In Pantin, a dreary Paris suburb that is home to the complex which houses five of the eleven savoir-faire maisons acquired by Chanel since 1985, ominous storm clouds are gathering. But once inside, the gloom of the day instantly evaporates. Scenes of riotous colour and activity appear as if from nowhere, as hurried craftspeople dash along brightly lit corridors, opening discreetly labelled doors painted in the same off-white as the walls, leading into cornucopias of creativity.
Each maison is a global leader in its métier, from Lesage’s unimaginably dense and intricate embroidery to Lemarié’s exquisite feather and flower creations to Maison Michel’s ethereal millinery. The craftsmen and women who work in them, turning designs into dreamlike confections, are fashion’s unacknowledged geniuses.
Not long ago, many of these businesses, along with the vast repositories of knowledge they safeguard, were facing extinction. As manufacturing left Europe for emerging markets, many traditional Parisian maisons failed to innovate, retaining business models particularly susceptible to cash- flow problems rising from constantly changing tastes and unpredictable demand.
Exacerbating the problem, sourcing craftspeople to keep the ateliers alive proved increasingly hard as generations of better-educated graduates sought employment elsewhere. Georges Desrues, the costume jeweller and button maker founded in 1887 and acquired by Chanel in 1985, once employed 400 plumassiers. By 1980, that number had dwindled to five.
“Ten or fifteen years ago it was not clear that we could find such a level of craftsmanship. We questioned: ‘Can we keep the façonniers, the ready-to-wear manufacturers? Will they continue to exist? Was it possible to find a new generation interested in this métier?’ At that time a lot of them were near retirement,” explained Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, speaking of the in-house ateliers that craft Chanel’s high-end fashion collections.
The threat was even more acute at the independent savoir-faire maisons, which lacked Chanel’s brand and deep-pockets to mount effective recruitment initiatives. “The workshop is different. It is tough. Young people may learn, stay four years and decide to move, because they want to go quickly,” said Philip Atienza, managing director of 120-year-old shoemakers Massaro.