Sunday, December 4, 2011

Maison Lesage

Francois Lesage, 1929-2011

An illustrious career came to an end on December 1, 2011 with the death of M. Francois Lesage.  Born into the world on haute couture it was only natural that he would devote his life's work to a passion that he had inherited from his forefathers.  He once stated that he knew that there would only be one career in his life for he had been born amongst the embroidery threads and beads of the atelier.  

The Lesage family can trace their association with the craft of embroidery back to the court of Napoleon III and perhaps earlier than that.  Michonet et Lesage began as furnishers to the Emperor and his consort Eugenie, a great patron of the house of Worth.  It was Michonet, who at this time, we can associate with the field of embroidery.  Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century the family and firm appear to be connected to the developing couture business as embroiderers, textile merchants and modelistes.

In 1924, Albert Lesage and his wife, a modeliste for Vionnet, establish the Maison Lesage and begin to develop the patronage of designers Paul Poiret, Jeanne Paquin and most importantly Elsa Schiaparelli.


It was the Italian designer Schiaparelli who provide the firm with its most daring creations.  Her association with the surrealist artists Jean Cocteau, Salvatore Dali and Leonor Fini, along with photographer Man Ray, influenced the designers collections throughout the late 1930's.  Elsa organized her collections into themes such as, "Pagan 1937";  "Zodiac", "Paris" and "Circus" in 1938 and "Music" in 1939.
detail, "Circus" 1938
In the above example, notice the influence of Jean Cocteau in the embroidered vase detail created by the two profiles.  This was created in simple chain stitch, by using a tambour needle.  The ribbon roses demonstrate the increasing relief of applied decoration.  This will be the forerunner of the great incrusted effects of the Maison Lesage's latter works in the 1950's and '60's.

"Music" 1939
The white silk organza dress (above) from the "Music" collection of 1939 was embroidered in polychromed metallic threads and foil embroidery.  The belt buckle is actually a working music box!
Matching evening gloves

Evening Cape, 1938
This evening cape created specifically for Lady Mendl demonstrates the successful marriage of client, designer and technician.  Responding to Lady Mendl's interest in the 18th century and her propensity for theatrical design, Schiaparelli reinterprets the Neptune fountain in the park of Versailles into the more contemporary machine aesthetic of the international style.  The embroiderers at Maison Lesage employ platinum coloured sequins and threads against the black velvet ground of the cape with a touch of gold to capture the ormolu figures of the baroque fountain.

Evening ensembles, 1937
The evening ensembles consisting of embroidered jackets over plain skirts rely heavily on the techniques of the 18th century.  Once again, Lesage and his client work together to infuse a contemporary feeling, thus avoiding the possibility of creating a "costume".  Notice the buttons.  Wider shoulders and interesting buttons are the characteristics of Elsa's work at this time.
Embroidery detail
It is not an over statement to say that Schiaparelli sought out and preserved many centuries old embroidery techniques that might otherwise have been lost.  Through her patronage, firms like Maison Lesage were able to employ the finest of craftspeople to create the 17th and 18th century technique shown below.  Using a wide metal strip,(think of the Christmas tree tinsel of our youth), called, Lama, over thick pads of cotton wool, the work is raised above the ground providing a sculptural quality to the design.  This metal strip is quite sharp and great care must be taken not to damage the base cloth or twist  and tear the strip.
Jacket detail, 1938
Lesage and the New Look:

From the late 1940's through the first half of the 1960's the demands on Maison Lesage would have been great.  Many designers chose to work exclusively with textile mills and specialist ateliers.  The demand for glamour, in an age that still dressed appropriately for the time of the day or social event, meant that post war production would resume at a level not seen since the 1920's.  In the example below by Jacques Fath, a contemporary of Dior, tufts of mink have been appliqued along with gold bullion.  The result, a bust line resembling the prow of a ship, becomes softened by the organic lines of the decoration.
Jacques Fath, 1952

Balenciaga, 1958
The evening gown above, created by Balenciaga, is of pale pink tulle embroidered with 3 dimensional flowers of satin.  The Balmain gown below, of ivory satin is embroidered with gold bouillion, beads, sequins, crystal rhinestones and gold paillettes.  To Balmain, to be simple was to be elegant.  If this is simple than all I can say is, "play on".

Balmain, 1955
A simple sheath of coral cotton lace, in the hands of Hubert De Givenchy and Lesage, becomes a show stopper in coral and coral-coloured beads.  The gown literally becomes encrusted and is both severe in its line and yet ornate in its feeling.

Givenchy, 1963
While feather embroidery had been employed in the previous decade, as the 1960's progress it will become a particular favorite of Givenchy.  Eventually through the late 1960's and into the early 1980's it will be the dominant form of applied embroidery.  In this dress, the white silk satin of the bodice is overlaid in pink net which has been embroidered with pink crystals and feathers.  The feathers create the impression of a peplum or even a dropped waist line.
Detail of embroidery
A New Generation:

The mid 1980's will see a return to the heavy use of beading as surface embellishment.  In the hands of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, new and exciting interpretations will continue to challenge the workshops of Lesage and breathe new life into an old art form.

Yves Saint Laurent "Crocodile" jacket, 1986
Working closely with Laurent, Francois Lesage devises a new technique that sets off these large sequins anchored at an angle to better interpret the look of a crocodile's skin.  The result is a sweater-like jacket that moves with the body much like a second skin or armor.
Detail of sequin placement
While working for the House of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld plays on the iconic suit developed by Coco decades earlier.  Through the clever use of embroidery he turns the construction inside out and allows the  sequin beading to imitate the quilted interiors of the former couturiers suit linings.
Chanel, by Karl Lagerfeld

Lagerfelds love of embroidery will lead to his purchase of Maison Lesage in 2002.  Under the auspices of the House of Chanel, his goal was to preserve and encourage the continuation of this art form.  Contemporaries such as, Chado Ralph Rucci have continued to use these techniques in exciting and contemporary ways, thus reflecting the arts and modes of the day.  Consequently, the designers and the craftspeople who so successfully interpret their visions, have continued to make the art of Maison Lesage relevant for the 21st century.

Chanel, 2011

Chado Ralph Rucci
The Legacy:

In 1992, Francois Lesage established a school of embroidery in Paris where the individual can learn to master these techniques.  Whether for leisure or professional training, the art form that he loved so well and dedicated his life to, will continue.  

The workrooms, Maison Lesage