PARIS, France — In Pantin, a dreary Paris suburb that is home to the complex which houses five of the eleven savoir-faire maisons acquired by Chanel since 1985, ominous storm clouds are gathering. But once inside, the gloom of the day instantly evaporates. Scenes of riotous colour and activity appear as if from nowhere, as hurried craftspeople dash along brightly lit corridors, opening discreetly labelled doors painted in the same off-white as the walls, leading into cornucopias of creativity.
Each maison is a global leader in its métier, from Lesage’s unimaginably dense and intricate embroidery to Lemarié’s exquisite feather and flower creations to Maison Michel’s ethereal millinery. The craftsmen and women who work in them, turning designs into dreamlike confections, are fashion’s unacknowledged geniuses.
Not long ago, many of these businesses, along with the vast repositories of knowledge they safeguard, were facing extinction. As manufacturing left Europe for emerging markets, many traditional Parisian maisons failed to innovate, retaining business models particularly susceptible to cash- flow problems rising from constantly changing tastes and unpredictable demand.
Exacerbating the problem, sourcing craftspeople to keep the ateliers alive proved increasingly hard as generations of better-educated graduates sought employment elsewhere. Georges Desrues, the costume jeweller and button maker founded in 1887 and acquired by Chanel in 1985, once employed 400 plumassiers. By 1980, that number had dwindled to five.
“Ten or fifteen years ago it was not clear that we could find such a level of craftsmanship. We questioned: ‘Can we keep the façonniers, the ready-to-wear manufacturers? Will they continue to exist? Was it possible to find a new generation interested in this métier?’ At that time a lot of them were near retirement,” explained Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, speaking of the in-house ateliers that craft Chanel’s high-end fashion collections.
The threat was even more acute at the independent savoir-faire maisons, which lacked Chanel’s brand and deep-pockets to mount effective recruitment initiatives. “The workshop is different. It is tough. Young people may learn, stay four years and decide to move, because they want to go quickly,” said Philip Atienza, managing director of 120-year-old shoemakers Massaro.
But for Chanel’s lucky eleven — Desrues, Michel, Lemarié, Lesage, Massaro, Goossens, Guillet, Montex, Causse, Barrie and Atelier Gérard Lognon — there is newfound hope.
Paraffection, the name of the subsidiary that holds Chanel’s savoir-faire acquisitions, means “for love.” Fittingly, the company’s rescue of these maisons began with a story between a man and a woman, or, rather men and a woman.
“The musketeers de la mode — Desrues, Lemarié, Michel, Massaro and Lesage — who had worked closely with Madame Chanel, had a gentleman’s agreement that one day, if we have no successors, Chanel will be a part of that,” Pavlovsky told BoF. “I remember Madame Montenay [president of the supervisory board of Chanel SAS] saying: ‘If something happens, we have to take care of them.’”
For affection, certainly, but for pragmatism too. “Chanel has six collections a year for ready-to- wear, one collection every two months, and most of the work is done in the last two weeks. We knew they would be key to the future of the brand, and that we had to preserve what they do. If you have nobody to manufacture during those two weeks, you are dead,” added Pavlovsky.
Today, the savoir-faire maisons acquired by Chanel are, if not thriving, enjoying a new lease on life. The workforce at the Pantin complex is as au fait with the iPhone as centuries-old métiers. “The young girls, they’re very proud to show you what they’re doing. Their passion is uplifting. In haute couture workshops, it is a more secret world; I’ve been at Dior, Lacroix, Gaultier — there was a huge difference in the atmosphere,” said Caroline Leborgne, managing director of Lesage, founded in 1924.
“Savoir-faire could be lost if the workers shift employers too quickly in the marketplace,” said Phillipe Calland, headmaster of the Ecole Octave Feuillet, a school where a majority of the maisons source their workers. “Our policy is to balance age as much as possible, it takes up to ten years to gain the skills of the finest embroiderers here,” added Leborgne.
By stepping in, Chanel also preserved hundreds of jobs, 176 at Scottish cashmere manufacturer Barrie (acquired in 2013) alone. “We have invested a lot with these brands to give them resources to renew what they are doing,” said Pavlovksy, who declined to reveal exactly how much capital the company has invested into its Paraffection subsidiary. The cost alone of staging Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Art show, conceived by Karl Lagerfeld as showcase for the maisons, is estimated to exceed $2 million per year.
But Chanel has no plans to fund its acquisitions in perpetuity and, over time, expects the maisons it has acquired to revamp themselves and build sustainable, independent businesses.
“When I arrived here, it was clear that they want us to be standalone companies. I have a budget meeting and predict sales with historical data, but there is support, if it were necessary,” said Leborgne.
“Chanel is a customer, but the mission is to improve and develop all the other customers,” said Nadine Dufat, the managing director of Lemarié and Lognon, a plisseur founded in 1945. Indeed, Chanel has no intention of monopolising the houses it has acquired for its own use.
“We don’t know in advance what the market wants. Preserving agility is the most difficult challenge. The only way for me to ensure that is letting them work with different brands in different situations to ensure that they continue to adapt to the new world,” explained Pavlovsky.
“We are working on fashion activity with delivery that is very short. Each small enterprise, whatever the business, must be reactive and must innovate,” said Dufat, whose eleven-person team at Lognon, has started to create its own library of samples to better entice prospective clients.
Chanel has placed new hires, such as Dufat and Leborgne, at the head of each maison. “I don’t want [the maisons] to wait for orders, if you want to work with a new brand, make the effort to create the relationship. Just because your ‘uncle’ is Chanel, you still have to work. Our expectations are even higher. We will give them the administrative and financial support they need, but they have to start to work with all the brands to build their future,” said Pavlovsky.
“We have the same demand for growth; it’s just that the people we are dealing with are creatives, not end customers,” said Leborgne. “We need to be able to understand their needs, not only from a creative standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint. We have very different types of clients: Chanel, Dior, as well as those that are just starting like Mary Katrantzou and Bouchra Jarrar. Their needs and budgets are not the same.”
The key differentiator between high- cost craft, completed in the West, and the work available in emerging markets comes down to one thing: proximity to the design teams. “You see a lot in China and India, but what sometimes is missing is contact with design,” said Pavlovsky.
“I won’t say anything on the quality; I have not seen it. But what I can say is when other companies go directly to India, the creativity is not the same. They don’t have our archives,” said Leborgne.
Lesage has accumulated an archive of over 70,000 samples, created over 150 years and stored in a secure room in the Pantin complex, filled from floor to ceiling with innumerable chocolate brown leather boxes. Yves Saint Laurent himself would often visit Lesage’s archive for inspiration.
As they grow, some of Paraffection’s maisons are aiming to establish new business- to-business verticals. “One of the drivers is textile. It started in the 1990s; it’s a good way of balancing activities, providing tweeds, essentially for Chanel. We have very few clients, so there’s room for growth,” added Leborgne.
For others, opportunity lies in growing direct-to-consumer businesses. “In the case of Barrie and Michel, they have a strong legitimacy to do [business-to-consumer]. It is quite important to go B2C and probably e-commerce to offer the brand to customers,” said Pavlovsky. Since its acquisition in 2012, Barrie has opened stores on the Rue Saint- Honoré, as well as inside London’s Burlington Arcade, where Maison Michel also opened a store. Massaro has launched a ready-to-wear shoe collection.
Chanel, a privately-held company, does not disclose financial results, making the commercial success of Paraffection difficult to judge. Each of the maison directors interviewed by BoF made assurances that their businesses were profitable, yet declined to share specific figures. Regardless of their reticence, there is merit alone in giving its “federation of maisons,” to adopt the terminology used by Chanel, a fighting chance to survive.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.
Disclosure: BoF travelled to Paris as a guest of Chanel.
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market. Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.