AT Paris Fashion Week, when a designer takes a bow at the end of a fashion house’s couture show to the rapturous applause of the world’s press, that designer does so on behalf of a team of specialist artisans who help make the couture dream a reality. These artisans are the best of their kind in the world and often focus on a very specific area of couture; buttons, perhaps, or feathers.
They operate behind the scenes but they’re at the very heart of haute couture (that’s French for “high dressmaking”), so much so that when Dior found itself without a creative director after John Galliano was dismissed in 2011 for an anti-semitic rant, the dozens of artisans responsible for making the clothes took a collective bow at the end of the 2011 show in his place.
Couture houses understand that they are nothing without the seamstresses and craftsmen who turn their designers’ sketches into wearable creations, and no house goes out of its way to celebrate that work more than Chanel.
Since 2002, the legendary French label has exhibited its Metier d’Arts collection each year in December, a collection which celebrates the skills of the “petites mains” (“little hands”) behind the scenes. Each year, that collection looks to a different city (and is often held in that city) for inspiration. There was the Paris-Monte Carlo collection in 2007, Paris-Moscow in 2008, Paris-Shanghai in 2009, Paris-Byzance in 2010 and Paris-Bombay in 2011. And for 2012, we have Paris-Edinburgh. Or, to be more specific, Linlithgow. This very special collection will be shown on Tuesday evening in the spectacular setting of Linlithgow Palace, and if previous Metier d’Arts shows are anything to go by, it will be a celebration of a very Scottish aesthetic. While Chanel are keeping mum when it comes to revealing any details about the collection, rumours abound of sporrans inspired by the iconic 2:55 handbag, tartans, tweeds and cashmere. The latter seems a certainty since Chanel acquired the Hawick cashmere mill Barrie last month, following the collapse of its owner, Dawson International.
Chanel has worked with Barrie for more than 25 years, and the purchase was designed to safeguard the mill’s future. It will continue to operate independently and supply both Chanel and other top fashion houses. Barrie is the latest of a series of small artisan suppliers Chanel has purchased with the specific goal of keeping their specialist skills alive, and it is the work of these suppliers that will be exhibited on the catwalk come Tuesday.
These ten small companies are owned by Paraffection (which translates as “for the love of”), a subsidiary company of Chanel established in 1997 to preserve and promote their heritage. Take Lemarie, for instance. In 1900 there were more than 300 feather workers operating in Paris. By 1960 there were around 50. Today, Lemarie is practically the only one left in all of France, and in an effort to preserve this unique art form, Chanel purchased the 130-year-old company in 1997.
Then there’s milliner Michel, button-maker Desrues, boot- maker Massaro and goldsmith Goossens. Lesage and Montex deal with embroidery, while Causse makes gloves. Guillet manufactures delicate, hand-made fabric flowers – a couture coat can feature as many as 5,000 of them.
All these tiny companies have been bought by Chanel to safeguard their future and all spend thousands of hours making their contributions to pieces of clothing which sell for tens of thousands of pounds. Significantly, all still supply to Chanel’s rivals, fron Dior to Yves Saint Laurent.
So what can we expect from the 2012 Metier d’Arts show? It always uses a key destination in the history of the company, a place held, for whatever reason, in the affections of Coco Chanel. In 2008, the Paris-Moscow collection paid tribute to the costumes she created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; in 2009 it went to Shanghai, a nod to her fondness for Chinese artisanship; while in 2010 the Byzance collection referenced her early work with Byzantine-influenced jewellery.
A spokesperson for Chanel said that creative director Karl Lagerfeld chose Linlithgow Palace for his latest show because he is “inspired by the rich heritage of Chanel in Scotland, and the skilled craftsmanship of Scottish tweed and cashmere, that are an integral and iconic part of Chanel’s collections today”.
Coco Chanel had an affair with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s and the couple spent a lot of time at Rosehall, the Duke’s Highland retreat. She borrowed his tweeds and cashmere jumpers, and loved riding and fishing. Her experiences in Scotland are sure to be heavily referenced, and there is some speculation that Lagerfeld will also take inspiration from Mary Queen of Scots, who was born at Linlithgow Palace. The large white ruffs she wore were a source of inspiration for Coco Chanel.
The show is rumoured to be taking place in the Palace’s imposing courtyard, with a bespoke glass roof to keep the weather out. The guest list is top secret but will include the international fashion press, buyers and celebrity friends of the brand. Whether these will include Brad Pitt – the current face of Chanel No 5 – and his partner Angelina Jolie remains to be seen.
Regardless of who’s sitting in the front row, however, it’s not celebrities who will be the star of this particularly starry show. Karl Lagerfeld will bow and wave at the end, but he does so on behalf of the hundreds of “little hands” who sew and weave and create their very fashionable brand of magic which keeps the world of haute couture alive.