The legendary embroidery designer, François Lesage, whose elaborate handiwork has graced the designs of all the grandest couturiers for more than half a century, died in Paris yesterday at the age of 82. As well as providing fanciful surface embellishment to everyone from Cristobal Balenciaga to Yves Saint Laurent and from Christian Dior to Valentino Garavani, as a young man Lesage put the glittering finishing touches to the costumes of Hollywood greats including Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Olivia de Havilland, all of whom sparkled both on screen and off in his hands.
Born in Chaville in the outskirts of Paris in 1929, five years after his father, Albert Lesage, bought the company that went on to bear his name, there are tales of baby Francois being bounced on the knee of Elsa Schiaparelli so steeped were his family in the craft of fashion. Aged 20, Francois Lesage travelled to America and set up a small embroidery workshop on Sunset Boulevard before returning, a year later and following the death of his father, to his native France and the ramshackle five-storey building overlooked by the Sacre Coeur where the Maison Lesage is based to this day. Folklore has it that 100 million sequins and 150 lbs of pearls are transformed into a sartorial reality by the company each year.
Until very recently, Lesage embroideries were the preserve of haute couture, fashion's most rarefied incarnation, where each garment is a one off, hand-sewn, fitted and finished to suit an individual client and selling for tens of thousands of pounds. When Lesage started out, there were as many as 50 embroidery workshops in the French capital, all dedicated to this craft. It is more common today for ready-to-wear embroidery to be farmed out to India in particular where workmanship costs only a fraction of the price.
In a bid to ensure his expertise would be passed down to younger generations, in 1992 Francois Lesage opened an embroidery school, located in the same building as his workshops, and, 10 years later, he sold his company to Chanel, privately owned by the Wertheimer family and the richest fashion house in the world. Since that time, Chanel has raised the profile of Lesage considerably and while the latter has continued to collaborate with every French fashion couture house worth its credentials, it also now caters to a younger crop of more accessible international labels today able to take advantage of its heritage.
Last week, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Francois Lesage the honorary distinction of Maître d'Art (Master of Art). "I cannot imagine fashion without embroidery, embroidery without Monsieur Lesage," minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand said.