INPRINT Editor, Megha Kapoor is educated in the codes of couture with a behind the scenes look into the wondrous world of CHANEL.
Monday 3rd July, 2pm
I arrive at 31 Rue Cambon, the iconic flagship of CHANEL, a day before the house is scheduled to show it’s Haute Couture, FW 17/18 collection to the world at the Grand Palais in Paris, as per tradition. I am here to bear witness to the inner workings atmosphere and, if I’m lucky, speak to some of the incredible craftspeople that bring Karl Lagerfeld’s vision for CHANEL to life.
I am led up stairs and through halls of discreet white walls. To be honest, it feels like we are walking into the headquarters of a secret French government agency rather than a luxury fashion house. We pause; there are murmurings, and then we shuffle forward into a white workroom. I look up to see a statuesque woman, with translucent skin and a white blond quiff, dressed in a white doctor’s style robe. It’s Tilda Swinton. She smiles, and goes back to choosing her look from a pin-board of choices to wear to the show tomorrow. I try not to bump her as we squeeze past into another atelier. Women and men of all ages and ethnicities working with their artful hands to make modern-day fairy tales come to life. It is a busy, friendly environment; a place in my head I likened to a fashion United Nations. There are jars of lollies on tables and pictures of family, a note that exclaims ‘Je Suis Charlie’ alongside sketches and fabric samples pinned on the walls. The craftsmanship these men and women possess via decades of training is a miracle in this day and age of mass production. It is a joy to see.
So what is Haute Couture?
Haute Couture (literally translated means High Sewing) is inherently Parisian. To be technically and indeed legally defined as a house of Haute Couture a collection must adhere to very strict guidelines that are governed by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris: the garments must be handmade, there must be two collections a year with at least 25 looks presented in either January or July, and interestingly the house must also employ at least 20 people. The tradition of Haute Couture is part of CHANEL’s DNA, as Gabrielle Chanel herself began as a couturier.
Flou refers to the work done in relation to soft, malleable fabrics and predominantly pertains to the dresses in the collection. Madame Cécile, the elegant and smiling head of the Atelier Flou, was drawn to the process of draping and working more fluidly. The show has some spectacular examples of the embodiment of flou- in particular a silk tulle piece of heaven, that is shaped like a giant bell and skims the floor with borders of black silk camellia.
This studio handles all tailoring and the famous CHANEL tweeds. To see suiting being hand-stitched in those incredibly complex fabrics is astonishing. The Atelier Tailleur, funnily enough, felt a bit tougher, the atmosphere was more intense and masculine, a lovely metaphor for the garments they create. The linings of jackets were weighed with that typical CHANEL chain. ‘It’s for the tombe’ (fall), says a tailor as he lifts his head. This is to ensure the jacket possesses that perfect weight.
From Karl’s mind to the runway in six weeks...
The process begins with Karl Lagerfeld sketching the collection about six weeks before the show, then the premieres(the heads of the Flou and Tailleur workshops) will receive the sketches and their task is then to ‘give life’. Several fittings follow, when Karl will make adjustments and give directions. In terms of time, it takes on average 200 hours to produce a suit, 150 for a day dress, and between 250 and 800 hours for an evening dress. Each piece is like a puzzle, with different petit mains (little hands) working on separate elements. Whilst Karl’s artistic inspiration is communicated via sketches, the interpretation of these ideas is quite precise. Surprisingly, the final garments really do end up being literal translations of Karl’s vision.
The Ultimate in Service
The clients come after the show for fittings, and each garment is made to measure on their own personalised mannequin. Two fittings will ensure the garments are perfect. Whereas previously these fittings had to happen in Paris, the Haute Couture team will of course transport the looks to the clients for fittings. The ultimate in service is necessary to match to the ultimate garment.