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Q&A: François Lesage

The venerable couture embroiderer shares some thoughts and anecdotes with WWD.

PARIS — In the buildup to fashion weeks, one would be hard-pressed to find a Paris atelier busier than that of François Lesage, the fabled embroidery designer who this year celebrates six decades in the business.

 

As with any date featuring the numbers nine and two, 2009 is a superstitious year for Lesage, the two last major economic crises having landed in 1929, the year of his birth, then in 1992, the year his embroidery house nearly folded.

 

“The orders had all dried up and I said to myself, ‘There’s nothing to do.’ The girls were young and I didn’t want to fire them so I decided to open a school; I preferred to keep them and sell their know-how,” said Lesage, who sold his house to Chanel in 2002.

 

From cutting his teeth as the 20-year-old director of a small embroidery workshop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood that embellished costumes for the likes of Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich, to servicing the dreams of over half a century’s worth of couturiers both big and small, Lesage is a master of storytelling. Here, the venerable creative shares some thoughts and anecdotes with WWD.
 
WWD: What is your anniversary wish?
Francois Lesage: “To come back to a more human rhythm for fashion. You never know if you’re in winter, summer, couture or ready-to-wear, it’s a little exhausting….I’m feeling a little nostalgic. In the day, Yves Saint Laurent and [Cristobal] Balenciaga would travel around the world and go to the theater, they were researching in order to do something new.…Sometimes, young designers come in and say, ‘I want something completely new.’ I say, ‘Listen, I’ve been in this business for 60 years, my parents were in it for 20 more years, and I’ve made maybe 40,000 swatches, my father maybe 20,000, how much percentage chance do you think there is of me making something that has never been made before? Maybe if you wait 60 more years, I will make something.’ I wish for more reflection, less marketing.”

 
WWD: How do you preserve your archives?
F.L.: “Very badly. Have you ever been to the archive department of the Arts Decoratifs museum where you have to put on a plastic hat and shoes? It’s not like that here. These are our tools.”

WWD: How do you archive swatches? (Lesage moves into his storage rooms, opens a cardboard box dated 83-84 and peels off the swatches one by one.)
F.L.: “It’s all up here [taps head]; that’s Bohan for Dior, that’s Patou, that’s Givenchy….That was the time we did fashion. That’s what’s different from today.”

 

 

WWD: Which designer had the most beautiful instinct for embroidery?
F.L.: “I don’t rank designers like in the Olympic Games, dishing out gold and silver medals. My job is to be a chameleon. We’re a bit like a restaurant; we don’t propose meat to a vegetarian. I did teach Christian Lacroix a lot about embroidery, and he acknowledges that. It’s a bit of a joke, but I refer to him as my professional godson. Schiaparelli liked religious embroidery, a bit like 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.’ But still there is one that’s still very present: a panther embroidery for Jean Paul Gaultier. The animal rights organizations wanted to break the windows it was so convincing, but it was made entirely from beads. I’d like to buy that dress and put it on my sofa.”

 
WWD: During the madness leading up to collections, how well do you sleep?
F.L.: “At night, I love to cook but, as with cooking, with embroidery you’re always worried that what you’ve served up might not be appreciated, and I’m always very anxious about that. I go to sleep and then, poof, around three or four in the morning I’m wide awake. Then I go into my kitchen and fix myself some foie gras or soup.”

 
WWD: How do you wind down?
F.L.: “One of my greatest loves was my horse, Tarzan, an Arabian. She was a fabulous mistress and I used to travel around entering jumping competitions with her. Unlike other horses, Arabians sleep lying down, and at night I would go to sleep with her in her box. I also used to love flying airplanes but I have no time for anything now.”

WWD: Do you ever plan to retire?
F.L: “I don’t know the meaning of that word.”

 

WWD: How has the ascent of ready-to-wear changed things?
F.L.: “Ready-to-wear is different from couture; it’s boring. With couture, you take the fabric and you caress it. It’s like poetry. 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.”

 

 
WWD:
Can you share one of your biggest tense moments?
F.L.: “One day we were working on a wedding dress in white organza for a client of Christian Lacroix, and Marie Martinez [the house’s director of couture] kept calling to see when it would be ready. Anyway, one of my team was holding the dress with a cigarette, and the next thing I know he comes in — he’s burned a hole in it at thigh level. I call Marie Martinez and I say, ‘I have the most incredible dress to deliver to you, the girls have even threaded a hair in the embroidery for good luck, but we’re so enamored with the piece that we’d like to offer to sew the bride’s initials on it as a gift.’ We waited and waited for an answer and then finally received a call saying that the bride was delighted with the idea and off went the dress with its initials [over the hole]. Afterwards we received mountains of flowers, pastries and Turkish Delight!”

WWD: Do you have any regrets?
F.L.: “Yes, not having met Poiret. I can say I closed the eyes of Madame Vionnet, though, my mother was an assistant for her….And 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…”

 
WWD: Who is the most terrifying designer you’ve ever encountered?
F.L.: “Mrs. Schiaperelli, she was something! You could tell the mood she was in by the mood of her secretary Miss Klein. Mrs. Schiaperelli would say ‘It’s very funny because everybody is scared of me but the son of M. Lesage, who laughs at me.”

 

 
WWD: Do you consult a clairvoyant?
F.L.: “Of course I do. It’s a metier in which we are very superstitious. I also know how to read palms.”

 
WWD: What would the world be without embroidery?
F.L.: “What would July 14th be without fireworks?”