MBA Luxury Brand Management

MBA Luxury Brand Management
Class of 2016-2017

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Day at Maison Lesage

 By Anne-Claire Gillig, MBA in International Luxury Brand Management 2013-2014, France

A few weeks ago our class visited the renowned Maison Lesage in Paris. If it needs any introduction, the Maison Lesage is an embroidery house purchased in 1924 by Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage from Monsieur Michonet, an already well-established craftsman. Later, their son, François Lesage, took over the family business, which he sold to Chanel in 2002. When François passed away in 2011 the “petites mains” (literally “small hands”) – as the embroiders who work in the shadows are called – lost a father, but their know-how continues to be passed on through the “Ecole Lesage” located in the 9th district of Paris. 

This is where another day started for us MBA in International Luxury Brand Management students. At Lesage, we were walked through an overlapping history of fashion and Maison Lesage that gave us a taste of the close, life-long partnership between craftsmen and the glamorous fashion scene. I appreciated that the presentation was so well crafted that it appealed to all of us, whether we already had extensive knowledge of fashion history or whether we were newbies in the field.

Learning about all the passion and work behind my favourite fashion shows, particularly the one where Yves Saint Laurent revisited the work of Van Gogh, was extremely compelling. “For this collection, Yves Saint-Laurent wanted to have volume. He wanted to give the impression of actual grapes growing on the shoulders of the model. We had to be creative and come up with a solution,” explained Cécile from Lesage. Another photo from a fashion show portrayed a model in an outfit with about a dozen fans sewn on it. Cécile shared its story with us : “That day, two hours before the show, the designer said ‘I want fans’. Two embroiders from Lesage were instantly dispatched to the show’s premises. They worked until the very last second when the model stepped onto the catwalk, most likely with a needle still attached to her dress!” After hearing these anecdotes, I figured that the people at Lesage are not only super-skilled craftsmen, they also have to be creative, humble, flexible and must possess an acute sense of service.

We then took a bus to Lesage’s workshops in Pantin. There, we took a tour of the atelier and were
introduced to some of Lesage’s embroiderers. Our visit took place right after the end of fashion week and everyone was rather quiet; most of them seemed tired, but all I could see were passionate people whose faces lit up as soon as they started speaking about their job. “During fashion week we often work until one or two in the morning and sometimes we need to stay all night long,” said a senior embroiderer. “It takes 3 years of apprenticeship to learn the trade and 5 years to be able to complete a job autonomously. But this is a beautiful job.” He concluded, “It requires a lot of focus and passion. Time flies and we don’t even notice.” We were then introduced to a lady who specialized in weaving with a few samples of Chanel’s signature tweed behind her. “We always try new things. This is a sample of woven zippers. I’d always wanted to try it, so I did and then we showed it to Chanel.” Although Lesage belongs to Chanel, their employees are strongly encouraged to work for other fashion houses. This enables the embroiderers to stay creative and constantly research new materials. No wonder Chanel is so keen on protecting their craftsmen; it really is a partnership.

The most impressive room in the workshop was most certainly the archives; the entire history of Lesage in 60,000 pieces, all wrapped up and labelled in boxes. It was impressive to see and touch pieces, some more than 100 years old, intact and in vibrant colours. Each sample is unique and can only be proposed to a single fashion house. Even if the designer eventually turns it down, the samples remain exclusive and cannot be shown to another house. “Trust is the basis of our business,” explained our guide. “A couture house wouldn’t like to see samples that were initially designed for them in the collection of another maison. And you never know, they might change their mind about a sample they turned down at first.”

Back at Lesage’s school after lunch, we were treated to an actual embroidery class, a first for me.  Although I was tremendously excited by this activity, I very soon started to feel pain in my neck and discomfort in my back. I inquired about how the daily job affects the embroiderers’ health.  “Of course it’s a painful job. It’s terrible for your neck and your eyes. But it’s a beautiful job and I love it. I wouldn’t change it in the world,” said our embroidery teacher, herself an embroiderer for 30 years. After 3 hours of work, I left the room with a delightful feeling of achievement and the ability to say, “I made this.” Beyond the thrill and pride of seeing the result of a few hours of work, I feel I have a better understanding of Lesage’s craftsmanship, the “petites mains,” and how much value they create for the business of luxury fashion. This ancestral know-how requires time, patience, passion, expertise and attention to detail. Hundreds of hours of handmade work are necessary to achieve what is called “couture.” One thing is sure: if tomorrow I have to sell a 200 000€ couture dress and have to explain how the price of a garment can be so high, I will have an answer.