American dames aux camellias

Christa Worthington finds out why Chanel's famous bloom is suddenly all the rage among the ladies of New York
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Indy Lifestyle Online
European luxury fashion houses used to look to America as the place to sell, sell, sell. But as the people from Chanel found out recently, the latest trend among upper-class Americans is to make, make, make. In today's America, the sign of real privilege is having the time to create aesthetically pleasing objects one formerly might have preferred to buy. And so it was that cultures clashed at Cooper Hewitt, America's national design museum in Manhattan.

On one side were the people from Chanel, including the artisan Mireille Thuillier, a specialist at making Chanel's signature white silk camellias. The Chanel posse's purpose was to encourage America's wealthy that fabric flowers retailing at between $135 and $680 are worth the money.

On the other side were throngs of well-dressed and wealthy New Yorkers - Upper East Siders, New York matrons and rich-kid schoolchildren among them - with their notebooks, rather than their wallets, in hand. Their purpose: to learn the tricks of the trade.

Americans are currently obsessed with "how to". Rather than rushing off and buying, they want to "invest experientially" in the neglected art of living. Crafts have become hugely popular activities, so much so that the two-day celebration of French luxury craftsmanship staged at Cooper Hewitt attracted 1,200 people. Thuillier was the star attraction as she showed the ladies how to make the Chanel camellia, part of the Chanel arsenal of accessories ever since Coco herself was wooed with white flowers by her one great love, Arthur "Boy" Capel.

The ladies watched Thuillier (who was on her first-ever trip to the United States) with rapt attention. But their agenda was at odds with that of Chanel. As Thuillier worked, dressed in the professional white coat of the Paris atelier seamstress, it became clear that these women had plans to copy her moves at home.

"What kind of glue is that?" asked finely attired ladies, over and again. "Regular glue," shrugged the purse-lipped Chanel press officer, attempting to discourage them. On occasion, the press officer had to retrieve Thuillier's custom-made ball-pointed stick, used to shape the petals, from over-eager examination. One woman had to be ordered to desist from tracing petal shapes on to her note paper.

But some mysteries were kept from non-French-speaking Americans. "How long does it take to make a single camellia?" was the question asked in patrician Upper East Side tones over and over again. " One hour," said Chanel's press officer. But Thuillier, who began this handiwork at 14, added in French that went untranslated that she worked on 10 flowers at once. She worked on nimbly, with the fluidity of movement that comes from 30 years' experience, while socialites fired questions about glue-drying time, how many layers of petals and whether they could buy one of those little ball-pointed sticks in a store.

Later, Thuillier said she was impressed by the "can do" enthusiasm of America's wealthy. But she was disappointed by New York's buildings because she thought they would be taller.

As crowds gathered around Thuillier, who was sitting in front of a Chanel poster featuring Claudia Schiffer and two strategically placed camellias, another Gallic craftsman worked on in peace next door. His skill: how to make barrels for fermenting Remy Martin cognac. The days of prohibition, when tricks of the trade of home distilling would have been most welcome to many, are evidently long forgotten.

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