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Chanel's Love Affair With Handcrafted Fashion Goods

Karl Lagerfeld is keeping a promise Coco Chanel made in the 1940s to protect Europe’s endangered crafts.

The destruction of Europe’s once-powerful garment industry is a poignant end to an industry-defining era that few in the fashion world welcome.

Chanel’s autumn/winter 2017 couture show was unusual. Instead of creating an otherworldly set of lush green ponds and oversized orchids as in the previous year, Karl Lagerfeld chose to turn his catwalk into a typical French garment atelier, with models in hand-crafted satin dresses striding through rooms filled with toiling seamstresses, oversized sewing machines and hundreds of colourful cotton reels.

This re-enactment of a largely hidden world highlighted an important issue of the modern age. European manufacturing is experiencing an assault from all sides — mechanised production has brought many traditional fashion suppliers to their knees and the few that remain are often small, family-run enterprises without the necessary clout to attract new business. Mass producers in emerging markets, meanwhile, offer fast turnover times that play to the fickle tastes and relentless cycles of the global fashion industry.

The destruction of Europe’s once-powerful garment industry is a poignant end to an industry-defining era that few in the fashion world welcome. However, Lagerfeld and Bruno Pavlovsky, creative director and president of Chanel, respectively, have insisted their company continues to work with specialist ateliers in France, Italy and Scotland, and have even set up a whole division to protect them.

Chanel’s altruistic venture is called Paraffection (the French par affection meaning ‘for love’) and is made up of a variety of specialist ateliers, each having a distinct skill such as feather making, button making, millinery, knitting and glove making. They include once-household names such as Michel, Lemarié, Massaro, Goossens, Guillet, Montex, Causse and Atelier Gérard Lognon, and each works for Chanel’s relentless cycle of fashion seasons.

To lose these ateliers would be to lose an integral part of fashion history. Georges Desrues, for example, is a French accessory maker founded in 1929, which once had 400 feather makers. By 1980, that number had fallen to five, and today the number has climbed steadily back to 200 with Desrues making all buttons and feathers for Chanel. Embroider Lesage, meanwhile, was founded in 1924 and has accumulated an archive of more than 70,000 samples, created over 150 years, that provides a more thorough tale of European embroidery than any book could.

It is, however, important to note that Chanel does not own these maisons: they remain entirely independent and thus able to collaborate with rival fashion houses (although it is highly unlikely that they would continue to exist without the support of Chanel). “Each Métiers d’art house has a privileged link with Chanel but they have a life of their own,” says Pavlovsky. “Chanel is one of their clients. When working with creativity, you need to work with other companies to be on the edge of the savoir faire and be challenged by other designers. The more the ateliers are contributing to other brands, the better.”

Lagerfeld and Pavlovsky may have been the driving forces behind Paraffection, but it was Coco Chanel who created the original bond between her brand and then-powerful ateliers when she promised in the 1940s to help them if they ever fell into financial difficulties. Lagerfeld had long been aware of this agreement and, by the 1990s, when nearly two-thirds of ateliers in France had been shut down, he finally put it in action.

Paraffection was launched in 1997, and Chanel’s first act was to allow the maisons to work rent-free from a vast warehouse in the Parisian suburb of Pantin, which is still home to five brands, and has been called the fashion world’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory thanks to its endless rooms filled with brightly coloured silks, rainbow-hued buttons and thousands of embroidered shoes, hats and bags.

By 2002, Lagerfeld had been working with the maisons for five years and was so delighted by their contribution that he decided to celebrate their handcrafted designs through the Métiers d’art collection. Since then, every December for 14 years, Lagerfeld has chosen a city important to the Chanel story to exhibit it, including Tokyo, New York, London, Shanghai and Rome.

“By taking away the financial burden we have given these maisons the chance to focus on the creative aspect of what they are doing,” says Pavlovsky. “Each of them has a specific role, specific knowledge, a specific story, a specific archive that is very important to Chanel and the work we do.”