Once upon what might now seem like a pretty long time ago, Singapore model/KOL/aspiring pop musician Iman Fandi embarked on an adventure with FEMALE: her first Paris Fashion Week experience back in March earlier this year. Across the span of about six days, the 20-year-old and cover girl of our February 2020 Music Edition – in which she revealed her musical ambitions – got to see the likes of a Chanel fashion show (“it has always been a dream of mine to”) and met entertainment royalty such as Yolanda Hadid. (Click here for a peek at some of Iman’s Instagram moments and the upbeat equestrian-influenced Fall Winter 2020 collection by Chanel artistic director Virginie Viard.)
The trip also saw the Malay-South African beauty travel to a quiet commune right outside of central Paris known as Pantin for a special, exclusive-to-selected-guests-only expedition: Visit some of Chanel’s metiers d’art. To use another fairy tale analogy, the metiers d’art are a little like the seven dwarves to the Snow White that is the French luxury giant. Translating more or less to “artistic trade”, the term refers to the ateliers of which specialised artisanal (read: hand-done) crafts are integral to the house (click here for a crash course on them).
Since 1985 – under a subsidiary company called Paraffection – Chanel has been acquiring metiers d’art such as the 96-year-old embroider Lesage (maker of the brand’s famous tweeds) and the plummasier Lemarie (maker of Chanel’s camellia appliques and brooches since the ’60s), owning to date a total of 27. These ateliers are the main machines behind Chanel’s haute couture collections (like the recently revealed Fall Winter 2020 punk-inspired edition) all while continuing to supply to other fashion houses – the main point of Chanel’s acquisition is to help these studios keep their time-honoured savoir-faire alive and relevant.
It’s also why in 2002, the late Karl Lagerfeld introduced to the Chanel lexicon the annual Metiers d’Art collection that shows off-season (usually in December) and hits boutiques around July (yep, that means the latest instalment is in stores now – see it here in our exclusive July 2020 cover story with Chanel fit model Amanda Sanchez). Traditionally inspired by a particular destination that’s linked to the house in some way (think New York, where Coco Chanel was said to have made her fortune, or Hamburg, birthplace of the Kaiser), it’s not a couture collection per se. Instead it’s meant to spotlight and celebrate the work of the various metiers d’art studios.
For about half a day in March this year, Iman spent her time exploring the intimate workshops of Lesage and Lemarie, seeing the likes of how artisans from the latter craft Chanel’s signature camellias individually, petal-by-petal. “All the flowers might seem identical, but each one is as good as custom-made,” says Iman. “People might wonder why they’re paying so much for luxury goods. Now I understand why.”
She also not only got to visit the atelier of costume jeweller Goossens – who used to create pieces for Coco Chanel and her home – but also met its artistic director Patrick Goossens, whose father founded the business in 1950 and was famous for his bold, eclectic designs that drew references from the likes of Egypt and the Byzantine era. “I’ve always liked brands that place great value on kinship and history,” says Iman. “He told me how Goossens is a family-run company – just like Chanel – and it was very heartwarming to hear how it’s been passed down from generation to generation for so many years.”
The most magical room on the tour of Chanel’s metiers d’art for Iman though is what she calls “the memory box” room: a chamber with rows of drawers across every wall, every one bearing the name of a brand and a particular collection. Each contains swatches of embellished fabrics that went into the making of the said collection and remains a source of inspiration for the artisans as they work on new commissions. Says Iman of the visit: “I might be Gen Z, but I am very interested to see and understand fashion from past eras and how these designs get updated to appeal to different tastes.
“The world keeps charging forward and people tend to want the new and modern, but there is still a desire and need for history and timelessness so it was cool to see how the artisans at the metiers d’art merged the past and the future together… That’s one thing that I really like about Chanel – it moves with the times, but remains true to itself and what it stands for.”
Spoken like a true princess.
The adventure with Iman continues. For now, learn more about the workshops of Goossens and Lemarie below and how they put both craft and glamour into Chanel’s Paris-31 Rue Cambon Metiers d’Art collection (our picks here) that’s in boutiques now.
Joining Chanel’s family of metiers d’art in 2005, this 70-year-old workshop was founded by Robert Goossens who earned the nickname “Monsieur Bijou” for his rich, imaginative and innovative costume jewellery. Influenced by art and ancient cultures such as the Byzantine empire, he honed a distinctly eclectic style and was known for his use of unexpected materials such as wood, shell and natural rock crystal, combining them with both precious and non-precious metals to create jewellery that defied categorisation.
This unorthodox approach caught the eye of Coco Chanel – herself an avant grade when it came to jewellery design – who regularly commissioned him to create pieces for herself and her home. Today the workshop is run by Patrick Goossens (Robert’s his dad), who summed up what it does best: “We make neither jewellery nor fashion accessories. Our creation exists only through our freedom of tone, of expression, and because of the fact that we know how to turn our classic training into fantasy. And this rigor for quality, this excellence will remain our trademark.”
Any guesses what they’re modelled after? (Hint: Be all ears for the answer.)
Coco Chanel had a soft spot for ear-of-wheat motifs (the famously superstitious designer saw it as a symbol of prosperity), inspiring the house of Goossens to create these ornately carved drop earrings.
Another original creation by Goossens for the house of Chanel. it features various combinations of metal, strass and pearls in one supple piece, held together via knotting and cup-chain techniques to ensure that the necklace will sit perfectly and comfortably on the neckline.
Originally a plumassier that dates back to 1880 and was favoured by the Parisian society set for its elegant feathered hats featuring a wide variety of prized plumes (all ethically sourced btw), this workshop added the craft of making fabric flowers to its repertoire in the late ’40s. Every year, it reportedly creates at least 40,000 hand-made blooms; its most famous client being the house of Chanel that has been commissioning it to create its signature camellia brooches since the ’60s.
Till today, each Chanel camellia is made the same way as it has always been: with at least 16 petals, each crafted using fabric and metal and moulded by hand with a curling iron to create its signature sculptural form.
The flirtatious flourish on an otherwise sombre skirt suit is made of black ostrich feathers and calls for eight hours of work to complete per garment.
A total of 2,000 ostrich feathers and 85 man-hours are needed to create the flamboyant hemline on this upbeat, ’70s-inflected coral cocktail number.
One of the collection’s most hyped-about pieces is even more collectable when you zoom in.
It’s actually covered in pearls and little flowers crafted from imitation leather, the entire finish taking 38 hours to complete.
The result of a whopping 60m of ostrich feathers and 135 man-hours
Calling for 80 hours to complete, the cape is embroidered entirely with white feathers to recreate the delicate look and feel of camellia petals. Meanwhile the silk muslin “tail” on the tweed skirt is adorned with floral braids also done by Lemarie.
Lemarie’s behind the silk organza ruffles on the cape (total man-hours needed to complete them: 135) as well as the silk crepe logo on the top that’s finished with yarn in a contrasting colour and tiny white cotton camellias .
Sometimes the simplest of things are indeed anything but. To create this chic and youthful, could-be-worn-every-day silk organza skirt, Lemarie embroidered its entire surface with feathers – a process said to take 35 hours – before applying on black camellia motifs and some of Chanel’s most iconic logos. (The belt, btw, is embroidered with gold chains and metallic ear-of-wheat motifs by the Chanel-owned metiers d’art Lesage.)
The jacket sports pearls and a total 410 white silk camellia flowers, calling for 272 hours of work to complete, while the row of blooms running down the front of the satin skirt is similarly the work of Lemarie.
Videography Phyllicia Wang Editor Noelle Loh