When Comité Colbert was first introduced in 1954, it united 15 French luxury houses, but that number has climbed to 84 in the present day. Cultural institutions and luxury houses come together at this organizational body that is committed to upholding French savoir-faire. It does this by managing young people working for member houses through Colbert Labo and focusing on the designers of tomorrow through Chaire Colbert.
But one of its most exciting endeavors is the public-facing Flânerie Colbert, a celebration of French craftsmanship and handiwork in which brands like Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Balenciaga have the chance to introduce their most extraordinary techniques to a broader audience. Chanel’s patrimony has long included Lesage, the world’s most prestigious embroidery maison.
It is Lesage that is responsible for the house’s dazzling tweeds and intricately worked surfaces. With the Flânerie Colbert recently landing in Abu Dhabi – coinciding with the 10,000 Years Of Luxury exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi – Chanel took the opportunity to introduce the work of Lesage to a market that rarely has a chance to interact with a prestigious embroidery atelier.
Behind Lesage’s superb craftsmanship and attention to detail is Lesage’s Art Director, Hubert Barrère, who joined the Flânerie Colbert Abu Dhabi happenings to learn more about Al Sadu, a weaving technique practiced by bedouin women in the region. We took an afternoon to not only embroider alongside Lesage artisans – who patiently talked us through knots, needles, and topstitches gone wrong – but also discuss the art of embroidery with Barrère himself. Listen in.
Embroidery is such a special and traditional skill. How did you get into this?
I was born in the west part of France into a family that had nothing to do with fashion. My passion didn’t start with the embroidery. When I was eight years old, I was doing stencils in my lesson book. I was drawing dresses, and family didn’t understand why. Later, when I was in fashion school, I didn’t do embroidery, but I knew I would like to do real embroidery.
At that time, I went to Lesage to have a meeting with someone who often collaborated with it. Mr. (François) Lesage himself walked down the corridor and said, “Hey, what do you do?” He asked me to show him my work and he said, “It’s not too bad, just try out the embroidery.” I tried my hand at embroidery and didn’t think it was great. I showed it to Mr. Lesage and he said, “It’s not too bad for someone who doesn’t do embroidery.”
At the end of my study, I dreamed of working with Yves Saint Laurent as his trainee, but it wasn’t possible for me to accept because I was not going to be paid. I had a bank loan for my education. It wasn’t possible to accept work for free. Then a miracle [happened]. An embroiderer – not Mr. Lesage – called my school to offer me a possibility to learn embroidery and pay for the job. The director said, “I have exactly one person in mind for this position.” So my story began there. When Mr. Lesage and Karl Lagerfeld proposed to me to keep the flame alive at Lesage, I did not image that it’s possible for me, but they said, “No, you can do it.” They believed in me. I am very happy today, of course.
What are some challenges you face working with Chanel?
21 years ago, I had the big chance to work with Mr. Lagerfeld. I remember he would say, “I would like to do something unimaginable.” And it was a challenge every time. With Chanel, it is very specific to go over and beyond possibility.
With other brands, they use something that exists in our archives. For Chanel, it’s a blank canvas on which we create something totally new. We would have to create something for Chanel that is completely different, but still recognized immediately as Chanel. It is a fantastic [challenge].
Today, embroidery is one part tradition, one part innovation.
What are the main changes that embroidery has undergone in the 21st century?
It is an art, certainly, but it’s also a story – a very long story. Embroidery is a technique that appears in antiquity, and it has reached here in the 21st century. It has come a long way. Today, embroidery is one part tradition, one part innovation. New technology helps us all, like when we have done 3D printing for Chanel. This mix and match is very interesting because it’s the collaboration between innovation and tradition.
The women working at Lesage are young, in contrast to the UAE, where the younger generation doesn’t really have an interest in local crafts. What do you think France is doing right? What can this part of the world learn from France in this regard?
Maybe we’re luckier in France because we have big knowledge and a big culture surrounding craftsmanship for many centuries. France is an exception, I suppose. At Lesage, we do trainings with new students, and they are very young. These are people who want to do embroidery and are very passionate about it. In the past, it wasn’t like that – it was a job. The passion now and the expression of passion is different. That is very important because these young people love what they do. We have the school, where the senior embroiderer helps and trains these students. They keep this art alive.
We are here experiencing the traditional Al Sadu weaving technique because of a cross-cultural exchange. What does this work mean to you and how has it helped Lesage?
French culture is a mix of different cultures. Paris was once the center of Europe, and Europe was the center of the world. It’s not the same today, but France was once a strategic place because of commercial reasons, which brought a lot of people from all over to Paris. For example, Chinese travelers brought silk embroidery with them. Today, everything moves so fast. For the craft of embroidery, it is important to give time to the techniques, and to respect the techniques that were inspired by other cultures. That is why we are here today.