The story of the Chanel jacket began more than 60 years ago, when Gabrielle Chanel, on a quest to liberate women from the restrictive bodices and cumbersome skirts of the 1950s, set about designing an elegant yet casual suit that could be worn morning, noon and night. By removing bust darts, stripping away interfacing and shoulder pads and inserting pockets, she created a timeless design with an emphasis on line, structure and function.
“Enabling women to move with ease, to not feel like they’re in costume” was the most challenging part of her job, Chanel said, and so her main objective was to make clothes that didn’t change the wearer’s “attitude or manner”.
The house of Chanel’s raison d’être remains largely unchanged today, as does the design of its trademark jacket. That said, since Karl Lagerfeld was appointed artistic director in 1983, it has been reimagined in a wealth of different fabrics, including leather, faux fur and terry cloth, and styled with dresses, jeans and swimming costumes. This was the case when he presented his autumn/winter 2018 Chanel haute couture collection at the Grand Palais on Tuesday against a quintessential Parisian scene of Seine-side bouquinistes. A centrepiece of the collection was a two-piece suit cut from angora wool in a melange of brown, grey and amaranthe, embroidered with more than 225,000 sequins. Look 39 – a dazzling take on the timeless savoir faire Chanel pioneered, modernised with zip details and intended to create a statement, not only with its dense embellishments, but also leg-of-mutton sleeves and oversized classic collar – accounted for almost 1,000 hours of work.
In the weeks running up to the show, Vogue went behind the scenes at the Chanel haute couture ateliers on 31 rue Cambon to trace the story of look 39 from sketch to catwalk.
Chanel haute couture ateliers – the jewel in the crown that is 31 rue Cambon
After ascending the famous mirrored staircase where Madame Chanel would sit as she presented her collections – concealed from view but observing the responses of her clients in the spliced reflection with hawk-like astuteness – it’s another few flights before we reach the haute couture ateliers on the upper floors of the building. Flooded with natural light, archive photos of Chanel conducting fittings peek out from behind block pattern pieces bearing the names of clients. An army of tailors, all central to continuing the maison’s legacy, are arranged around banks of desks and dressmaker mannequins, fastidiously hand-stitching the final details to suiting; their sense of focus is palpable.
There are a total of four ateliers each with up to 50 seamstresses, plus a smaller atelier “galon” for trimmings. Two ateliers are devoted to what is known as the “flou” – generating a dialogue between the garments and opulent fabrics such as tulle, organza and chiffon – and the other two specialise in suiting. A head seamstress, known as a “première”, presides over each atelier, collectively overseeing a total of up to 70 looks every season. It is to Madame Jacqueline’s atelier that Vogue comes on Monday morning.
Meet Madame Jacqueline – a Chanel haute couture première
Having worked in haute couture from the age of 15, it’s fair to say Madame Jacqueline Mercier is something of a fashion oracle – even the day before the show she is managing her titanic workload with aplomb. It takes at least 10 years, she says, to “master the trade”, and it’s been 30 years since she was ordained a première, 25 of which she has spent working with Karl Lagerfeld (five years at Chloé and 20 at Chanel).
“Mon dieu! It’s been a journey,” she says. “As well as learning in an atelier, I took a baccalaureate to perfect my skills in cutting and tailoring. I’ve been lucky to meet people who have taught me a lot and allowed me to grow, and it is Karl who has allowed me to grow at Chanel.”
Working diligently at Mercier’s side are her three “seconds” – and nearby are a trio of apprentices “who are extremely important because they are ensuring the knowledge of the atelier continues”. Qualified people, she adds, “are becoming harder to find”.
It all starts with a sketch
“Karl handed me the sketch for look 39 around the 10th of June, and we began realising the design immediately,” Mercier says. Have there been many changes in the process of creating the jacket now draped on a stand before us? “No! I’m very good at my job,” she quips. “I’ve known Karl a fair while now – I know where he is going, I know what he wants. His sketches are very clear, very explicit. That helps us a lot.”
Bringing the sketch to life
From the sketch, Mercier and her team create a prototype from calico cotton known as a “toile”. When a look is assigned to a première “main”, that person is completely responsible for that piece, and they usually realise it from beginning to end. “We experiment with the volume and proportions until the prototype accurately reflects the original sketch,” she says. “Then we present it to Karl on a real-life model so he can tell us any further adaptations he’d like made.” Comparing the toile to the finished jacket, you see how the design has been developed and the garment constructed – the leg-of-mutton sleeve has been cropped from the purlicue to the forearm and its volume maintained by an underlay of stiffer fabric.
From calico cotton to elegant embroidery
The final fabric is decided upon when the toile is presented to Lagerfeld and Chanel’s fashion studio director Virginie Viard. The ateliers work closely with the Métiers d’Art (Chanel’s artisanal partners) and for look 39 a brown, grey and amaranth wool angora wool embellished with over 225,000 sequins by the house of Lesage is chosen. The embroidery specialist (previously Michonet) dates back 160 years and supplied the father of haute couture Charles Frederick Worth; collaborations with Chanel began when Lagerfeld took the helm in 1983.
Making the cut
The toile is converted into a flat paper pattern so the design can be cut in the final fabric. It is carefully sewn together piece-by-piece – delicate embroideries stitched over every seam to conceal them, with Lagerfeld reviewing progress on several occasions, honing in on the finer details such as the colour of the lining and zips.
Monday night sees skirts, jackets, dresses, hats, gloves, shoes and bags amalgamated into full looks. Everything still needs a final polish – adding those last buttons and embellishments – so Mercier assembles a second team to work the night shift.
At 10am on Tuesday, the 67-look Chanel autumn/winter 2018 haute couture collection makes its way down the catwalk; 986 hours of work has gone into creating look 39 alone. “A seamstress generally realises a design from beginning to end – it’s their baby,” Mercier explains. “For that reason, when the show happens we are sometimes so overwhelmed we cry.”
The following day it’s back to business as show clients arrive by appointment in the couture salons at 31 rue Cambon, with fittings orchestrated by the première.
A piece of haute couture can cost upwards of €100,000 and clients can buy global exclusivity on a garment. If more than one of each design is made for different customers however, the Chanel sales team makes sure they don’t belong to the same social circles or live on the same continent so as to minimise the risk of two dresses winding up at the same party. Yes, the curtain may have closed on couture week for this season, but the show at 31 rue Cambon still goes on.