December 1, 2011 was a sad day for those in the fashion industry. Master of Couture embroidery, François Lesage, aged 82 passed away after a long battle with illness. M. Lesage was a true visionary in the fashion industry.
Tucked away in the attic rooms of a five story building, overlooked by Sacre Coeur, you will find Lesage, Europe’s most celebrated beadwork and embroidery house. These tiny rooms hold drawers and boxes filled with more than 60 tons of beads, sequins, threads and 100 year old jet. Here, over 50 women are employed to create the intricate embroidery and beadwork seen on the haute couture gowns that line the Parisian runways.
Since taking over the family business in 1949, François had been the head of the world's most famous embroidery salon. Although he admitted that he could not thread a needle let alone sew a button, the Lesage atelier produced over 80% of all beadwork and embroidery seen on the couture runways. Under Lesage's leadership, the house had acquired such prestigious clients as Dior, Yves Saint Laruent, Givenchy, and Christian Lacroix.
When hard times hit Lesage in 2002, Chanel bought up the atelier along with four other atelier's of the industry’s key suppliers as part of its bid to ensure the survival of the "petites mains," or artisans. François still stayed on as head of Lesage and oversaw the daily productions of the house until his death.
With an embroiderer father and fashion colorist mother, Lesage joked that he was "born on a mound of pearls and glitter". Mr. Lesage was revered for maintaining the couture craft and its tradition of making every stitch and attaching every bead by hand. Unfortunately, hand beadwork and embroidery is a dying trade. The number of artisans is diminishing for a few reasons including, crafts workers retiring, a younger generation unwilling to carry on family tradition, and cheaper labor being available overseas. M. Lesage was a leader in trying to revive the craft and keep the tradition going when he opened Ecole Lesage.
Lesage founded his embroidery school, Ecole Lesage, in 1992 next to his Paris workshop to pass on the craft to the next generation. I attended Ecole Lesage in 2009 for the Professional Couture Embroidery and Beadwork course, and was truly lucky to meet M. Lesage a few times. There were two times when he walked through the classroom and personally checked my work and embroidery stitches. I feel honored to have been able to meet such legend. Inside the Lesage atelier, I had the opportunity to see hundreds of vintage embroidery samples originally made for designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.
Even though M. Lesage no longer owned the atelier, he was still very much involved in the designing and daily running of the atelier. I also saw him attending the past few Chanel runway shows in Paris where he was known for sharing insights with front-row neighbors on the craftsmanship in the clothes.
A week before his passing, Lesage was awarded the title of Maître d'Art, "art master" by the French culture ministry, giving him a chance to "say goodbye", said a spokeswoman for his workshop. He was also made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur in 2007.
I hope Lesage will continue to thrive as France's oldest and most well known embroidery atelier in honor of François Lesage. Couture beadwork and embroidery is one of the most beautiful and intricate art forms that transforms fashion into wearable pieces of art.
The atelier will continue on under the direction of Chanel, and continue to produce beautiful couture embroidery pieces for the fashion world.