Why Chanel Métiers d’Art is Important, Beyond the Ritz
A few days ago, Chanel presented its 2017 Métiers d’Art collection at the Ritz Paris. The location was both elegant and meaningful (Coco Chanel lived at the hotel for decades), and the clothing was lovely. But the star of the show for me was the craftsmanship on display in the collection.
In 2002, Chanel debuted the Métiers d’Art collection to showcase the work of its 11 specialized ateliers, slowly acquired over decades. These include, among others, the embroidery house Lesage, floral artisans Guillet, goldsmith and jeweler Goossens, and Lemarié, which specializes in crafting feathers and flowers, including Chanel's iconic camelia.
Not quite couture but more intricate than ready-to-wear, Métiers d’Art is an annual collection that celebrates the tradition of artisanship at the heart of French Fashion. Métiers are masters in their respective trades:
"The haute couture (French for “high fashion”) was founded in 1910 by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. In 1945, the Chambre added specifications for designers to be included in the group, including requirements regarding the incorporation and mastery of handwork. These requirements were made official by French ministers as a means to measure the national economy and industrial production as well as to differentiate haute couture design from other methods of creating clothing, which relied more heavily on machine-making techniques...These techniques were first named and defined as “métiers” in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raissoné de sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts), which was published from 1751 to 1772. Within the volume, the dressmaking trades were discussed with equal regard to the arts and sciences..."
- via The Met Store Magazine
When I was in Paris reflecting on whether the French really have a better sense of style, I read about the history of craftsmanship in the country. Under Louis XIV, artisanship became a pillar of the French economy and a means to differentiate France globally. Couture, and the many French métiers that make such exquisite production possible, were born out of this tradition.
Given this history, perhaps no company is better suited to make a statement on the importance of preserving crafts and promoting artisanship in contemporary luxury fashion than Chanel. In an article published last year in the Business of Fashion, it was noted:
"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...Today, the savoir-faire maisons acquired by Chanel are, if not thriving, enjoying a new lease on life."
- via BoF
In an era in fashion in which it's more common to see a company take shortcuts, cut costs, and replace craftsmanship or handwork with cheaper mechanization, what a breath of fresh air it is to see Chanel protecting and promoting artisanship. These métiers are an important part of the brand's legacy, and a treasure trove of the very skills that contributed to making fashion extraordinary in the first place. But most of all, in a world in which everything moves so quickly, and in which many people have so much that what is owned becomes disposable, for a piece to be made with such care and precision, and taking such time, seems to me the ultimate definition of luxury. Which leaves me wondering about the future. Can the fashion industry start to systematically reinvest in craftsmanship à la Chanel? Can Chanel alone grow these maisons, filling them with students so that they can thrive for many future generations? Will other luxury companies take note and band together not only to support, but to grow the tradition of craftsmanship in fashion? I don't know, but Chanel Métiers d’Art gives me hope that it's possible.