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  • Kate Hopkins-Searle

Where real luxury happens

Instead of writing about what I've been up to in my studio (atelier) I thought I'd reproduce an article from the Sunday Times Luxx magazine this weekend. I have reproduced the entire article by Anna Murphy because I thought it was so interesting in the way it illustrates what true craftmanship is and how we often mistake a high price label for luxury when really an item that has been handmade by an artisan is true luxury. Clearly it resonates with me because I often wish that it could be more appreciated that art work not only takes hours and hours to produce but is also the result of years and years of training and learning one's skills and techniques.


IT’S NOT ON THE CATWALK BUT IN THE ATELIERS WHERE ARTISANS STITCH, PLEAT AND BURNISH, SAYS ANNA MURPHY.


“There’s a ubiquity to luxury these days. The word gets bandied about a lot, as do the products and experiences that it is seen to describe. Never has luxury been so available. What was once for the few is now if not for the many, for the more.

The world is full of expensive things to buy. But how many of them are luxurious in the strictest sense? Most of the best-known luxury brands started out a century or so ago as city-specific family businesses producing small quantities of handmade goods. You paid for what you got: the very best raw materials; superb craftsmanship; an exclusivity predicated on the fact that only your small peer group would have anything remotely similar.

These days luxury products can be mass produced. The mark-up on a bag can be 10 to 12 times the production costs. The price tag is often not so much about the thing itself as about buying into the prestige of the brand that sells it. (Not to mention funding the vast marketing budget that uphold said prestige.)

Along the way we have lost sight, in the realm of fashion at least, of how very expensive the properly luxurious can be. Work that is done by hand takes many hours and many hours can quickly mount up to stratospheric amounts of money. But because of the mechanisation of the industry – a world of expertise, of artistry, is under threat. What an irony it is that during this bumper epoch for billionaires, who could easily pay the high prices associated with handmade fashion, some of the finest craft specialists in the industry would probably have gone to the wall without Chanel.

The brand has bought, one by one, the maisons that once divided their labours among the diverse couturiers of Paris, from the feather workers of Lemarié to the embroiderers of Lesage, by way of the pleaters (yes, pleaters) of Lognon. A Lesage piece, for example, will take on average 500 hours to complete, and can take up to four times that.

Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show, held every December, was conceived to highlight the collective expertise of these maisons. Last year the occasion was used to unveil a building known as le 19M, a vast new temple in which the artisans are housed. AS for the collection, here was a cunning redeployment of supposedly retro techniques in inimitably 21st century ways, be it the jewelled graffiti style logo on a tweed bomber jacket or the jeans with pleated hems.

The maisons “share with me their savoir-faire”, Virginie Viard, Chanel’s artistic director, said after the show. “They make our creations sublime.” As for the artisans, I give you Julie Bastart, 33, who has been a feather worker at Lemarié for 11 years. “Chanel’s support allows us to express ourselves, and demonstrate our savoir-faire,” she said, echoing Viard.

Savoir-faire. It’s a term that was used more than once by Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, when we spoke backstage in January before her couture show, a subtly sumptuous celebration of the expertise in her house ateliers. It wasn’t the only French term that was playing on the mind of the Italian designer that day, however.

We need, she said, “to come up with a different way to refer to the so-called ‘petites mains’ who work in the couture ateliers. [Most of whom are women.] It’s not as if I make a sketch, and then the premier makes the toile, and then the rest just happens. It’s a collaboration. These people are experts. They are amazing. It’s not a second job or something. We need to find a new name for them.”


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