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.

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own