François Lesage (March 31, 1929 - December 1, 2011) was a French couture embroiderer. He became a worldwide landmark in the art of embroidery, working for the greatest fashion and haute couture establishments. His atelier is now part of the Maison Chanel through its company "Paraffection".
François Lesage was of Norman origin, the son of Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage. He had an older brother, Jean-Louis, and a twin sister, Christiane. In 1924, his parents took over the workshop of the embroiderer Michonet. This establishment was founded in 1858, and was already famous for working with the costume designers of the Parisian theaters and carrying out special orders for the Court of Napoleon III. But above all, the atelier supplied the great names in Parisian couture, from Worth to Paquin and Madeleine Vionnet. Albert Lesage was not destined from the start for such an artistic career - his first career was as a broker in international trade. He was taken prisoner during the war, and then began a new life in Chicago where he was hired as Director-designer of the women’s clothing department at Marshall Field's store in 1919. Returning to Paris three years later, he partnered with Michonet who was seeking a successor. Marie-Louise, meanwhile, became an Assistant in charge of embroidery at Madeleine Vionnet. The pair met at Michonet’s, where Yo, as she was nicknamed at the time, was sent to oversee some orders from the famous dressmaker. When the young couple took over the Michonet business, it was renamed Albert Lesage et Cie. Soon the new owner diversified its activities by developing its own collection of embroidered accessories and printed fabrics. He also encouraged his son to serve an apprenticeship at his side. While he had inherited his father’s gift for drawing, it also turned out that, like his mother, he was an incredible colorist, a true alchemist. At the end of World War II, having acquired the right technical skills, François Lesage set out for the American adventure and opened a Studio on Sunset Boulevard in 1948. The young man settled in Hollywood, and created embroideries for the film studio couturiers. But Albert’s death a year later interrupted his plans, and François returned to France to step into his shoes, alongside his mother. François Lesage was just twenty years old at the time.
A true embroidery artist, François Lesage continually expanded his collections of samples. Under his leadership, the Maison grew and became the preferred embroiderer of many fashion houses. “Embroidery is to haute couture what fireworks are to Bastille Day.” This was a maxim that François Lesage liked to repeat, and it sums up the embroidery master’s entire philosophy of the craft: always push back the boundaries of creativity, imagine new techniques in order to compose the most incredible motifs, like paintings, use daring new materials. Give life to the ideas of a couturier, and often, anticipate his desires by offering one’s own models. His boldness and imagination gradually opened the doors of international fashion: American, Italian and even Japanese designers drew on his talent. In 1987, a line of embroidered accessories was revived and sold in the Schiaparelli boutique, place Vendôme.
Techniques and creations
Since taking over the Michonet workshop, Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage began to be noticed for their inventiveness by the haute couture houses. The couple developed new techniques which became classics in the art of embroidery: straight-grain ‘vermicelli’ beadings or the special technique called vermicelle au carré, invented specifically for Madeleine Vionnet’s bias cut dresses. For the same couture house, Lesage also invented the first ombré embroidery techniques, - a delicate process where the dress is first embroidered with tiny beads, then, once the embroidery is removed from the frame, it is dipped inch by inch in a dye bath*, a system which enabled color blending, - and embroidered fringes. Their son François showed the same creativity, for instance by diverting Rhodoid, very early in his career. They also perpetuated the ancestral traditions of needle embroidery (the specialty of embroiderers called 'mainteuses') and Lunéville hook embroidery, named after the town where the technique was developed in 1867. The latter technique is preferred for embroidering with beads, sequins and tubes, threaded on the filament with which the embroiderer is working. One hand creates a crochet stitch, while the other is slipped under the embroidery frame, and positions a bead or other element in the right spot. Sometimes, techniques are born from blunders: one day a box of glitter fell onto one of the workshop’s stoves. Everyone suddenly saw the glitter swell like popcorn: and that is how soufflé sequins and motifs were born, that highlight some of the embroideries of Madeleine Vionnet or Elsa Schiaparelli.*
Tassels, rhinestones, sequins, feathers, leathers, cabochons, buttons, threads, ribbons, chenilles, blades, but also one hundred million sequins and three hundred kilos of beads... are used, transformed and magnified by Lesage embroiderers. Whipped spider’s wheel stitch, the French knot, the lazy daisy stitch or the drop stitch... some embroidery work requires hundreds of hours and as much patience to give life to the most beautiful creations of haute couture. For instance, for Yves Saint Laurent’s winter 1988 haute couture collection, Lesage worked with all of 45 embroiderers for three weeks to embroider eighteen models of grape clusters, micro beaded and sequined, in the spirit of the painter Bonnard. Other feats were accomplished in the workshop, such as a micro-bead depiction of the famous quilted Chanel bag, in trompe-l’oeil fashion, on a dress from the summer 1990 haute couture collection.
Today, with seventy-five thousand samples, the archives of the Maison Lesage are the largest collection of couture embroidery in the world. Over time, other specialties emerged. One of the most famous signatures is the Lesage tweeds, made of threads, ribbons, leather strands, plastic spaghetti, often reembroidered for even more beauty. They are regularly used to make jackets, tailored suits and accessories...
In the days of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage expanded their catalog with avant-garde motifs that were sought after by a clientele for whom fashion is nurtured by art. One of them, Elsa Schiaparelli, became a faithful customer and ordered embroideries inspired by the world of the circus, signs of the Zodiac, and the marine world starting in 1936. In fact, a bolero named “Chevaux Savants”, with rearing embroidered horses, from the summer 1938 collection, a cape embroidered with sunrays in blades and gilt sequins from the following winter, are considered major pieces stemming from this type of productive collaboration between the designer and the parurier craftsman. Until she closed down her business in 1954, Elsa Schiaparelli gave Lesage all her embroidery tasks, including the famous ones for the collections based on themes such as the circus, the zodiac, esoteric themes... For these outstanding creations, Albert Lesage knew how to find materials that were also exceptional: Murano blown glass for inventing small flowers; imitation semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, jade, turquoise rock with black webbed patterns, artificial stones, pebbles, cabochons and many others. He would crush gelatin sequins to give them the appearance of hammered coins, and would associate chenille and mink. He also resorted to metal, blades, fish scales, spun glass (that Schiaparelli used for the bottle cap of her perfume Shocking... *)
Like his father before him, François Lesage would invent, innovate, search again and again. And develop collaborative relationships in the fashion world: Pierre Balmain, Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior trusted him. In their wake, Jacques Fath, Jacques Heim, Robert Piguet, Jacques Griffe, Jean Dessès, Hubert de Givenchy, Grès, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Marc Bohan or Patou called upon the skills of the Maison Lesage. Like Schiaparelli in her day, Yves Saint Laurent worked only with François Lesage, after they first met in 1963. Together, the two men gave birth to true works of art, and this lasted 44 years. Arguably, the most famous are the jackets with the Iris and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for the summer 1988 collection. Each required 600 hours of work. The Iris jacket was made with 250,000 sequins in 22 colors, 200,000 beads and 250 meters of ribbon.
In addition to these prestigious collaborations, Lesage saw his reputation conquer the fashion world in the four corners of the globe. The 1980s were the beginning of international collaborative relationships: Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene or Hanae Mori, while in France, from 1983 on, Karl Lagerfeld, who had just arrived at Chanel, began a professional relationship with the embroiderer. For him, François Lesage drew inspiration from Boulle furniture, but also from Mademoiselle Chanel’s famous Coromandel panels. Ironically, Gabrielle Chanel had never wanted to work with the brodeur, who was too connected to her rival Schiaparelli. The Lesage archives are also an invaluable treasure, a source of inspiration for designers. A Vionnet sample, for instance, was wanted by Azzedine Alaïa, for Dior by Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Each time, François Lesage told them: "this is Vionnet." Reinterpreting these creations and the establishment’s archives, for the brodeur, was akin to turning into a 'travel agent', as he would enjoy saying.
Claude Montana at Lanvin, John Galliano for Dior, Thierry Mugler, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Jean Paul Gaultier in turn called upon the talent of Lesage and his embroiderers. The striking Lesage creations include a dress with a 'Panther skin' effect, entirely embroidered with tubes in color gradients from beige to brown for the Jean Paul Gaultier winter 1998 haute couture collection. A loyal customer of the establishment, and a friend to François Lesage, Christian Lacroix never ceased to call upon the skills of the Maison: "It is he who gave me a taste for embroidery. He is my couture godfather." People also remember a "black tide" dress that François Lesage had embroidered as a gift to the young designer Christian Le Drezen, who died in 2003, in whose talent he had complete faith. Through this dress, crafted with bird feathers, and shards of granite and seashells, the creator and the brodeur had wanted to recall the ecological disaster caused by the oil tanker Erika on the coast of Brittany. Lesage's American past resurfaced in his partnering with Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene and Calvin Klein who, upon seeing the embroiderer’s samples, reacted "like a child in a pastry shop"*. Today, with Alexandre Vauthier, Bouchra Jarrar, Didit Hediprasetyo... the young guard is perpetuating the tradition of entrusting Lesage with their projects.
Though fashion is an essential part of the work of François Lesage, the embroidery atelier also carried out many special orders with great talent. In 1997, for the World Youth Days held in France, Lesage embroidered the chasuble and the mitre of Pope John-Paul II. Roman Polanski and Erik Orsenna asked him to embroider the costumes for their induction into the French Academy (1999). Jean-Loup Dabadie did the same in 2008, and so did Simone Veil and Dominique Bona more recently.
Awards and Recognition
The know-how of François Lesage was celebrated in 1988 in a monograph, Haute Couture Embroidery: The Art of Lesage, by Palmer White. An exhibition also paid tribute to his talent at the Palais Galliera in Paris, then at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (1987), the Fashion Foundation of Tokyo (1989) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1991). He received many awards: Regional Grand Prix for Arts Craftsmanship, the Medal of the City of Paris in 1984, and Lesage was also promoted to Knight of the Order of the Arts et Métiers (1985). The City of Paris then awarded him with the Vermeil rank of its Grande Médaille (1986). He received the Grand Prix de la Création of the City of Paris (1989). He also received many honors: in 1994, François Lesage was made a Knight in the Order of the Legion of Honor, and was even promoted to the rank of Officer in 2007. He was also elevated to the rank of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters (2003). The Craft Industry (the Métier) gave him an ultimate recognition just a few weeks before his death, naming him Master of the Art in November 2011.
"We are playing our part in the kingdom of the imagination. Embroidery can be a woman's dream become reality.” François Lesage.
"Embroidery... means creating with discipline, suggesting while seeming to follow, having a divinatory, but wise imagination. It is not quite an art, but it is more than a craft...” François Lesage.
"To my dear Mr. Lesage, who through the years has given me his marvelous talent, his precious assistance and his constant friendship. With my admiration and my deepest affection.” Card from Yves Saint Laurent to François Lesage.
"It is difficult to speak of Lesage without the risk of uttering the commonplaces of perfection, because with him, we are on the edge of 'the self-evidence of the masterpieces'. A Lesage embroidery is first and foremost true luxury: a technique subsumed under art, limitless time spent on achieving the most intangible effect, an opulence that is always elegant.” Christian Lacroix.
"I have worked with Lesage for several years now. And even though I tried several times to work with some other ‘Master Embroiderers' in other countries, I always had to bow to his peerless supremacy. In haute couture, embroidery is an essential part of creation: we have here the best expression of craftsmanship. But in the case of Lesage, this craftsmanship becomes art: his work is not only the perfection of embroidery, a verisimilitude so close to reality that it sometimes looks like a print, but also a creativity, an imagination, a passion for research that is not simply execution. And this he confirms as a creator.” Valentino Garavani.
“François Lesage is a true magician who turns any fabric into a pure jewel.” Jean-Louis Scherrer.
"For many years, I have worked with Mr. Lesage, and it is always a revelation to me when I visit the ateliers and see the meticulous work of the embroiderers and stitchers, often very young. I am fascinated by their technique and patience." Hubert de Givenchy.
The quotes and phrases indicated with an asterisk are excerpted from the book Haute Couture Embroidery: The Art of Lesage, by Palmer White, Vendome Pr. publi. 1988, and a French translation by Michèle Albaret, Editions du Chêne, 1988.
The Lesage School
François Lesage wanted to hand down and share his exceptional know-how, and decided to establish a school of embroidery, thereby enabling all lovers of embroidery to realize their dreams. In 1992 his school of embroidery opened its doors. The school is open to all, students or enthusiasts from around the world. Over 3,500 students have already come to learn the expert techniques of the Maison. A full training program is now offered by the school, in the form of courses throughout the year. In 2014, the school was entirely refurbished and expanded. It is still located in the historic building of the rue de la Grange-Batelière in the 9th arrondissement.
Lesage and Chanel
Although Gabrielle Chanel never wished to work with the Maison Lesage, because she believed it too strongly associated with the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli, Karl Lagerfeld on the contrary contacted François Lesage as soon as he came to the rue Cambon in 1983. The two men had great respect and admiration for one another, and they forged ties which culminated in 2002 with Lesage entering the Chanel Galaxy. "For me, there is no such thing as haute couture without embroidery. (…). I know that the French did not invent embroidery, but to me, it is a quintessentially French art. In any case Paris is where embroidery has found its cathedral, and François Lesage is its high priest in our time”, said Karl Lagerfeld in the book Haute Couture Embroidery: The Art of Lesage.
The establishment is now part of Paraffection, the company which includes other artistic crafts and trades establishments (Desrues, Massaro, Act3, Lemarié, Maison Michel, Barrie Knitwear, Lognon, Montex, Goossens, Causse...).
The Lesage Tweed
In 1998, driven by a desire to diversify the establishment’s activities, François Lesage created a textile workshop. He suggested some tweeds for his Haute Couture and Ready-to-wear collections for the great names in fashion. They are a sophisticated assembly of the most diverse types of threads and materials, and involve extraordinary know-how.
The tweed is made by weaving, with the warp and weft from yarns, threads and materials of different types, producing a unique and irregular result. The warp - mounted vertically - is the backdrop of the fabric, the base supporting the materials. Here there might be up to twelve different threads for a single warp. The weft - woven horizontally - creates the exclusive character of the fabric. It can include an unlimited number of threads. Tightly packed, open weave, textured, thick, embossed, plaited, freeform, serge... there are many possibilities for different effects.
His son Jean-François created his own workshop producing embroidery for interiors in Chennai, India, where he is established since 1993. He often works with the shoemaker Christian Louboutin and regularly works with the Maison Lesage in Paris.
- "Francois Lesage dies at 82; French embroidery king". Associated Press. Los Angeles Times. 2011-12-03. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- Frankel, Susannah (2011-12-02). "Farewell to man who gave haute couture its shimmer". The Independent. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- Wilson, Eric (2011-12-01). "François Lesage, Who Led Embroidery Atelier, Dies at 82". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- "François Lesage obituary". The Telegraph. 2011-12-02. Retrieved 2011-12-21.