The history of the Chanel jacket began more than 60 years ago when, determined to liberate women from restrictive corsets and bulky skirts of the 1950s, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel took to designing a new suit, elegant yet sufficiently informal to be worn all day long.
By eliminating the folds on the bodice, removing the lining and straps and adding pockets, she gave life to a timeless design with an emphasis on lines, structure and functional appearance.
"Allowing women to move comfortably, without having the feeling of wearing a costume", was the hardest part of her work, said Chanel. Her primary objective was to create garments that did not alter "the attitude or the ways" of those who wore them.
The raison d'être of the Maison Chanel remains mostly unchanged today, and the same can be said of its iconic jacket. Since Karl Lagerfeld was appointed artistic director in 1983, this piece has been redefined and reinterpreted in a myriad of different fabrics, including leather, faux leather, combined with clothes, jeans and swimsuits. The most current example is the Chanel 2018 Fall/Winter high fashion collection, presented last Tuesday at the Grand Palais, in an exquisitely Parisian setting that reproduced the "Bouquiniste" stands located along the Seine.
One of the key looks of the collection was a two-piece suit made of angora wool presented in a blend of grey, brown and amaranth and embroidered with more than 225,000 sequins. The label's Look 39, a sparkling reimagination of timeless Chanel savoir-faire, is modernized with zipper details and designed to make a statement wherever it is worn, not only by virtue of its rich décor, but also because it took more than 1000 hours of labor for the piece to be hand sewn.
During the weeks that preceded the parade, we went behind the scenes of Chanel's haute couture atelier, 31 Rue Cambon, to witness the life of the extraordinary Look 39, from sketch to catwalk.
Atelier Haute Couture Chanel, 31 Rue Cambon.
After climbing the famous mirror stairs upon which Madame Chanel sat during the presentation of the collections, we are led through another ramp before we can reach the house's high-fashion ateliers, located on the very last floor of the building. Flooded with natural light, the space proudly features vintage pictures of Chanel at work fitting famous customers. A procession of chosen few, fundamentally instrumental in preserving and passing on the Maison's heritage and tradition, is arranged around a series of tables and dummy models: they are hired to rigorously and meticulously hand-sew the garments' final details. The atmosphere here is one of intense concentration: you will literally hear a pin drop in this atelier.
There are a total of 4 workshops of about 50 seamstresses each, plus a smaller atelier, the "Galon", which is used for finish and decorations. Two studios are dedicated to the so-called "Flou", where there is a dialogue between garments and precious fabrics including tulle, organza and chiffon, while the other two studios specialize in tailoring fabrics.
The "première", the older seamstress, presides over each atelier, overseeing a total of 70 looks every season. It is Madame Jacqueline's atelier that we visit this Monday morning.
Madame Jacqueline: première haute couture at Chanel.
Having worked in high fashion since the age of 15 years, Madame Jacqueline Mercier is, without a doubt, a kind of fashion oracle; she is able to handle the impressive amount of work with incredible aplomb, up to the crucial last days preceding the show. It takes at least ten years, she explains, "to master the Trade" and it has been 30 years since she was "consecrated" première, 25 of which she spent working for Karl Lagerfeld (five years at Chloé and twenty at Chanel).
"Mon Dieu! A nice path," she says. "In addition to learning everything first hand in an atelier, I graduated from fashion school to perfect my skills in cutting and sewing. I was fortunate to meet people who taught me a lot and allowed me to grow with them, and it was Karl who allowed me to grow at Chanel."
At Mercier's side, three "seconds" (Première assistants) work diligently. Next to them are a trio of apprentices "who are extremely important as they are those who will carry on the tradition of the atelier." But, she adds, "It's getting harder and harder to find qualified people."
Everything starts with a sketch
"Karl gave me a sketch of the Look 39 around June 10 and we started designing it immediately," says Mercier. Have many changes been made to the jacket during the process of creation? No! I am very proficient in what I do," she bluntly lets us know. "I've known Karl for quite some time, I know what he wants. His sketches are very clear, very explicit. And it helps a lot."
The sketch comes to life
From the sketch, Mercier and her team create a prototype made out of calico and known by the name of "Toile". When a look is assigned to a main premiere, she is entirely responsible for it and usually overseas the completion of the work from start to finish. "We experiment with volume and proportions until the prototype accurately reflects the sketch," she lets us know. "And we present the prototype to Karl on a model so he can tell us if he wants any adjustments or changes to be made." Comparing the toile and the finished jacket you get a feel for how the design developed and the garment was put together.
From calico to elegant embroidery
The definitive fabric is decided once the Toile is presented to Karl Lagerfeld and the style office's director, Virginie Viard. The ateliers work in close contact with the Métiers d'art (Chanel's artisan partners). For this Look 39, the assembly settles on a brown, grey and amaranth angora wool, embellished with over 225,000 sequins from Maison Lesage. This embroidery house (formerly known as Michonet) has been in business for over 160 years, and in the past the atelier supplied the father with haute couture Charles Frederick Worth, while collaborations with Chanel began when Karl took the lead in 1983.
The toile is transformed into a flat paper pattern so that the design can be carved into the final chosen fabric. This is then carefully stitched piece by piece, delicate embroidery on each seam to conceal them from view, while Karl Lagerfeld examines and controls the various stages of the process, focusing his incredibly precise eye on more than one occasion on the smallest of details.
On Monday night the skirts, jackets, clothes, hats, gloves, shoes and bags finally come together to give life to completed looks. Then, a final retouching takes place: the last buttons and decorations are added, all through the night, with Mercier bringing in a second team of fresh hands to complete the night shift.
At 10 o'clock on Tuesday, the 67 looks that comprise Chanel's 2018 Fall/Winter high fashion collection are finally paraded down the catwalk. Over 986 hours of hard work went into the single creation of Look 39. "In general, the same seamstress completes a particular design from beginning to end; it becomes her own creature," says Mercier. "When the show finally takes place, we are so excited that we end up shedding a few tears."
The following day, we return to 31 Rue Cambon as the customers attending the parade arrive at the atelier for their appointment with the Première.
A high fashion garment can cost over 100,000 euros and customers can buy a worldwide, exclusive right on the garment. However, if a design is made more than once for different customers, Chanel's sales department makes sure that they are not part of the same social circle, or live on the same continent in order to minimize the risk that two people will arrive at the same party with the same dress.
The curtain now closes on this fashion week for the season but —as they say— at 31 Rue Cambon, "The show must go on".