October 3, 2005

Embroiderer Preserves Skills Despite Pressure

PARIS -- A tiny glass bead, cut like a diamond with a different color on each side, or a button that took five hours of hand sewing to make.

"You just don't find that kind of thing any more," said Francois Lesage, the 76-year-old head of Paris' top embroidery house, Lesage, which was set up by his father in 1924.

Lesage's workers are the "petites mains" ("little hands") who spend hours sewing beads and sequins onto haute couture dresses costing upwards of $10,000 for designers like Christian Dior's John Galliano or Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld.

But these workers face uncertain times in a world where few women can afford the expensive one-of-a-kind outfits that require hundreds of hours of work.

Paris fashion houses and the artisans that depend on them are also feeling the heat from competition with countries such as India and China and the new technologies they use.

Lesage is fighting to keep the old traditions alive.

His workers, mostly women, sit in light-filled rooms with creaking floorboards, hunched over two blocks of wood with a piece of material stretched between them.

Rows and rows of brown paper packages containing colored beads line the walls and there are 40 tons of supplies, mostly imported from glassmakers in the Czech Republic, in the attic and the cellar.


Haute couture's lean years date back to the start of 1990s, when war broke out in the Gulf after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. The Gulf War was a catastrophe for the top end of the industry, hitting it almost as hard as the 1929 depression.

"Haute couture was asleep. It was totally oriented around the Arab princesses. The more petrol prices went up, the more the princesses bought dresses," Lesage said.

"But there are fewer princesses now because of the climate with the Iraq war, the war in Lebanon and problems with Israel. It's not how it used to be."

The princesses were by far the biggest buyers of haute couture and there were hundreds of them.

Now, there are only about 200 haute couture clients left in the world, mostly people with new wealth -- movie stars in the United States, Russians and a handful of Japanese.

Newly rich Indians and Chinese, flush with cash from their countries' booming economies, are eagerly awaited but their money has yet to arrive.

As the market shrinks, the number of houses producing haute couture outfits has dwindled to five or six regulars and Lesage has been forced to undertake layoffs. In 1990, he employed 100 people and now he only has 50, including 30 embroiderers.

There are now only four houses like Lesage's left in Paris with about 200 trained embroiderers across France compared to 20,000 before World War One, Lesage estimated.

In the early 1990s, Lesage's business ate up 40 years of savings in just a few years as demand dropped off.

The market picked up again with the development of top-of-the-range ready-to-wear collections and his workers now put more finishing touches to these outfits than to haute couture. But competition is fierce.


Some Italian designers who used to come to Paris have started to take their embroidery to cheaper workers in India.

Lesage said Indian workers lacked the creativity that made French embroiderers stand out.

"We are in a period where embroidery is everywhere. India is suitable for development of embroidery but they are big imitators," he said. "That's the big difference. In school in France, they see works of art, things made by Picasso. Everyone here is a bit their own designer."

In 1990, Lesage founded a sewing school to pass on trade secrets and make sure the French skills did not die out.

"We had people who did braiding, making knots and tassels, it's a real skill, and those ladies died taking their secrets with them," he said.

That is also partly why in 2002 he sold up to fashion giant Chanel, one of the key players in haute couture.

"The head of Chanel said these artisans will disappear. The day they're not there any more, we're going to compete head to head with the Italians, the Japanese and the Koreans," he said.

To try to preserve couture, the French government in 2001 relaxed the strict rules governing everything from the total of "petites mains" per workshop to the number of outfits presented on the catwalks.

Chanel has bought up five of the industry's key suppliers, including Lesage and milliner Michel and produces a special collection every year to showcase the skills they have.

And Lesage thinks getting the big firm's backing was key to his company's survival.

"Haute couture isn't French, it's Parisian ... We've complained a lot about the big fashion groups, but it's not possible at the current time to run a house if you don't have a big financial backer."