Fashion

An Intimate Look at Chanel Métiers d’art

In the days leading up to the Egyptian-inspired 2018/2019 Métiers d’art collection at the Metropolitan Museum, Chanel gave us a rare look inside the maisons responsible for creating masterpieces.
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The sound of hammering comes in staccato volleys followed by pauses of pin-drop silence. If there is an air of intensity to the proceedings it’s because in two weeks to the day, the golden leather shoes being crafted in the suburban Parisian workshop of Massaro will be worn by models—musician Pharrell Williams and Kaia Gerber among them—walking in Chanel’s 16th Métiers d’art collection, an Ancient Egyptian-inspired ode to New York City to be shown underneath the sandstone ruins of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the 12 métiers d’art owned by Chanel under its Paraffection subsidiary, Massaro has been making shoes since 1894. Acquired by Chanel in 2002, its current workshop is housed in a complex along with several other maisons in the working-class neighborhood of Aubervilliers. As Massaro’s Artistic Director John Etienne Pratt describes the relationship between the various métiers and Chanel, “We just try to make art pieces each time we do something, and we're lucky that Chanel give us the possibility to do so.”

Chanel first began acquiring the métiers d’art in 1985, with the purchase of Georges Desrues, the button maker and costume jeweler founded in 1887. A once thriving maison that employed over 400 plumassiers, by 1980 that number had dropped below ten. Broad, far-reaching changes in the economic landscape of France in the ‘80s found small, independent savoir-faire maisons like Desrues facing near-certain extinction and with them, the heritage and craftsmanship they possessed. Many of these maisons also had longstanding relationships as suppliers for Chanel, extending back to the earliest days of the House, and their survival—or demise—would impact the level of quality Chanel’s offerings had become known for. Sensing an opportunity to ensure both the ongoing vitality of these maisons while also ensuring the continued production of its luxury goods, Chanel, under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld, began actively acquiring many of Paris’ most prestigious maisons d’arts.

Fast forward to 1997 when Chanel formed the subsidiary, Paraffection, under which to house its various acquisitions. Today there are 12 métiers d’art (highly-specialized maisons producing hand-crafted pieces) and 14 “producers” (suppliers who provide pieces usually made by machine) that comprise Paraffection. Translated as “for love,” Paraffection is most definitely a labor of love for Chanel, but it’s also a decidedly shrewd business relationship.

It’s a strategy Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion for Chanel, has directed in partnership with Lagerfeld since its inception. Under Pavlovsky’s watch, Chanel formed Paraffection and continued to grow its portfolio of acquisitions. Speaking from his private room at Soho’s Mercer Hotel the day before the New York show—the entire hotel booked out to accommodate the influx of Chanel’s top brass—Pavlovsky speaks glowingly about the successes of Métiers d’art. “Chanel is about product. Product is about design. We have the best designer in the world,” Pavlovsky notes. In stark contrast to the fast fashion of the “see-now, buy-now” generation, the pieces produced by the métiers d’arts for Chanel add what Pavlovsky believes is an emotional dimension to them, a quality he feels luxury consumers, now more than ever, seek out. “I believe more and more in the future this emotional value will be the success of the luxury market,” he ventures, “If you lose the emotion, you will lose the value and that’s something we believe very strongly in at Chanel, and we need to keep that.”

"What we create here is an art form, one that should be touched and worn.” —Hubert Barres

But, beyond the opportunity for “emotional” investment, the consolidation of the maisons under the auspices of the Paraffection afforded Chanel the opportunity to further expand the house’s line of consumer offerings. Enter the Métiers d’arts collection from Chanel. The premier collection was shown in 2002 at the house’s flagship on rue de Cambon. Two years later, the decision was made to associate the show with a world city drawing inspiration from storied locales and adopting the “destination” aspect that it now takes (Dallas, Tokyo, Rome, and now New York have all had their turn at playing hosts for the show). As Pavlovsky frames it, the unique nature of the collection allows Chanel to offer yet another line in the already demanding calendar that determines fashion’s seasonal cycle. “I think that Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard were quite happy to develop this collection at the time of the year,” Pavlovsky continues, “It's not couture. It's more than ready-to-wear. It's quite sophisticated and very much inspired.”

A further sign of Chanel’s commitment to supporting the métiers d’art as well as the other producers brought under the Paraffection umbrella came in late 2018 when the company broke ground on what will become a 275,000-square foot complex near Porte d’Aubervilliers. Designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, the campus will gather together the majority of Paraffection’s 26 maisons, creating a centralized hub of studios, workshops, and archives. With a completion date set for 2020, the métier’s d’art for now remain spread out over several locations, including Pantin, Paris, and Aubervilliers, where, along with Massaro, the maison of Lognon is located.

With its origins dating back to 1853, Lognon—today run by the great-grandson of the maison’s founding namesake—specializes in the pleating of fabric, incorporating techniques that have changed little since the beginning of the 20th century. Freshly ironed fabric is laid flat, and parallel to Kraft board molds impressed with pleat-designs of dizzying complexity—there are some 3,000 such molds in Lognon’s “library”—before being tightly rolled into the mold (imagine the fabric as the swirl inside a roll), before being baked at varying temperatures and times according to the fabric used. Once cooled and unrolled, a pleated textile emerges, the folds “backed” into the fabric. Sitting behind a broad work table inside the Lognon studio, a young woman with a pencil and notebook before her was experimenting with pleat patterns, folding a sheet of cardboard in what can only be described as a truly maddening take on origami. When asked how long she can spend on a single design, she pauses before answering nonchalantly, “It can take anywhere from an hour and a half up to two weeks.”

“If you lose the emotion, you will lose the value and that’s something we believe very strongly in at Chanel” – Bruno Pavlovsky

About ten minutes’ drive away in the neighborhood of Pantin, a second métiers d’art complex houses several more maisons, including the embroiderer Lesage as well as the plumassiers Lemaire. Founded in 1924, Lesage has provided a variety of embroidery services for Chanel since it first began working with Gabrielle Chanel at the beginning of her career. Among Lesage’s most recognizable contributions are the hand-loomed, a signature textile that Chanel has become synonymous for. For the current Métiers d’art collection, a team of embroiders was to be observed bent and huddled over slate frames, silently hand-sewing intricate Egyptian motifs—the Eye of Ra, Papyral fronds, and rays evoking burial tomb murals dedicated to the Pharaoh Akhenaten—into swaths of delicate fabric stretched taught.

Leading the tour of the workshop facilities was Hubert Barres, the maison’s artistic director. As vibrant and as effervescent as the sequins and beads that have become his trade, Barres cuts a jolly figure across the studio floor. When pressed as to his feelings about Chanel’s stewardship of Lesage under the Paraffection subsidiary, Barres’ response is line with the replies produced by his counterparts at the other maisons. In short—excited. “I think Chanel was, and is, visionary. Why, you ask?” pausing to offer notes to one of the embroideries before continuing, “because they have always recognized the value of ‘know how,’ what we call savoir-faire in French and the necessity for excellence and creativity.”

Back in Barres’ offices, surrounded by towering walls containing over 70,000 embroidery samples, some of which are over 150 years old, he offers a response that perhaps sums up the entire raison d'être for Chanel’s greater ambitions with the metiers d’art. When asked about the number of hours his team may spend embroidering a single garment, Barres replies: “Honestly, it’s not interesting for me to say how many hours goes into a single piece. If you tell people that, they have this reaction to push away from such pieces, to say ‘I can't have that,’ or ‘I can't touch that,’ and this is the opposite of what I want to create for Chanel. What we create here is an art form, one that should be touched and worn.”

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