JUST AS WOMEN adore collecting bags and shoes, luxury groups love nothing more than amassing brands. It all started about 20 years ago when Bernard Arnault earned the moniker of wolf in the cashmere coat by acquiring a series of high-end fashion, beauty, jewellery and champagne houses that are now part of the world's largest luxury conglomerate, LVMH. It didn't take long for other savvy companies to follow suit and go on the hunt for labels to turn around, especially in France, Switzerland and Italy, where groups such as Kering, Richemont, Prada and Tod's have built mini empires.
Not all fashion players, however, are made equal. One of the leading powerhouses in the business, Chanel, whose resources rival those of the aforementioned groups, has managed to remain private and, instead of going on a shopping spree to build a portfolio of brands, has tried a different tack.
Over the last two decades, the Parisian maison, which represents to many around the world the epitome of Gallic savoir faire and elegance, has quietly acquired a series of workshops in and around Paris that specialise in crafts such as millinery, embroidery, pleating and flowermaking.
Under the aegis “Par Affection” (meaning “For Love” in French), these houses provide Chanel with skills that are becoming increasingly hard to find in Europe, where workshops of these kinds have been disappearing due to the challenges they face in such a competitive market. Thanks to Chanel's abundant coffers, however, they've been resuscitated and are now thriving, sometimes even struggling to fulfil the orders of Chanel and other labels, which call on their services for the creation of one-of-a-kind embroideries or floral appliqués that would otherwise be extremely difficult to procure.
Chanel's president of fashion Bruno Pavlovsky is the man responsible for Par Affection and for bringing most of the workshops previously scattered across Paris under a single roof in the suburb of Pantin, where they're based in a facility that, according to Pavlovksy, is working at full capacity.
“At the beginning, when we got the first company, the goal was more to preserve but that was then,” explained Pavlovksy before Chanel's spring/summer 2105 couture show last January. “Now we don't preserve but we're actively hiring and training people.
“I think that we found the right formula by being able to not only keep this know-how alive but to let them collaborate with different brands and attract young workers, because the people working there are of all ages and a lot of young ones are quite happy to be there. We're totally comfortable with the idea that they have a future, but by themselves. The fact that we want to give them autonomy and the power to work with other brands is very important for their own development; the best for them is if they can grow without Chanel.”
Although Chanel still places the lion's share of orders, other fashion houses commission complicated and labourintensive embellishments from ateliers such as embroiderers Lesage and Montex, and flower and feather maker Lemarié. On a recent visit to Pantin, artisans were hard at work on couture gowns for Valentino, bejewelled accessories for Dolce & Gabbana and incredibly intricate patterns for Chanel's Paris-Salzburg Métiers d'Art collection, shown in the Austrian city last December.
The Métiers d'Art collections, which straddle the line between ready-to-wear and couture, are staged every year by Chanel in a different city closely associated with the history of the house, and their aim is to showcase the skills of these ateliers. Past locations have included Edinburgh, Dallas and Shanghai, with Rome next on the agenda, in homage to Italy's vital role in the manufacturing of Chanel products.
The first Métiers d'Art show took place in Chanel's couture atelier on Rue Cambon, in the heart of Paris, reminisces Pavlovsky. “That was the beginning of the story”, he says. “But now we use their know-how in couture and even ready-to-wear. We focus on the communication of their know-how, but these workshops contribute to all our collections.
“Métiers d'Art is a very special moment for us. At the beginning I was talking with Karl Lagerfeld and saying that now that we have these companies, we wanted to show that they're very important for the fashion world. So with Karl we decided to do a show every year to celebrate these workshops.
“These Métiers d'Art collections are different from haute couture, because couture is very special and targeted, niche, one of a kind, but you can find the products from the Métiers d'Art collections in all our boutiques. The sophistication is the same but the ateliers are thinking about the capacity to remanufacture, though we're not talking about thousands of units. But I don't like to compare the two because couture is just for you, whereas this is for people who go to the boutique – at the end of the day we're offering a very high-end product, very special to all of our customers.”
Most of the ateliers hail from Paris, where shoemaker Massaro, for instance, is still based on Rue de la Paix, but Chanel has expanded its purview as far afield as Scotland, where it saved the knitwear house Barrie from bankruptcy.
In spite of the aura of philanthropy that surrounds Par Affection, Chanel is actually being practical and thinking long-term, because its investment in these ateliers is beneficial not only to the house that Coco built but to the fashion world at large, which should be grateful that such fast-disappearing crafts are being given a lifeline and a chance to shine again.