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Behind the Paris haute couture masterworks lie the fabled workrooms. Hamish Bowles meets the highly skilled tailors and dressmakers whose wizardry makes the magic real.
"I wanted to be considered a good craftsman," wrote Christian Dior of his spring 1947 debut collection. "I wanted my dresses to be constructed like buildings, molded to the curves of the female form, stylizing its shape." Dior's sensationally feminine and romantic clothes—a provocative challenge to the dominant broad-shouldered, man-tailored wartime silhouette—won him instant celebrity. But it was to Dior's directrice technique, Marguerite Carré ("Dame Couture," as he dubbed her), that much of this early success must be attributed. It was she who transformed Dior's rapid, impressionistic sketches into three-dimensional desire, employing a roster of dressmaking techniques both innovative and archaic to interpret his vision. More than six decades later, when John Galliano looked at images of those clothes to inspire his own fall haute couture collection for the House of Dior, it was these same skills that a new generation of technical wizards employed to bring his fantasy to life.
Mme Marguerite was poached by Dior from the House of Jean Patou, wooed with the promise of the technical direction of his entire fledgling house. Traditionally, in the hierarchy of the haute couture workrooms, with its courtesy titles and unquestioning respect for the designer king, the premières (heads) are responsible for a single workroom, where they specialize in either flou (soft dressmaking) or tailleur (tailoring). "The people who work with chiffon can't work with tweed," says Chanel's head tailor, Jacqueline Mercier, firmly. "It's a question of sensibility." Head dressmaker Cécile Ouvrard (who trained at Christian Lacroix with her mother, Janine Ouvrard) agrees: "Each worker has a different hand, like artists. There are girls who are better with chiffon, others with velvet, others lace."
Today, an estimated 200 women buy regularly from the Paris couture, where a Chanel suit takes 150 hours to make, requires three fittings, and, with a smattering of embroidery by the fabled Lesage, can edge toward a $100,000 price tag (elaborate evening gowns can soar beyond that figure). A best-selling Chanel suit may be ordered by ten or fifteen clients, though chez Lacroix, for instance, only one model of each evening dress is sold per country. Guiding them in their choices are the vendeuses, or salesladies, who, with their directrice de la couture, coordinate the client's requirements with the fitter and her seamstresses to make them a reality. This relationship "is a question of trust," says Dior's ineffably chic directrice, Catherine Rivière. "You need to know her body," adds Raffaele Ilardo, Dior's head tailor. "She knows you know every fault and every quality. It's like being her doctor!"
In the couture ateliers, the atmosphere is one of single-minded focus and industry. Mobile phones are forbidden, and the garments in progress are shrouded in white cotton capes to protect them from dust, light, and prying eyes. Battalions of headless tailor's mannequins are padded in the exact measurements of clients to facilitate the fitting process. In most houses, the seamstresses and tailors wear clinical white lab coats and pochettes as pendants containing the little scissors, thimbles, and skeins of thread that are the tools of their trade. At Lacroix a map of the world is stabbed with pink-ribboned pushpins to indicate where the fitters have traveled for their clients (Lacroix is planning to take the collection to Russia later this year; Chanel took theirs to China in 2006). On the atelier walls are thank-you letters from clients and photographs of weddings and balls. Among the many bridal portraits at Lacroix is one of Catherine Zeta-Jones, inscribed, "To my dear ones at the House of Lacroix. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The couture's technical talent pool is limited and mobile. Dior's M. Raffaele, an earnest young man who comes from a Neapolitan tailoring family, trained and worked at Chanel for a decade with M. Paquito, a legendary and demanding figure. ("He was so extraordinary about collars," recalls Deeda Blair, "and would caress the stitching of the inner canvas into curves that made them stand away. He admired your selection and was flattering, or gave a subtle glance of disapproval if you tried on something unbecoming.") Dior's première of the dressmaking atelier is Florence Chehet, who in her turn apprenticed with Mme Gilberte at Givenchy. "The technical base is the same throughout the couture," says Martine Houdet, one of Chanel's head dressmakers (Chanel has two ateliers flous), "but after that you need to learn the technique of the house."
At Chanel, M. Raffaele notes, Karl Lagerfeld's exquisite sketches are so precise—every seam and pocket clearly marked—that he often doesn't need to see a complete toile (the cotton-calico version of the garment made to confirm that it represents the designer's vision before the precious fabrics are cut). For Galliano, the process is evolutionary: Each garment is constructed in toile form three times, often undergoing radical developments at each transition. "The greatest challenge is to find the exact forms, the volumes, that M. Galliano wants," says M. Raffaele. "It's a work of mutual confidence and understanding, a real collaboration with the creator. Each season he goes further and further. For me, the most satisfying moment is to see in M. Galliano's eye that he recognizes what he wanted." "John knows that even if he suggests something 'impossible,' " adds Rivière, "it will happen."
Christian Lacroix also encourages ideas from his technical staff. He begins with an impressionistic sketch, sometimes nothing more than an outline or draping fabric in a suggestive way, and then his premières realize their own interpretations in toile form. When he has seen these, Lacroix produces a second sketch that fuses both his original concept and the workroom's rendition. "With M. Lacroix we are free to interpret," says head dressmaker Martine Berger. "He likes little mistakes that give a twist." This season the technical innovations included neoprene lining to give the airy, bouncing effect Lacroix once achieved with horsehair, organza, and buckram in the pouf dresses that defined his look in his earliest collections. Mme Martine, a veteran of 42 Lacroix collections, trained under Marc Bohan at Dior, where she made "beautiful classics," she remembers. "With Bohan, there would be four dresses more or less the same in different fabrics. Here, each piece is different. With Lacroix's first collection I thought, Who will buy this? But we had so many orders we had to turn some clients away!"
A Chanel seamstress who worked for the house when the formidable Gabrielle Chanel herself was still in command once said that they never saw her, except on the stairs, where she kept an eye on things in the mirrors. Some things—according to the seamstress—like the stitching of the chiffon linings, the little chain to weight the jackets—are Mlle Chanel's techniques, but others belong to Lagerfeld. This year, Mme Cécile had a week to experiment with his organ-pipe inspirations, and three more to create the eighteen models assigned to her workroom of 25 seamstresses (during collections that number rises by as many as fifteen, in a desperate bid to finish the clothes in time, given France's mandatory 35-hour working week). "Each collection is a reinvention," she says.
Jean Paul Gaultier, who trained with the couturier Pierre Cardin, decided to produce a couture collection in 1997 with an atelier staff of two. To his surprise, a clientele materialized, and thus his couture house was born. He generally dispenses with the toile process altogether. "Jean Paul says that the toile doesn't talk," says Françoise Bavant, a première main qualifiée. "He likes to see the garment in the fabric itself, and for all the draping we do here, it's very difficult to have a sense of how the real fabric will react when it's in the cotton toile." Gaultier's is the only couture establishment with an in-house embroidery workroom, although his techniques can depart from tradition. "It's not always sewing with a needle and thread. Sometimes you need pliers, steel wire, and plastic!" says Fanny Thinselin, like Bavant an experienced seamstress who worked on the sculptural hoops and crinoline cages that provided a leitmotif in Gaultier's fall collection.
The designer's caprices must be indulged at all costs. "We have to efface ourselves entirely and absorb the spirit of the designer," says Chanel's Mme Cécile. "They are artists, and one must interpret what they want." At Givenchy, the directeur des ateliers, Richard Lagarde, remembers with pride "a delicate embroidered chiffon dress" that was completely finished and perfect in every detail. Too perfect, in fact, for designer Riccardo Tisci, who, to the horror of the workrooms, dipped the whole thing in water to achieve the distressed finish he felt would give it the necessary edge. To Lagarde's astonishment, "All the clients wanted the dress just like that—more raw!" He remembers the mid-century glory days when he worked with the young Yves Saint Laurent at Dior: "It was a dream. Clients would come from New York to Paris and stay two or three months for their fittings. We have dressed mothers, and now we dress their daughters. The mothers didn't work. They knew their social schedules—when they had a ball coming up, the dates of the races. But their daughters work; they are on planes the whole time." States Dior's Rivière, "A modern approach has to evolve with modern times. Our clients now lead faster lives. I want couture to be alive, to be young!"
"Handmade's Tale" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the October 2008 issue of Vogue.