Why is the house of Chanel coming to Dallas for a whirlwind day in December? It has little to do with quilted bags or No. 5
by CHRISTINA GEYER
Translated from French to English, the precise meaning of métiers d’art is the skills of art. In a broader definition, it refers to artisan crafts — specialty skills as professions. Eleven years ago, the French fashion house Chanel and its artistic director, Karl Lagerfeld, adopted the term and debuted the first of what it calls, straightforwardly, Métiers d’Art. The yearly pre-fall collection and runway show is dedicated to the history of the house’s founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and the mind-boggling workmanship of the ateliers that the company owns via a subsidiary called Paraffection, for par affection, “out of love.” Unlike Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture spectacles, the Métiers shows, always held in December, often take place outside Paris. The location for each show is selected by Lagerfeld himself to reference a place with great meaning in the company’s history and to the life of Mademoiselle Chanel herself.
This year, that place is Dallas.
Chanel had closed her successful fashion business in September 1939, shortly after Britain and France’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany and the commence of World War II. Only the perfume business, Les Parfums Chanel, remained in production during the war, as it was co-owned and managed separately from Chanel’s fashion business by brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer. Chanel relaunched her couture business in 1954, showing a collection of simple suits and dresses not far apart in aesthetic from the ones she created in the ’20s and ’30s. The collection was considered by the European press as a critical flop; “outdated” was the collective takeaway. One has to realize that Christian Dior’s famous and froufrou New Look — wasp-waisted dresses and full-skirted suits for what he called “women-flowers” — was still all the rage, almost a decade after its 1947 debut.
Some even theorized that the cold shoulder given to Chanel was the aftereffect of an affair she had with a Nazi officer during the war. Whatever the case, the European press and market largely shunned that first postwar collection. But American women — and Texas women, in part because of Neiman Marcus, the luxurious department store founded here — embraced Mademoiselle and her looser fitting suits and dresses. Chanel would have the last laugh: Tastes eventually shifted back to much less overblown silhouettes — something she always believed in — and by September 1957, she was on a plane bound for Dallas, to receive the prestigious Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, given by the inimitable merchant prince himself, Stanley Marcus.
While today’s Métiers d’Art collections are a way for the modern Chanel brand to pay tribute to its history, beneath the symbolism, the opulent showmanship and the flurry of multimedia coverage that surrounds each show — editors, journalists and customers come from around the world — it is the craftsmanship of the clothes and accessories that is worthy of the most attention. Each Métiers garment boasts construction and embellishments that are the results of the honed skills of the rare-air artisans who work for the individual companies in the Paraffection stable.
The runway extravaganzas to showcase such work are equally lavish. Last year, for example, on the heels of buying the Scottish wool and cashmere mill Barrie Knitwear, Lagerfeld collaborated closely with its artisans to create a fantastical collection of luxurious knits: pants, jackets and coats in weighty tweeds and gowns of creamy white wool, all presented in the great hall of Linlithgow Palace in Edinburgh. (Chanel had an intimate connection to Scotland, having spent time there during an affair with the Duke of Westminster and while on hunting trips and equestrian excursions with her friend Winston Churchill.) In 2008, Lagerfeld created a Métiers collection inspired by Russia — he named it Paris-Moscou — a place that was home to many of Chanel’s closest friends and inspirations. (Just two? Her longtime lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and her friend Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.) That collection featured embroidered fur muffs, elaborately beaded Byzantine-style headdresses, thigh-high red leather boots and remarkable jewel-encrusted coats, all the result of time-consuming handiwork by the Paraffection ateliers.
Chanel’s first such acquisition, in 1984, was the House of Desrues, a button and jewelry maker founded in 1929 that has, for decades, made Chanel’s emblematic interlocking double Cs, which appear on buttons, fasteners, charms and hardware on clothing and accessories. Chanel’s Paraffection division has since acquired 10 more companies:
1. Lemarié, founded in Paris in 1880, where, from the confines of an atelier in the 10th Arrondissement, craftsmen trim, curl and refine the feathers of swans, peacocks, ostriches and vultures before applying them carefully to, say, the train of a couture gown.
2. Maison Michel, a Parisian milliner specializing in made-to-order hats for men and women since the 1930s.
3. Lesage, where artisans busily stitch glass beads, cabochons, paillettes, sequins and pearls in intricate embroidery designs onto clothing and accessories, in a large, airy space overlooking the Sacré-Cœur church.
4. Massaro, a made-to-measure footwear company whose founder’s grandson, Raymond Massaro, co-designed, with Mademoiselle Chanel herself, Chanel’s famous black-and-beige satin-and-leather pump in 1957.
5. Goossens, a jewelry maker, which has supplied Chanel with baubles since 1953, everything from Byzantine crosses to avant-garde accessories made of silver, vermeil or gold- and silver-plated bronze, all inlaid with semiprecious stones, cultured pearls or coral.
6. Maison Guillet, a couture “florist” founded in 1896, which, instead of arranging real flora and fauna, produces daisies, lilies and gardenias out of silk, organza and chiffon.
7. Montex, a French embroiderer thought to be one of the first companies to use the Lunéville point technique of stitching, by needle, various beads onto a garment.
8. Causse, a glove maker founded in the 1890s, which maintains its own boutique in Paris and supplies Chanel with gloves for its haute couture, ready-to-wear and Métiers collections.
9. The aforementioned Barrie Knitwear, the only non-French company purchased thus far.
10. Atelier Gérard Lognon, a company purchased this summer that focuses solely on intricate, complex pleating of fabrics.
Much like haute couture — in France the term is protected by law to refer only to clothes made by select designers and ateliers that follow a strict policy of making each garment by hand, using age-old techniques — the majority of Métiers pieces are not mass-produced. Hundreds of hours may go into stitching thousands of tiny sequins onto one light-as-air organza blouse, or into fastening hundreds of semiprecious stones onto the lapel of a coat. No number of petites mains (tiny hands), as the embroiderers who work at Lesage are called, could produce such careful trimmings at a pace set to sell on a large scale.
It is hard to imagine now that the skills of the Paraffection artisans were once in high demand. Entire wardrobes brimmed with custom, couture-quality clothing; made-to-measure hats decorated with fine feathers were popular purchases for women and for men. (In 1900, there were more than 300 companies specializing in feather work. Today, there is one: the Chanel-owned Lemarié.)
In the modern world, the fashion cycle spins ever faster and faster. Designers routinely show up to 10 collections a year. Trendy ensembles are worn once, then consigned or donated away. Hence, demand for couture-worthy handiwork at the Paraffection level has decreased, and the struggle for small ateliers to survive has intensified. For many of these companies, Chanel’s acquisition saved a generations-old business and its one-one-of-a-kind craft from extinction. It is, perhaps, a matter of the greater fashion good: Chanel allows each company to work with other houses, including competitors Christian Dior, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Nina Ricci and Balenciaga.
But Paraffection shouldn’t be seen as just a white knight: It must also be seen as a shrewd business. It is, after all, a handicraft monopoly of sorts, controlled by Chanel’s third-generation owners, brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer. Their grandfather, Pierre Wertheimer, who had co-founded Les Parfums Chanel, in 1954 bought out his early partner — the woman whose name is on the company — of the fashion side of the business. The modern-day Wertheimers, who took over from their father, Jacques, in 1996, are private about the value of the company, which Bloomberg recently reported to be $18.5 billion, and their personal lives. Said Gérard to a New York Times writer in 2001: “It’s about Coco Chanel. It’s about Karl. It’s about everyone who works and creates at Chanel. It’s not about the Wertheimers.”
Motives or business acumen aside, the results are tangible: Silk flowers made of 36 hand-stitched petals each will continue to grow. Gowns will still shimmer with the ripple of tiny, hand-sewn sequins. Shoes, made to fit an instep just so, will still be mere fittings away. And those tiny double Cs will still grace the elegant buttons fastening a tweed jacket, just like the one a woman named Coco once wore.