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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

...with style and Grace

Grace Kelly by Andy Warhol
Every so often, an event happens in your life that you can recount as if it were yesterday.  So strong was the impact of it that you remember just about every detail of what you were doing when you, "heard the news".  We all have shared these moments in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or the terrorist attacks on the world trade center.  
I was in Europe, when I heard the news of the car crash that took the life of Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.  I had just been in that beautiful principality the week before and so the news was particularly shocking to me.  It seemed surreal and everyone in Europe was discussing it.
Last week I went to the Grace Kelly exhibit at Toronto's Lightbox.  For those of you who are not from Toronto, the Lightbox is the headquarters for the Toronto International Film Festival, (TIFF).  Along with the theaters and gift shop, their is also a small gallery space dedicated to rotating exhibits.  When I first learned that this show was coming to Toronto I was very exited.  I was disappointed that I had missed it when it opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and so my expectations were quite high.  The show had previously premiered at the Grimaldi Forum in 2007 in Monaco and was now in circulation.

Grimaldi Forum, 2007
V & A exhibit
Naturally, I expected to see the entire show from the U.K., but unfortunately the limited space meant that the Toronto show was much smaller and the disappointment didn't end there.  The accompanying descriptive text was vague at best and did little to provide any real insight into the life of the film star or princess.  I found myself wandering through the exhibition space without any sense of direction or purpose.  Along with a collection of correspondence, mostly in the form of congratulatory telegrams, magazine covers and film footage, there were displayed a handful of Princess Grace's dresses from 1956 to 1982.  Unlike the exhibit at the V&A, in Toronto we were not allowed to take our own photographs, so the images you see posted today have been edited from the shows in London and Moscow, with a few taken from the Globe & Mail press release.  

The show opened with the image painted by Warhol of Grace (above) accompanied by a display case containing three pairs of gloves.  The relationship between the two escaped me and all I remember thinking was how small her hands were!  

Exiting TIFF show

Engagement photo, Dior

At right and above (top row) dress worn by Grace on April 18, 1956 for the civil service ceremony performed in Monaco.  The colour was described as, "Ashes of Rose" taffeta under applique of Alencon lace.  If you look closely at the hemline, the lace has been scalloped to allow for the contrast of the silk taffeta to show through.  The suit was designed, along with Grace's wedding gown, by MGM's Helen Rose and exemplifies the tailored look made fashionable by her favorite designer, Dior.

The high light of the show should have been another dress designed by Helen Rose and that, of course, was the wedding dress worn at St. Nicholas Cathedral the next day.  Undoubtably, this dress was the crowning achievement of Rose's career and the finished creation was valued at $7,200 at the time.  It took 6 weeks of work by three dozen seamstresses and consisted of a long-sleeved gown with a fitted bodice with an overlay of 125 year old rose point lace.  The skirt of silk taffeta, peau de soie, tulle and lace was complimented by a circular veil of tulle that contained ninety yards of fabric!  After the wedding Grace donated the dress to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  

Helen Rose wedding gown

I was already aware that the original dress was too fragile to come to Toronto and that a reproduction was to be shown and for me this was the biggest disappointment of all.  Not the fact that a reproduction had to replace the original, I understand the ephemeral nature of textiles, but that the reproduction was so poorly executed.  The textiles were cheap and the skirt did little to support the silhouette achieved by Rose's work.  It looked as if it had been made by one of those cheap knock off houses in the garment district.
Edith Head for "High Society"
If there was any order at all to the show it was the subdivision of Grace Kelly, movie star, from Princess Grace of Monaco.  I understand that the V&A and Moscow shows paid more attention to this aspect of her life which I found ironic considering the venue in Toronto.  The cabana wrap above, worn in a pool scene in the movie, High Society, was the only movie costume included in the Toronto show and only one of two pieces designed by Grace's dear friend, Edith Head.  The other was the dress and coat worn to the Oscar's when she won for best actress for the Country Wife.
Installation at TIFF, Lightbox show

Oscar night
At the Grimaldi, Moscow and Victoria and Albert Museum shows, more examples of the Hollywood connection were included.  One question that the Toronto show did not answer, but which I would have liked to have known, was "Did Grace keep and incorporate these iconic dresses into her own wardrobe or had they been assembled from various outside sources for the purposes of the exhibition?"  Either way, I have included them here, (below).  It seems that the films High Society and Rear Window were the sources chosen for the exhibition halls.  Both examples of the work of Edith Head.
Edith Head, Rear Window
The life of the Princess was told through a variety of sources including film footage taken either by her or of her.  Personally, I found the family vacation movies less interesting than my own.  Standing around in front of a screen projecting the privileged class enjoying their privileges provided nothing more than the opportunity to capture our imagination with the scenes of supposed "normality".  If, as the descriptive text leads us to believe, Grace learned anything about movie making from Hitchcock, it escaped me.  Although I will admit, the yachting and beach scenes were full of sea gulls!

The news footage of some of the Grimaldi's charitable works, including balls, were much more interesting.  Below, the Moscow exhibit had the space to display two costume gowns worn by the Princess at these masked balls.  In the background, you can see an enormous second empire inspired gown worn by Princess Grace in the photo above.

Moscow exhibit
The show did share one interesting and entertaining tidbit.  Grace Kelly was true to her own style which was relatively clean in line coupled with immaculate attention to construction and details.  She saw fashion as an art form and appreciated the technical side of fine craftsmanship.  She was a practical dresser and had a way of choosing the most appropriate ensemble to correspond with the demands of the occasion.  One such incident involves a dress that Grace brought with her when she arrived in Monaco for her new life.  It was a simple floral dress that she had modeled for the pattern company, McCall's.  Not intending to wear this dress to a public reception, she was forced to due to a power outage at the palace.  Her luggage had yet to be completely unpacked and nothing had been pressed.  The only dress that had survived the voyage was the polyester number worn below.  What a coupe for McCall's! You just can't buy advertising like that.
McCall's dress
Once again, TIFF dropped the ball.  While the dress was displayed, the silhouette was lost.  The required crinoline that provides the shape of the skirt was not there!

1955 McCall's catalogue
As both an actress and princess, Grace was in the enviable position to have both the financial resources and occasions to patronage some of the finest couture houses of the 1950's until her death.  Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Rouff all found their way into her wardrobe.  

Left to right. Dior (maternity dress), Balanciaga, Chanel

Photo by Howell Conant
Maggie Rouff
Dior, 1972
As well as clothing, personal items that helped to accessorize the actress' and princess' personal style were showcased.
A collection of personal jewels

"Kelly" bag

One year before her death, Princess Grace wears Dior at a benefit at London's Barbican.  It is here that she meets Diana for the first time.  Ironically, Diana will represent Britain's royal family at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco.
In Dior at the Barbican with Lady Diana Spencer & HRH Prince Charles

As disappointing as the Toronto exhibit was, I am still glad that I made the pilgrimage to worship at the shrine of fashion and "material culture."  Her clothing could have been presented on a rolling dress rack and I still would have discovered a technique, colour or line that would have inspired my own work. 
With the upcoming sale of Elizabeth Taylor's estate at Christie's, in New York, it is hoped that perhaps another exhibit of the fashionable taste of one of Hollywood's icons, will be shared with the public.