Stitch by stitch: A closer look at couture

Just what is it that makes couture so special? Gemma Hayward takes a closer look

Walking into Paris' Grand Palais last week, guests arriving to see what Karl Lagerfeld had dreamed up next for the Chanel couture show were greeted by a dense forest of oak trees and a sand covered floor – a whimsical vision with the magnificent glass-domed roof as a backdrop to the towering greenery.

So where do designers get their inspiration for such flights of fashion fantasy? “I saw it in my dream, made a sketch, and worked it out,” Karl Lagerfeld said after the show. But the business of couture is very real. “It's down to us, but in a collection you forget about the dream and focus on the job,” he continued. “Dress-making is a job and people have to make those things. I don't know how they have the patience. One of those embroidered dresses takes 2,000 hours. I don't know how they survive, it's horrible, all those threads, zillions of hours.”

Couture is a skilled art form, and Chanel's collection is handmade by some 200 craftsmen and women employed by the house with the addition of the speciality ateliers of its Paraffection affiliate. Its acquisition of Barrie late last year meant that the Scottish cashmere company joined the feather house Lemarié, the embroidery firm Montex, the embroider Maison Lesage, Goosens the jeweller, the shoemaker Massaro, the milliner A Michel, the button specialist Desrues, the flower house Guillet and the glove maker Causse.

But where the failing economy would have you believe that demand for the incredibly expensive (said to be £50,000 upwards for a gown) is on the wane and such extravagant purchases would become extinct, business is actually thriving. “When [fashion patron] Pierre Berge said that couture is dead, I'm sorry to tell him it survives very well,” Lagerfeld says. “There's a new clientele. In the past, a woman might have bought four or five dresses. Now those women buy 30. It's a new wealth.”

For a close-up look at the craftsmanship of couture visit

The black pearl

What looks like a printed pattern on this floor-length gown is entirely embroidered – work carried out by Paris-based embroidery firm Montex which was accquired by Chanel's Paraffection subsidiary in December 2011. The base fabric is organza embroidered with one kilo of black glass pearls.

Scarlet woman

Black and ivory are the signature colours of Chanel, but here they are enlivened by flashes of red – made up of pieces of Rhodoid, a cellulose-based plastic the less glamorous uses of which have included billiard balls and false teeth. Green and white fragments, too, add a dimensional depth to the floral motif.

Skirting the issue

The white hem, sleeves and neck of the dress are made up of 115,000 sequins. The different fabrics were constructed more than 1,150 hours of hand working in the Montex atelier before being taken to the Chanel haute couture atelier for a further 210 hours of construction.

Hooked on embroidery

The embroidery itself was done using the Lunéville technique – a tiny, surgically sharp hooked needle is manipulated above a gauzy fabric with one hand while the other is used to manipulate the thread on the underside of the fabric.

Floral tributes

A sample provided by Karl Lagerfeld was the inspiration for the embroidered pattern. The white orchid petals are delicate white sequins – numbering 120,000 – with 160,000 black sequins (each measuring 3mm) to add further depth and detail to the intricate effect.

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