliance on machinery, as well as changes in style norms (hats, for example – once an essential item, now fall into the realm of novelty and occasionwear for the masses) means many have, until recently, been threatened with extinction. Given that the world’s great fashion houses rely on their work and that ‘les petites mains’ represent an integral part of France’s cultural heritage, without them, the outlook for both fashion and France was unthinkable. Which is where Chanel stepped in…
Hubert Barrère is the artistic director of embroidery house Lesage. When we speak, he is, like the rest of France, holed up at home, awaiting President Macron’s loosening of the country’s strict lockdown. Lesage has played a key role in Chanel’s success, given that it is responsible for making many of the exclusive tweeds that adorn the company’s clothing and accessories. (Lesage has also provided the intricate embroidery for all of Chanel’s collections since 1983.)
‘You know, in the Middle Ages, embroidery was considered to be a major art, like sculpture or painting,’ he explains. ‘But the relationship between art and craftsmanship, it sort of yo-yos. Once, the artisan was considered an artist. Today they are not, but maybe
things change…’ he trails off.
Barrère is right. France has a long history of recognising the importance of craft, for which the French can thank the Sun King, Louis XIV, who raised the status of artisans from mere workers to artists throughout his reign in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet over
the past 50 years – particularly in the Seventies and Eighties – there has been a rapid decline in demand for their services, leaving ateliers struggling to not only attract new talent but to even stay afloat.
The fear of France losing such a vital piece of its artistic history (as well as the fear of losing whole industries upon which fashion houses have traditionally relied) made Chanel think long and hard. The house has a long relationship with many of these ateliers. Brands such as Lemarié and Massaro worked with Gabrielle Chanel to create some of Chanel’s most enduring pieces, including fabric camellias and its iconic two-tone shoes. (The black toe is said to shorten the foot, while the beige upper elongates the leg, a concept conceived by Gabrielle Chanel with Monsieur Massaro.) What if, Chanel wondered, they were to buy these struggling ateliers but allow them to operate independently under a new division? Surely this would preserve their future as well as ensure the preservation of France’s history.
And so, in 1997, the Paraffection subsidiary was established, having begun with the acquisition of button maker Desrues in 1985 and followed by Lemarie and milliners Maison Michel in the 1990s. (The most recent atelier to be embraced into the fold was Scottish cashmere specialist Barrie Knitwear in 2012.)
What makes Paraffection (which loosely translates as ‘for the love of’) unique is that Chanel not only allows these master craft houses to remain independent but also allows them to work for and with other fashion houses. ‘Chanel would never have been what it is without Métiers d’art,’ says Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Activities and President of Chanel SAS. ‘It is part of the DNA of the brand and one of our strongest assets. Many of the maisons were financially sound, yet unsure about the future – especially those that lacked a succession plan. By picking up the workshops it considers indispensable, Chanel ensures their future and its own.’
And if the world of embroidery was close to decimation then consider the rarefied world of feather artistry. In 1900, there were more than 300 plumassiers in France; today there is really only Maison Lemarié, which, as well as working with feathers, also produces some 20,000 camellias for Chanel each year.
‘It’s important to have someone [like Chanel] that values the craft and the creativity but also ensures that this culture and know-how is going to be here tomorrow,’ says Christelle Kocher, Lemarié’s artistic director.
Barrère echoes Kocher’s thoughts. ‘It’s important for Lesage to be part of Paraffection. It’s a love story, but also a story of loyalty. For those working for Lesage, it’s vital to be part of a family; the Chanel family.’
He says the relationship has also allowed Lesage to attract a new generation of talent. (Lemarié has also seen a surge in younger artisans being attracted to the atelier, with many feather and flower-makers being in their 20s and 30s). ‘I think Chanel having Métiers d’art is one of the reasons why we have new generations arriving at Lesage,’ says Barrère. ‘People realise it’s not just a job, it’s a passion. You do this work with both your hands and your heart. And, for the workers, the collection is an amazing gift; it’s an amazing acknowledgement.’
While Chanel’s Métiers d’art collection was conceived by Lagerfeld, it was Viard, as his right-hand person, who spent much of the time liaising with the ateliers. As such, it is acknowledged both inside and outside the house that the collection holds a special place in the heart of Chanel’s artistic director, an affection that is manifested in the 31 Rue Cambon collection.
Each atelier works with Chanel differently, depending on the show. For Priscilla Royer, Maison Michel’s artistic director, the 31 Rue Cambon collection required the milliner to create hair accessories and headbands. ‘For hair accessories, we almost come at the end so we have between 10 to 14 days to make things. The process is very organic. I get a brief from the studio and Virginie tells us what she has in mind – sometimes that’s from an image or a sketch – then it’s a discussion. I’ll come back with two to three prototypes, and Virginie takes it from there.’ The result? Simple but elegant mesh and lace bows that Maison Michel artisans spent two hours assembling, and luxurious velvet headbands to complete the Rue Cambon silhouette, which each took around five hours to make.
Lemarié’s Kocher agrees: ‘I try to interpret Virginie’s vision with some samples that could convey the message. It’s our job to try and surprise within the codes of Chanel; to push creativity. She pushes and I push… It’s an ongoing collaboration with freedom and understanding at the same time.’
That creativity led to Lemarié helping to create a jacket entirely made of delicate silk camellias. ‘It took over 275 hours to make that piece,’ she says. ‘It was magical… like a dream.’
For Barrère, the ambition for Lesage is slightly different. After years of being pushed by Lagerfeld to create embroidery that was ‘unimaginable’ (memorably the embroidered 3D printed suit), Viard’s approach, he says, is in some ways even more demanding.
‘The first conversation about Rue Cambon was in October. I knew it was about the atmosphere of Mademoiselle Chanel’s apartment, but this was all I knew,’ says Barrère. ‘But at the beginning of November, we talked more. Then I knew we were looking at the symbols of Chanel – the camellia, the tweed. It was simple but with the Virginie sauce, it becomes something very different. She has her own vision of Chanel. Karl was Karl. He imagined Chanel with the mind of Karl, Virginie does her own thing. It’s interesting for me because for 21 years, I worked with Karl and Virginie. Now the vision is absolutely different but it’s the same Chanel.’
He explains that Viard’s approach is to create something simple but with a ‘cool attitude’: ‘With embroidery, that is a big challenge because embroidery is very fanciful. Now it is something more discreet, something easy to wear but also very refined at the same time. So while the appearence is simple, if you look closely it’s actually very sophisticated.’
Barrère explains that he and Viard have only worked together for the past year, and so he is learning to adapt to her rhythms and ways. ‘When you speak with Virginie, what she doesn’t say is just as important as what she says,’ he admits.
‘It’s not just words; her silence and her look is also very important. She is very emotional, so it’s almost instinctive with her. It’s something you feel. It’s the way she might hold something, the way she might pick something up. It’s so much more than words and images.’
It’s something you know in your hands, and in your heart.
The Chanel Métiers d’art collection is available now
You Might Also Like