Artisans of Haute Couture

The heritage and tradition of Haute Couture is inextricably linked with Paris. As early as the 17th and 18th centuries the creations of Parisian dressmakers were distributed throughout the European Royal Courts on Pandora fashion dolls due to the desire amongst royalty, aristocrats and courtesans to emanate the French styles. By the 20th century Haute Couture had been elevated to an art form by designers such as Charles Fredrick Worth, Edouard Doucet and Emile Pingat. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne was established to maintain the standards of excellence, with a daunting list of requirements for those who wished to enter a veritable ‘Hall of Fame’ alongside Paquin, Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Gres, Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Saint Laurent et al.

Observing a Haute Couture garment up close in a museum or gallery is likely to take your breath away. The genius of design, mastery of skills and perhaps most of all, the hours of time dedicated to the embellishments are awe-inspiring. The garments appear as if from a fairytale, made by fairy-godmothers and worn by illustrious princesses and queens. As your eyes pour over every last detail, devouring the sequins, beads, ribbons and lace, it seems impossible that it could be made for a real person. And yet they are made for real people and they are made by real people too. Sequestered in ateliers and studios are the most skilled and talented professionals of the couture industry, they were once known as les petites mains, but are now celebrated and revered as artisans and masters of their craft. The names of these ateliers and their specialties have become synonymous with Haute Couture such as Lesage and embroidery, Desrues and buttons, Maison Guillet and artificial flowers, Maison Lemarie and feathers, Anne Hoguet and fans. 

The Hand & Lock Atelier

On a rainy day in London I arrived at Hand and Lock, the renowned embroidery studio specialising in Royalty, Military Regalia, Ecclesiastical, Theatrical and of course, Haute Couture embellishment since the 18th century. Most recently they have been commissioned by Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Pringle of Scotland, Mary Katrantzou and Tom Ford.I was welcomed by Jessica Jane Pile the Senior Embroidery Designer, and ushered into a quiet sitting room that houses their archive of exquisite embroidery samples. Committed to their heritage and tradition of excellence in hand embroidery the archives were mesmerising as each sample was a testament to their mastery of skill, techniques and design. As I sat on the plush couch, marvelling at the craftsmanship and artistry of the pieces, pouring over every last detail of gold work, sequins, beading and stitchery I wondered who could have made such beautiful work.

I was about to discover this as Jessica kindly offered to take me on a tour.  Within the small atelier there is a light filled studio where embroiderers work painstakingly to complete the most intricate projects by hand. They are adept at the most accomplished techniques such as Goldwork, Tambour beading and Silk Shading. Most of the employees are taken on as interns and trained in-house as there are few colleges teaching the techniques necessary to complete the meticulous and elaborate pieces. 

Hand & Lock are also enthusiastic about the continued acquisition of these artisanal skills and techniques and alongside their internship programme they also offer the prestigious and much coveted annual Hand & Lock Embroidery Prize. This encourages a contemporary approach in regards to design and use of materials whilst also maintaining their rigorous standards of hand embroidery. They have an exciting programme of embroidery workshops open to all levels where enthusiasts and students alike can be trained by some of the most talented artisans of Haute Couture embellishment.