For many English women, there is nothing more stylish than a French woman. Never mind that some of the most stylish French women are, in fact, English. Take Jane Birkin, the ne plus ultra of French elegance, who has a Hermès bag named after her. She is as English as roast beef.
For the most part, French style is a platonic ideal, just out of reach. It has also become a lucrative marketing tool. English women are flogged countless books with silly names such as French Women Don’t Get Fat or How to be Parisian Wherever You Are. One friend told me she is raising her child ‘à la Parisienne’ because French children are, apparently, better behaved.
Where does this obsession come from? It begins at a young age in school, when learning to order ‘un café crème’ seems the height of sophistication. In history books, Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc are far more enchanting than the men. By the time Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg slink into the picture, the French way of life seems almost unbearably seductive.
Despite the fact that I know it is mostly fantasy, I continue to be charmed by French style. And so it was in this frame of mind that I left London via the Eurostar (how else?) in order to indulge my Gallic reverie further with a visit to Ecole Lesage in Paris.
Ecole Lesage has been creating opulent embroidery for the fashion world since 1924. Hidden away on rue de la Grange Batelière, the school isn’t normally open to the public, unless you are enrolled on a course. It is part of Les Métiers d’Art, the collection of 11 artisan workshops owned by Chanel that provide fashion houses with everything from lace to feathers. The list of designers Lesage works with reads like the first 40 pages of Vogue. Chanel, bien sûr. Louis Vuitton. Christian Dior. Yves Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Cartier. Lesage is highly protective of all the different designs it creates for its clients, and will never reveal to another what is being planned each season. So when teams from the different houses arrive, all the embroidery is hidden away from prying eyes. Fashion is, after all, a vicious game.
In the age of fast, cheap factory fashion, it is easy to forget there is still a market for haute couture, which takes weeks, or even months, to make. I was shown an embroidered design for a Dior dress, about the size of an A4 piece of paper, which would have taken one person two weeks to complete.
I wanted to see how the embroidery was done. One man, who revealed he was one of John Galliano’s best friends (‘He is much misunderstood’) showed me the process. As his hand darted around with an embroidery needle under the delicate piece of gauze, I could barely see what he was doing. But before my eyes a fine silver filigree threaded with tiny glass beads started to appear, as thin as a strand of hair. A Lesage apprentice can expect to undertake five years’ training before they are allowed to start work on an actual design like this. The most glorious part was the school’s collection of 70,000 sample designs dating back to the 19th century. Nowadays, up to 50 different samples can be made by Lesage for one outfit, and all these designs are kept in the archive — as a historical record and also as inspiration for future designers. There are drawers full of exquisite treasures: beautiful white lace dotted with pearls from the 1920s, exuberant sequined flower-power designs from the 1970s. Lesage has recently begun using 3D-printed materials in embroidery work, and these designs will no doubt be looked back on in years to come as an indicator of contemporary trends.
Once the embroidered designs are complete, they will be returned to the fashion houses and stitched on to the latest season’s outfits. After that, they will be paraded down catwalks, photographed for magazines or worn on the red carpet. If a customer wishes to buy a piece of haute couture with Lesage embroidery, an exact replica of the original design must then be made.
Most of us can only imagine owning clothing like this. It is simply out of reach. But the charm of French style is that it provides endless opportunities to dream.
The So Couture package is available via Mandarin Oriental Paris for €2,800. It includes two nights’ accommodation and an embroidery class at Ecole Lesage. For more information, visit www.mandarinoriental.com/paris. Tickets to Paris via Eurostar start from £29. For details about courses at Ecole Lesage, visit www.ecolelesage.fr