As part of my residency in Paris, I enrolled at the Ecole Lesage. New skills, (specifically the use of the luneville hook), were the goal, however it was also a pleasure to partake in the history of Paris' most famous embroidery house:
Lesage is the first name in couture embroidery. Started in 1924 by Albert Lesage, the firm quickly established itself working for Schiaparelli, Chanel and Vionnet. As other embroidery ateliers closed, it was Albert's son, Jean François, who gave the name Lesage staying power and international renown by creating cutting edge looks with top designers including Balenciaga, Givenchy, Dior and Christian Lacroix. Lesage was sold to Chanel in 2002 as part of Chanel's mandate to maintain skills within Paris by acquiring and supporting small ateliers. Jean François Lesage was awarded the Maître d'Art a week before his death in 2011.
I first visited Lesage in 1998 as a fashion student with Ryerson University. We were shown design cards dating back to the time of Schiaparelli and current work underway for John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. The precious nature of embroidery has been diminished by the prevalent use of automated machinery; a fully patterned sequined dress can be mass produced for a reasonable price. However, the delicate and layered embroidery happening at Lesage carries a subtlety, quality and artistic flair unachievable on a mass scale.
If you are interested in attending one of the beginner courses at Ecole Lesage, available in both French and English, do not be daunted if they do not reply to your email requests for an appointment. After three attempts I just went and knocked on the door and they signed me up. The teachers were very personable and the more advanced work going on around me was an inspiration. One of the instructors, Annie Penin, travels to Montreal and NewYork regularly to bring her knowledge from Lesage to a North American audience, you can find out about her courses here.
The photos below show the traditional method for stretching fabric for embroidery, the luneville hook (like a tiny crochet hook, used to attach sequins and beads), practicing chain stitching and the finished project.