François Lesage: Doyen of French haute couture embroidery

 

The doyen of French embroidery, François Lesage worked with many of the fashion world's élite haute couture designers, including Cristobal Balenciaga, Hubert Givenchy, Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

A self-professed bon viveur, who enjoyed the company of his many girlfriends, despite being married, Lesage was synonymous with the highest quality of embroidery. He captured the imagination and outlandish fantasies of his clients, creating pieces such as Yves Saint Laurent's six-figure 1988 "Van Gogh" jackets, John Galliano's thousand-hour embroidered dresses for Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix's most lavish couture fantasies with theatrical spectacles, based on Bizet's Carmen or L'Arlésienne.

"Yves Saint Laurent may call and say, 'I want snakes, crocodiles and alligators,' or Claude Montana may call and say, 'I want sand,'" Lesage said. "Our role is to be chameleons... We receive a sketch and it is up to us to interpret. The couturier is the architect, we are the decorators." Lesage believed that having dealt with and observed fashion designers' egos for decades, he could be an ambassador at the United Nations.

Born on the outskirts of Paris in 1929, Lesage was the son of Albert, an embroiderer, and Marie-Louise Favot, a fashion colourist; he joked that he was "born on a mound of pearls and glitter" and said that it never occurred to him to do anything else. As a baby he was bounced on the knee of the Italiandesigner Elsa Schiaparelli.

A few years earlier his parents had bought the embroidery studio of Albert Michonet, founded during the Second Empire as the embroiderer to Napoleon III. Michonet produced embroideries for Charles Frederick Worth, often considered the founder of couture. At 19, François was sent to Los Angeles to learn English. Welcomed by the French expatriate community, he quickly found his feet and using his father's designs established Lesage-Sunset Boulevard. The business prospered and created pieces for the Hollywood élite including Lana Turner, Eva Gardner and Marlene Dietrich. "Marlene liked figure-hugging dresses," he recalled. "She wanted embroidery that transformed her body into a jewel. It was a pleasure to work for her."

With the death of his father a year later he returned to France to take over Maison Lesage, which had fallen on hard times. Over the next 60 years, Lesage turned the enterprise around and into the best known atelier, though he had to adapt. In America all he had had to do was adapt his father's designs, but in France, things were different: "I had to learn that in business we don't impose anything on the designers. They want to be the origin of everything."

With the rise of ready-to-wear, Lesage expanded production to include embroidery for many American designers, among them Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta.

Throughout his life, Lesage stuck to one golden rule; he refused commissions unless he could meet the client face to face. "I have to see the designer, the sparkle in the eyes," he explained. "I have to undress the mind." He lamented about Alexander McQueen, the only couturier he did not work for. "We had a misunderstanding about one dress," Lesage recalled, "so now, I'm punished!"

Lesage wowed the fashion worldand shows alike with his stunning designs, producing elaborate visions of leaping horses for Schiaparelli and an enormous trompe-l'oeil leopard-skin gown that became a dress by Jean Paul Gaultier. Each work required hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours of precision beadwork to create, commanding prices of more than $100,000 for an elaborate ball gown and more than $60,000 for a jacket.

During the economic downturn of the 1990s, Maison Lesage almost went out of business and was forced to halve its skilled workforce. Lesage had always worried about the dwindling numbers of these artisans, known as "petites mains", and so sought to safeguard the company's future by establishing a school in 1992 near its headquarters in Montmartre, where students are taught the couture techniques and its tradition, from embroidery to flower-, button- and hat-making, with every stitch and every bead or sequin done by hand.

In 2002, Chanel acquired Maison Lesage, which boosted the profile of the embroidery industry and brought it to greater prominence, thanks to the Chanel marketing machine. In recent years Lesage could be spotted at Chanel or Lacroix shows, sharing insights into the craftsmanship with his front-row neighbours.

In 2007, Lesage was made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur, and two weeks ago received the title Maître d'Art from the French Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand. His work was exhibited from New York to Tokyo.

François Lesage, couture embroidery designer; born Chaville, Hauts-de-Seine, nr Paris 31 March 1929; married (four children); died Versailles 1 December 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable