He was a master embroiderer who for decades crafted exquisite pieces for haute couture giants from Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent.
ublishing news about/guessing the next collaboration between a High Street retailer and a famous designer/fashion house has become the favourite sport of most contemporary fashion publications.
It has therefore become extremely rare to see inspiring articles about the real craftsmanship behind the fashion industry.
Many editors will indeed tell you that talking about the "petites mains" requiring hundreds if not thousands of hours to make a dress or stitching on delicate fabrics intricate handmade embroideries or cascades of sequins and beads, does not really sell magazines (while vapid celebrities and pop stars in Haute Couture gowns do help selling magazines together with a wide range of goods, including clothes, accessories, fragrances and even mobile phones...).
If you insist and persist in submitting such pieces you will be considered not only anachronistic, but also an old and unfashionable fossil. After all, why talking about crafts when you can glue beads and embroideries on dresses like many successful contemporary designers do and still achieve fame and glory?
Yet, after French embroiderer François Lesage died last Thursday at 82, quite a few features suddenly appeared on the Internet about his work, achievements and legacy.
Awarded in November the honorary distinction of Maître d'Art by the French Ministry of Culture, Lesage helped keeping the couture craft alive, contributing with his work to some of the most beautiful collections in the history of fashion.
François Lesage was born in 1929 in the outskirts of Paris from Albert Lesage and Marie-Louise Favot.
Five years before his birth his parents had bought the studio of Albert Michonet, embroiderer to Napoleon III and to the House of Worth.
At the time, French embroidery was developed in private workshops and depended on embroiderers or mainteuses, who stitched by hand with a needle.
Embroidery rose to new heights with Worth and embellished clothes became more and more popular, while embroidery techniques improved also thanks to new introductions such as the crochet hook.
In the '20s, the Lesage workshop already produced intricate embroideries for different couturiers, Elsa Schiaparelli included.
At 19, rather than working in the family business, Lesage moved to Los Angeles where he set up his own workshop on Sunset Boulevard selling embroidery to costume designers and film stars, among them also Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Olivia de Havilland.
In 1949 Lesage went back to Paris where he became head of his parents' company after his father’s death and started collaborating with some of the most famous designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Madeleine Vionnet, Lanvin, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent (remember Van Gogh’s irises and sunflowers on Saint Laurent’s 1988 jackets?).
In the '80s the Lesage workshop also began collaborating with American designers such as Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta and, later on, with ready-to-wear fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana, and Celine.
Celebrated in exhibitions in New York, Paris, Tokyo and Los Angeles, Lesage kept abreast of new technology, incorporating new materials and techniques in his work, including heat transfers, catalytic evaporation, holograms, metal, plastic and resin, cleverly merging modernity with tradition (in the '70s Lesage developed embroidery on jersey and applied precut designs by thermoplastic films to fabrics).
In 1992 Lesage opened an embroidery school in Montmartre in the same building where his workshops were located.
Ten years later, the company was sold to Chanel, becoming one of its satellite sisters, together with Massaro (shoes), Lemarié (flowers and feathers), Michel (hats), Desrues (buttons and costume jewellery) and Goosens (jewellery).
This strategy allowed Lesage to continue creating crafts for Chanel while collaborating at the same time with other fashion houses as “fournisseurs," that is artisans working in outside couture laboratories.
Lesage is survived by his wife and four children, two of them, Jean-François and Marion, followed their father's steps venturing into the creative arts.
Jean François makes home designs and also created with Christian Louboutin a Marie Antoinette-inspired shoe and, for this Autumn, six menswear designs, while Marion works as an artist, and presented in the '90s a clothing and accessories collection in Paris.
With artisans dwindling in too many sectors and with cheaper labour now available (Gaultier who was a Lesage client now has some of his embroideries made in India), craftspeople working for France's Haute Couture may not be thriving, but hopefully the art of embroidery will not disappear with Lesage's death.
If you want to try your hand at Lesage's art (or if you're looking for a Lesage inspired present for an embroidery fan or for yourself), check out the book Ecole Lesage chez vous : Broderie d'art, la transmission d'un savoir (€ 46 - View this photo) it's published by Lesage's school and it's a good introduction to the works of this master embroiderer that will also teach you how to make your own embroideries and small accessories.