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PARIS — François Lesage, the fabled embroidery designer who executed a vast tapestry of commissions for over half a century’s worth of grand couturiers and young designers — from Cristóbal Balenciaga to Jason Wu — has died in Paris at the age of 82.
This story first appeared in the December 2, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Lesage made his last public appearance last week, looking frail but jovial at a ceremony during which he was awarded France’s honorary distinction of Maître d’Art. He had been fighting a long illness, Maison Lesage said Thursday.
“He was revered as a passionate, exceptional and good-humored personality,” it said. “He completely reinvented the world of embroidery by successfully experimenting with and using new materials.”
Hubert Barrère, who earlier this week was named Maison Lesage’s new artistic director, officially took over his functions Thursday.
Valentino Garavani credited Lesage with opening his eyes to the art of embroidery. “He was capable of creating the most extraordinary masterpieces for all different designers, from the most traditional to the avant-garde ones. You would give him a design or an idea, and there was no limit to beauty,” he said.
French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand also described Lesage as an innovator. “He was one of those people who make you aware of the slim border between art and craft,” he said. “He was also known for his generous spirit and waggish humor.”
Sidney Toledano, chief executive officer at Christian Dior, said Lesage personified all the virtues luxury brands extol: excellence, savoir faire, craftsmanship and artistry.
“He had a sense of fashion. He was a master,” Toledano said. “If somebody deserves that title, it was François Lesage.”
Lesage, who during his long career came to be regarded as the king of his trade, saw himself as a chameleon, a facilitator of dreams, whatever their dimension. “We’re a bit like a restaurant: We don’t propose meat to a vegetarian,” Lesage told WWD in an interview two years ago. “Schiaparelli liked religious embroidery, a bit like [Christian] Lacroix. Yves Saint Laurent was fabulous to work with — we had such complicity — as is Karl Lagerfeld. The trick with Karl is to follow him around the Galignani book store and then go to the counter and say, ‘I want what he’s having.’”
Lesage also had a close relationship with Lacroix, whom he liked to refer to as his professional godson.
“He was one of the most important encounters in my life, and only one hand is enough for counting them,” a rueful Lacroix said Thursday. “It was a deep relationship, more than just friendship or collaboration.”
Lacroix called Lesage a “master” and a “unique artist” whose generosity was equal to his talent, which was mesmerizing. “For me, the magic of a stone placed by him in-between a burnt sequin and a painted crystal is priceless,” he said.
“His career marked a turning point in the couture era,” Lacroix continued. “But he kept helping young houses and designers until the end, sharing his experience and generosity. Then came the business era, when skill, talent and genius became nothing compared to bottom lines.”
Ready-to-wear, as it became more luxurious over the past decade, became an increasingly large part of Lesage’s business. But his true love was couture.
“With couture, you take the fabric and you caress it. It’s like poetry,” he said. “You work side by side with the designer and when you see they’re a bit foggy, like London, we’re there to blow the fog away.”
Lesage, whose name, like Champagne, has come to symbolize luxury, was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian distinction, in 2007.
A workaholic to the end, Lesage lived and breathed embroidery, learning the tricks of the trade at his parents’ sides in the Lesage ateliers.
His parents, Albert and Marie-Louise, acquired the company in 1924. Founded in 1858, the house, originally called Michonet, was an embroidery supplier to a number of early 20th-century couture greats including Charles Frederick Worth, Paquin and Madeleine Vionnet, for whom Marie-Louise had worked.
François Lesage’s early encounters with such formidable couturiers made a lasting impression on him.
“Mrs. Schiaparelli, she was something! You could tell the mood she was in by the mood of her secretary, Miss Klein,” he recalled. “Mrs. Schiaparelli would say: ‘It’s very funny, because everybody is scared of me except for the son of Monsieur Lesage, who laughs at me.’”
Keen to carve out his own career, the young Lesage headed to Hollywood, where he became the director of a small embroidery workshop on Sunset Boulevard that embellished costumes for the likes of Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich. But the experience was cut short by his father’s death, which saw him take up the reins of the family business in 1949.
The ambitious entrepreneur set out to woo the big fashion names of the day, such as Pierre Balmain, Balenciaga and Jacques Fath, all the while pushing the boundaries of his field by experimenting with new materials and techniques.
His client base quickly grew, with Lesage establishing an open-door policy to generations of designers big and small, classic and eccentric. Investing in future generations, he was known for his generous support of young designers.
Anne Valérie Hash said recently that she loved the fact that whenever she visited his atelier, Lesage, “with his twinkly eyes,” would always get more excited than the designer about any commissions he was working on. “He’s a big kid in his soul,” she said.
Like many in the industry, Lesage, who managed to navigate his business through a number of recessions, had a clairvoyant and liked to read palms. In 1992, the year his embroidery house nearly folded as orders dried up during the major economic crisis, Lesage opened an on-site embroidery school, L’Ecole Lesage, as a way of keeping his petites mains, or little hands, occupied during the drought.
Lesage sold his house to one of his main clients, Chanel, in 2002. Lagerfeld once remarked of Lesage: “I cannot imagine fashion without embroidery, embroidery without Monsieur Lesage.”
Bruno Pavlosvky, head of fashion at Chanel and president of the Maison Lesage, said: “Chanel and Maison Lesage are committed to perpetuating the exceptional know-how that he bequeathed to his embroiderers and this will pay the greatest homage to his talent as an artisan of art.”
Lesage had an encyclopedic knowledge of his trade, and took a pragmatic and instinctive rather than precious approach to his work. He could walk into his stock room, pull out a shabby storage box at random and, in a glance, cite the collection it was made for. When asked how he preserved his archives, he retorted: “Very badly. Have you ever been to the archive department of the Museum of Decorative Arts, where you have to put on a plastic hat and shoes? It’s not like that here. These are our tools.”
When asked if he had any regrets, Lesage, a playful bon vivant and natural born storyteller, said: “Alexander McQueen, that was a flop. We worked together once on his first collection for Givenchy, and it didn’t work out. He delivered a sketch of a blue dress and he wanted a sparkly comet on it with a star at the shoulder….But when it was delivered I got a call from him — he didn’t speak French — shouting that it was not at all what he’d asked for.”
Throughout all the highs and lows, Lesage’s passion for embroidery never waned. Accepting his Legion of Honor in 2007, Lesage said: “Embroidery without a dress is like a book without a reader, but a dress without embroidery is like Bastille Day without fireworks.”
Lesage is survived by his son, Jean-François Lesage, who in 1993 in Madras opened his own house specializing in embroidery for interiors.
Services for Lesage are scheduled for Dec. 7 at 10:30 at l’Eglise Saint-Roch in Paris.