François Lesage: Dream weaver

He's created outfits for stars from Ava Gardner to Nicole Kidman, and helped forge the reputations of some of fashion's biggest names. Yet, outside the closed world of haute couture, he remains a virtual unknown. As Paris fashion week gets under way, Susie Rushton meets François Lesage, embroiderer extraordinaire
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The Independent Online

François Lesage, the king of beading and embroidery, has the chirrup of a cuckoo clock as the ring tone on his mobile telephone. He has, after all, fielded a few strange calls in his time. "François, make me something that is like a chandelier," the legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent once instructed him loftily. "Like a chandelier reflecting in the mirror on my bureau - with the sky of Paris in the background." From such whimsical - and it goes with out saying, tall - orders, Lesage creates the impossibly lavish feats of workmanship that set Parisian fashion apart from the rest. The autumn/winter 2003 season, which commences today, will provide the opportunity for a handful of fashion's most famous names - Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and John Galliano at Christian Dior among them - to live out their most extravagant fantasies. It is François Lesage who gilds their lilies.

As befits a man who has guarded the most precious asset of French fashion for over 50 years - its savoir-faire in pressing matters such as how to create a lifelike seafood platter entirely from silken thread - Lesage has, naturally, been decorated by his government and honoured in grand exhibitions worldwide. He also deserves an award for his one-man tribute to that French archetype, the bon vivant. "I could write a book of my life," he announces, between mouthfuls of rare steak and Burgundy at a restaurant near his atelier, "but it would be X-rated!"

Haute-couture fashion deals in raised eyebrows, however. First there are the overblown, entirely hand-stitched clothes, requiring numerous fittings and hundreds of hours of work. Then there are the price tags. A basic skirt suit starts at around £25,000, while an evening gown, smothered with ribbons, gold leaf or crystals by the Lesage workshop, can easily relieve the haute-couture customer's pocket of a six-figure sum. So it's no surprise that there are only 300 women who regularly purchase these rarified garments. Yet their small numbers are irrelevant to the vast fashion conglomerates who continue to bankroll this most glamorous of loss-leaders. These days, it is the publicity generated by such extreme flights of fancy that gives the CEOs a return on their money. Consider the likes of Nicole Kidman working the red carpet in (borrowed) powder-pink Chanel haute couture, her image beamed around the globe and translating as a rush on sales of the brand's bestselling No 5. The richest, thinnest women in the world who actually buy and wear haute couture may sniff at the intimate relationship Paris's finest créateurs have fostered with Hollywood - 10 years ago, haute couture was a more secretive affair, played out in the privacy of the grand ballroom of the Hotel Intercontinental - but it is, for the moment, essential to the survival of this anachronistic art.

Perhaps the haute-couture faithful should not allow their bird-of-paradise feather boleros to be ruffled by celebrity endorsement. After all, François Lesage, the executor of couture's most fanciful designs, began his career in the heart of Hollywood. Aged 20, he travelled to the USA on a steam ship to run a small embroidery workshop on Sunset Boulevard, putting the glittering finishing touches to costumes for the divas of cinema's Golden Age: Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Olivia de Havilland all sparkled thanks to the boy Lesage. Lana Turner knew him more intimately - although predictably, he is the soul of discretion where this is concerned, saying only, "I was 20 years old, I had the chance."

Today Lesage, 74 years old and a short, well-rounded figure in a beige Lacoste polo shirt, grey tailored trousers and braces - these are embroidered, of course, with fizzing glasses of fashion's favourite tipple, champagne - is still happiest when surrounded by women. His workshops employ 50 highly skilled and, clearly, infinitely patient petites mains, who sit quietly at their wooden embroidery frames in the attic rooms of the ramshackle five-storey building overlooked by the Sacré Coeur, transforming an annual 100 million sequins and 150lb of pearls into sartorial reality. The man himself is proud to announce that, for his part, "I cannot even sew on a button!"

Instead, his is the rather more grand task of "adapting and translating the fog in the brain of the designer". In return they express their gratitude prolifically. Even given that this is the kissy-kissy world of fashion, it is remarkable that every inch of available space on the walls of his garret-cum-office is covered with billets-doux from fashion's most fêted names. "On my first meeting with François Lesage," recalls Christian Lacroix, "he opened his leather suitcase in front of my eyes and I discovered a whole new universe and embroidery that almost became a drug. He supported my work from the very beginning - I call him my godfather." To be described by Karl Lagerfeld, the designer at both Chanel and Fendi, as having "exceptional intelligence, culture, creativity and speed" is, equally, no small compliment.

The frantic pace of the modern fashion houses - which produce up to eight collections each year - makes his intimate meetings with designers a rarity today. "If you don't see the light in the eyes of a designer when you show them a sample, it's difficult," says Lesage, sadly. That said, his cluttered archive of over 65,000 swatches of embroidery, dated, labelled and stacked to the ceiling in brown cardboard boxes, has seen its fair share of famous visitors, hungry for inspiration. John Galliano once holed himself up in the tiny room until midnight, with only whiskey and cigarettes for company, poring over chiffon swatches stitched with glass beads the size of sugar grains, produced in the late Twenties for a figure hallowed in fashion circles, Madeleine Vionnet. Neither was Yves Saint Laurent above rifling through the Lesage back catalogue: he picked through the Surreal-ist embroideries commissioned by Elsa Schiaparelli in the Thirties - a musical score rendered in gold thread here, a brightly beaded watermelon there - whispering, "I'll pinch this, and this!" At Saint Laurent's final haute-couture collection in January last year - a retrospective of his career - Lesage estimates that 40 per cent of the outfits were embellished in his atelier.

In his 54 years at the helm of this elite workshop, Lesage has collaborated with a list of names that reads like a lesson in fashion history. In his peculiar Franco-American drawl, Lesage can both describe the monastic silence of Cristóbal Balenciaga's studio back in the Fifties and give his (unsolicited) opinion on the origins of John Galliano's recent collections for Christian Dior. "If you take away the outer layers, like an onion, underneath you'll find a Vionnet or Paul Poiret [the great turn-of-the-century Orientalist couturier]." Lesage is at his most animated when holding forth on the comparative merits of fashion's superstars, all the while waving his hands in the direction of a corresponding cluster of thank-you notes and snapshots. There's a subtle difference, it seems, between the "fabulous talent of Karl [Lagerfeld]" and, more simply, "the talent of Gaultier", but his flow is interrupted at the thought of Yves Saint Laurent. "I knew him for years," he says falteringly, "and, well, three words: it was enough." It's no surprise to see a rather kitsch Saint Laurent sample - Van Gogh's Irises, reproduced in fashion fabulousness thanks to a quarter of a million sequins - in pride of place in the Lesage archive.

Despite the recherché nature of its product, Lesage is a functioning business, with an annual €5m (£3.5m) turnover. The pearls, silk thread and crystals account for only 3 per cent of costs; the remainder goes on salaries for his uniquely skilled labour force, who can earn €80 (£55) an hour stitching minute sequins on to slippery chiffon. It's a hopeful sign for the future of Lesage - and a happy distraction for the roving eye of its chief - that most of the workers are in their twenties and thirties.

Aside from the petite mains and 60 tons of materials, it is the history of the house that is its most precious asset. "This house was made in the age of couture," says Lesage, referring to its birth back in 1868. The company was established by Albert Michonet and took the name Lesage in 1924 when François's father, Albert, purchased it. François was born five years later in Chaville on the outskirts of Paris. There are tales of François, as a child, being bounced on the knee of Elsa Schiaparelli. His fashion fate, it seems, was sealed from a young age. Then, there were 50 haute-couture embroidery workshops in Paris. Today, "there are 200 embroiderers here," he sighs, "and four million in India."

In the last decade, Lesage has drifted near to closure. "Since the Gulf War in 1990 we have lost 50 per cent of couture clients," says Lesage. The core clientele of haute couture - the Middle Eastern princesses who spent hundreds of thousands of their petrol dollars on Lesage's beaded wonders - were no longer enjoying their biannual spree in Paris. Lesage announced his concerns at a dinner hosted by the chairman of Chanel, Madame Montenay, and attended by his fellow master-artisans: Desrues, a costume jeweller; the milliner, Michel; Massaro, a shoemaker; and Lemarie, a supplier of feathers and silk flowers. "I said, 'Madame, you have in front of you all the reasons why there is haute couture in Paris. If we were not here, the couture will fly away.' She said, 'I have something in mind. Let me think about it.'"

In July 2002 Chanel, a private company controlled by the secretive Wertheimer family, purchased all five suppliers. "I was approached by several other houses, but I accepted an offer of marriage from Miss Coco Chanel," says Lesage. "She is not so young, but she's quite rich!" Chanel's first act as benefactor to these suppliers has been to produce a one-off collection, titled Satellite Love, to showcase the high craft of each workshop. Unlike the haute-couture collections seen this week in Paris, Satellite Love is sold through Chanel stores and costs considerably less than its made-to-measure older sister. François Lesage accepts this with a Gallic shrug. Even at the peak of their buying power in 1988, just 11 haute-couture customers purchased the completed Irises garment by Yves Saint Laurent, dubbed "the world's most expensive cardigan". Over the past decade Lesage has deliberately shifted the focus of his business towards more profitable work. Two weeks before the haute-couture presentations, the Lesage atelier is filled not with vast Christian Dior ballgowns, but with a batch of 1,500 of the brand's handbags, here for an quick Art Deco makeover. "Petit à petit, I think ready-to-wear and couture will join together," admits Lesage. "In 1947, when Christian Dior arrived, the prices were not as huge as they are now, relatively. And years ago, the daughters were dressing like their mothers - now the mother dresses like her daughter. Haute couture has changed."

Yet Lesage believes that haute couture represents not just good taste but, incredibly, value for money. "When you compare it to the profits that manufacturers and shops add to the cost of ready-to-wear, it's cheap," purrs Lesage. "But, really, to speak of money is rather déplacé [uncalled-for], non?" Perhaps what he really wants to say is "déclassé". But that would be too vulgar.