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The Making of a Couture Dress

By Nancy Hass

Karl Lagerfeld’s original sketch for the look, to which the workers refer for technical specifications, along with a Chanel pochette holding various tools (pins, measuring tape, a fabric pen). Each artisan makes their own pochette and uses it until it’s well- loved — every replacement is thought to delay one’s retirement by seven years.
 
Marion Berrin
Karl Lagerfeld’s original sketch for the look, to which the workers refer for technical specifications, along with a Chanel pochette holding various tools (pins, measuring tape, a fabric pen). Each artisan makes their own pochette and uses it until it’s well- loved — every replacement is thought to delay one’s retirement by seven years.

A ready-to-wear sheath often takes mere minutes to make, the cutting, sewing and finishing — right down to attaching the label — all done by machine. But such an operation bears virtually no resemblance to the arcane process of couture dressmaking: painstaking, hand-wrought and largely unchanged since the late 19th century.

Chanel, overseen by the creative director Karl Lagerfeld, is one of the few remaining companies that still participate in this esoteric world. The four main haute couture ateliers in its Rue Cambon headquarters are separated into those that make suits and those called flou, which create evening wear, including this elaborately beaded and sequined custom-made confection from the fall 2018 collection.

Composed of two layers of black silk tulle, a layer of sparkling satin, a hidden one of organza that helps the garment retain its shape and a black satin lining, this sheath will take four people a total of 800 hours to complete. The process begins with Olivia Douchez, the première, or chief, of a 40-person flou atelier, who works with her three seconds to make the pattern and then assigns it to a master seamstress. A toile — a mock-up of the dress made of inexpensive fabric — is cut and fitted to the client. (There are generally three fittings over the months-long process; sometimes Douchez and her team even fly the half-finished dress to and from a customer’s home — be it in Riyadh, Beijing or Dallas — to make minuscule adjustments).

Marion BerrinAt one of Chanel’s haute couture ateliers in Paris, a seamstress sews a temporary trim motif for the client’s second fitting.
At one of Chanel’s haute couture ateliers in Paris, a seamstress sews a temporary trim motif for the client’s second fitting.

While the silken layers are being meticulously cut and sewn, the embroiderers carry out their highly skilled work, which is done at one of Chanel’s specialty workshops. (All of the embroidery and beaded trim for this dress is made at the Montex ateliers in nearby Aubervilliers.) The pattern is a metallic trompe l’oeil tweed, a 3-D effect conjured by separately embellishing each gossamer substratum. The finished work is then sent back to Rue Cambon on a layer of green tulle, where it is stitched to the dress.

The final step is the packing, a ritual as complex as Kabuki. A specialist wraps the dress in untold yardage of delicate tissue before sending it via courier service to its destination — a place that, no matter where it lies on the map, is surely a land far, far removed from the disposable haste of modern life.