If luxury boutiques can sometimes intimidate passers-by, the new headquarters for 10 of the artisanal workshops owned by Chanel is designed to draw them in.
Maybe it helps that the location isn't obviously glamorous, nor even very central. Situated in a no man's land between northern Paris and the suburb of Aubervilliers, Le19M is already attracting architecture spotters (it was designed by award-winning French architect Rudy Ricciotti). President Macron and his wife, Brigitte, may have attended its inauguration, but it has some decidedly inclusive ambitions.
'We want Le19M to be a space for encounters and exchanges, a nerve centre where artisans, the public, schools and art lovers can come together,' is how Chanel's president of fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, puts it.
Near the entrance to the building, which comprises three wings - covered in a facade of white strands evoking woven tweed - is a gallery and events space. From next week, Le19M begins a summer programme of workshops and cultural events, with a cafe and even a shop selling tote bags cut from leftover fabrics. Earlier this year, schoolchildren and community groups gathered in the gallery spaces to try embroidery, under the eye of specialists from the legendary Chanel-owned embroidery house Lesage.
Chanel has self-preservation in mind, too. Since 1985, the company has been gradually buying up the best workshops in Paris, some of them dating back to the 19th century, in an effort to conserve their traditional know-how. Its stable, a subsidiary of the main company, includes not only the embroiderers Lesage and Montex, but Maison Michel (hats), Massaro (boots), Lemarié (feathers and flowers), Lognon (pleats), Goossens (goldsmithing), Paloma (couture construction) and Eres (swimwear).
Every year, Chanel's Métiers d'art show is a demi-couture tribute to their specialist talents. The latest was presented in December last year in the cloistered walkways of Le19M. Under the direction of Virginie Viard, it took inspiration from the architecture of the building and - returning to a neighbourhood theme - graffiti. The letters CHA- and -NEL, styled after street artists' tags, are picked out on two pockets of a black jacket, in perfectionist crystal and pearls by Lesage embroiderers.
It's this kind of handiwork one can see everywhere in the spacious workrooms of Lesage, which now occupies almost half a floor of Le19M, an upgrade from past decades in a cramped atelier in suburban Paris.
But as Lesage's artistic director, Hubert Barrère, shows me, while the demands on his 80-plus workers may have increased, the techniques they use remain unchanged since the glory days of the 1970s and '80s, when Yves Saint Laurent would ask François Lesage to embroider him replica Van Gogh sunflowers for a jacket. 'It's not basic,' says Barrère of the exquisite work here, with understatement. Each Métiers d'art collection takes two months to complete; those graffiti pockets alone require 32 hours of toil, from the first steps of marking out where each tiny coloured pearl should be stitched, to embroidering on the frame, and final checks to ensure a faultless finish.
He believes that clients are once again in the mood for gold thread and glittering details. 'People want the wow factor right now,' he says. 'Although that may not last.' Yet certain types of embellishment belong to history and can't be replicated: 'We wouldn't make the YSL sunflowers now. Nobody would wear it. Billionaire women today are not statues, they walk, they move, they get on and off planes,' he says, referring to the 1988 jacket, which sold at auction at Christie's for €382,000 in 2019.
A sample of those sunflowers is kept in what Barrère, who has led the company since 2012, calls, 'my treasure room, a Swiss bank', or, in other words, the maison's archive. Here is an entire history of fashion, from 1858 until the present day. At its previous headquarters, in Pantin, a nearby suburb, much had to be kept 'in the cellar, but here it's one third bigger. And we are adding to it. Every day we find Lesage embroidery for sale [online], we are buying it up.'
The archive is also the only room not illuminated by full-height windows, an architectural feature that Barrère, and other artistic directors at Le19M, believe has immeasurably improved their work. 'The light, c'est magnifique,' he says, gesturing to the Parisian morning outside. 'Schopenhauer said, "With no light you don't have colours."' It may be modern and fresh, but does it have the same creative energy as the previous, smaller home? On this, he's more ambivalent. 'It's something we ask ourselves, how can we create an atmosphere? It's a work in progress.'
More pressing for Lesage are changes in global trade after the pandemic, and ever-shortening deadlines in fashion production. But what Barrère is certain of is that Chanel has been its saviour. Could Lesage have survived if it had not been purchased in 2002? 'No. Absolutely not.'
It's just a short zip up in an elevator to the studios of the couture milliner Maison Michel, another prized possession of the group. The 86-year-old company creates handmade styles for Chanel and other clients, along with its own line. Just how recherché its methods are is apparent in the hat-making room, home to Shariff Hisaud, who has been working with lindenwood blocks for 30 years.
'I've always made hats like this, and I've made thousands for Chanel,' says Hisaud, demonstrating how to make a boater. First, the soft white felt - actually rabbit fur - is prepared with gum arabic and steam, making it malleable. Hisaud then forms it on a boater-shaped mould in two pieces: the brim and the flat crown, caressing the silhouette into being with nothing more than a piece of cord. These techniques date from the 14th century. The most hi-tech piece of kit on Hisaud's bench is a hairdryer. Even the iron that he uses to smooth out any bumps is a flat iron, as used by Victorian laundresses. The crisp white hat then passes into the milliners' room, where Florence Astra, a spotlight poised over her work, deftly stretches creamy Chanel tweed over both pieces; in total, each spotless boater takes three hours to make.
The new location on the second floor of Le19M has transformed these centuries-old vocations, according to Maison Michel's creative director, Priscilla Royer. She too appreciates having more room: 'We used to be fighting for space,' she says. This is particularly perilous if you're surrounded by boiling steam and ovens in the hatmaking room. Grander quarters have also allowed the company to have its own 'sculptor' on site - that is, a woodcarver who makes hat blocks. This master craftsman, who is in his 70s, now has two apprentices learning a skill that must surely be on any list of endangered manual vocations.
But the biggest benefit to a new building Royer describes as 'like being in a spaceship' is proximity to the other maisons d'art: 'We feel like a reunited family. Together, we are stronger.' At lunchtime on an early summer's day the employees from all 10 workshops mingle in the swish staff canteen (five types of kombucha, and desserts that would grace a Rue Saint-Honoré patisserie window).
'All the different maisons had such different requirements,' says Royer, of the way Le19M has assembled the best of French fashion's savoir-faire. 'It seemed like a crazy idea. But it works.'