The Allure of Chanel Couture
“A wedding is very special at Chanel,” says Madame Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre, the gloriously named and exquisitely dressed international spokeswoman who oversees the house’s couture division. The House of Chanel shares the same superstitions as other bridal establishments: garters are encouraged, the presence of anyone other than the bride’s mother and bridesmaids at the fittings is discouraged, and the groom is not allowed to see the dress beforehand to guard against bad luck – but there the similarities end.
“We don’t have racks of wedding dresses here. And a wedding dress is never reproduced – never ever,” says Madame Marie-Louise. “If you order it then it is yours, no one will have it again. For couture we can sometimes have two ladies wearing the same dress but with bridal, never.”
Number 31 Rue Cambon, Paris is steeped in tradition. The Chanel headquarters have been based on this narrow street, just along from the Ritz (so near that Coco Chanel once lived at the hotel), since 1923 and at its heart lies the coveted couture division. From a fairly unremarkable street level entrance, albeit one guarded by a security man, a curved Art Deco staircase leads up to the first floor salon.
Alternate cream and black leather chairs are laid out in neat rows for customers and journalists to view the twice yearly couture collections. Leading off here is the VIP room where an elite clientele choose from the collection and the ensuing fittings take place. [UPDATE: with the influx of Asian clients, Chanel also now holds intimate shows in China, Hong Kong and Tokyo.]
For the customer, everything starts with the shows. “Ideally the bride should have gone to all the couture shows to choose the best one and of course she will choose Chanel!” says Marie-Louise. After the show she will make an appointment to discuss her choice and any adaptations she would like. These are all subject to Karl Lagerfeld’s approval, no changes are ever made to his designs without his permission.
Over a period of six to eight weeks a minimum of three fittings will take place: the first with the outfit made up in toile (a simple muslin fabric) and the last being a dress rehearsal complete with veil or hat and any jewellery to be worn on the day. “It’s obligatory,” says Marie-Louise explaining that it’s important to see the ensemble as a whole.
Beyond the public spaces at Rue Cambon lies a warren of offices and workrooms sprawling over several floors where all the hard work takes place. On the fourth floor, overlooking the street and flooded with light from the enormous windows, is Karl Lagerfeld’s studio, once where Chanel herself designed and still bearing the words Mademoiselle – Prive – on the door. Dotted around the five floors are the three ateliers – one for tailoring, two for more fluid pieces like eveningwear – where the designs are turned into reality by a team of 100 workers.
Traditionally a robe de marriage is sent out at the end of the couture collection each season. Sometimes though the designated bridal design is not ‘the one’. “When Karl presents a wedding dress, possibly a bride wouldn’t want that one so we adapt,” says Marie-Louise. One season for instance a client ordered the bridal gown without the train, but more usually an evening dress will be chosen from the couture collection and modified. One second time around bride chose a white boucle coat for her winter wedding while another chose a jacket and pants worn with a veil and Chanel’s signature camellia. The now former wife of a famous musician tied the knot in a jacket from the technical ski collection.
Mostly though, a wildly romantic evening dress such as La Rose – a pretty pleated tulle gown in pale pink – is chosen. An American client has expressed an interest in the design though Marie-Louise points out the decollete will have to be modified as she thinks it’s too revealing for a wedding. “For France, anyway,” she adds: “but maybe not for America.” All the pleats have been sewn by hand, graduating almost imperceptibly in width as the dress progresses towards the floor. The colour also graduates very subtly from palest pink at the top towards a slightly rosier shade at the hem. Only one person worked on this dress to ensure that the graduation was seamless, and it took a total of 200 hours to make.
At Madame Cecile’s atelier, men and women known as les petits mains (the little hands) are dressed in white coats and sitting at large table strewn with pencils, rulers and every conceivable shade of thread. They work on (seemingly) random delicate fragments of fabric, a pink silk bodice here, a black tulle sleeve there – that will go to make up a luxurious whole. Mannequins shaped and padded to resemble specific bodies and with discreet labels bearing names are dotted around the room. On the walls are sketches and Polaroids of the latest collection.
Madame Cecile is distinguishable by the absence of white coat and presence of cream and black Chanel tank and skirt. A small purse with telltale chain strap and interlocking Cs hangs around her neck, holding all the accoutrements of her craft. As premiere of the atelier, the highly skilled job of cutting fabric will only be entrusted to her or a specialist cutter under her supervision. She then decides who will work on a particular part of the dress. Between one and three “hands” will work on a wedding dress depending on the complexity of the dessing. The pleats, tucks, frills and ruffles are left to the more experienced hands and the beading, buttons, feathers and flowers are given to specialist companies such as Lesage, Lemarie and Desrues which have supported the couture industry for decades.
“The lady who made the dress will dress the bride at the final fitting says Marie-Louise. “It’s a very special relationship between the client and her fitter.” In the past, finished bridal gowns, like any couture purchase, have been wrapped in tissue paper and packaged in custom made boxes. The modern bride, however, prefers a light garment carrier as it’s easier for storage.
At the most lavish weddings the bridesmaids are also dressed in Chanel. One bride chose to have her dress – a printed taffeta in sweet colours – copied six times for child flower girls. “It’s very expensive,” stresses Marie-Louise. And this in a place where a couture gown (costing a minimum of tens of thousands of pounds to around £100,000) is referred to as “quite expensive”.
Later, from a room adjacent to the salon, La Rose is whisked out of the glass cabinets where it has been waiting with some other samples to be tried on by prospective clients. This particular frock is bound for New York where one lucky bride to be awaits.
[This piece was originally published in 2003.]