By SUZY MENKES
Published: December 12, 2011
PARIS — The wreaths, the sprays and the clusters of creamy white flowers — even an elegant boot fashioned out of rose petals — made a fitting backdrop at l’Église Saint-Roch for the departure of François Lesage, the artist of embroidery, mourned last week in the world of Paris couture.
The names on the floral tributes from Dior’s roses to Valentino’s lilies said it all. They included flowers from the house of Yves Saint Laurent, where embroidered
jackets re-creating the sunflowers and irises of Van Gogh were an artistic expression of opulence back in 1988.
Karl Lagerfeld, whose collaborations with Mr. Lesage over nearly 30 years helped produce the fabled 1996 re-creations of the Coromandel screens in Coco Chanel’s apartment, offered a wreath of roses, in tones from chalky white to clotted cream.
“He was fun, quite a number, always joking, with a drink and a cigarette, what the French call a ‘bon vivant’ and a very gifted person,” said Mr. Lagerfeld, who displayed the skills of the house of Lesage at his Indian-themed collection in Paris last week.
At the funeral, Christian Lacroix, who was taken under the wing of Mr. Lesage at the start of his career, recalled their first tense encounter when Mr. Lacroix, who was working at the fashion house of Jean Patou, had kept the famous embroiderer waiting. But from an initial frosty encounter came a warm friendship and close collaboration.
The church in Paris overflowed with the family of fashion, from designers including Azzedine Alaïa and Christian Loubutin to the “petites mains,” the artisan handworkers. Mr. Lesage’s own family spilled over the front rows: his son Jean-François, who established an embroidery studio in India; his daughter Marion, an artist, wearing a jacket with an embroidered heart from an early Lacroix collection and his son Jean-Louis, who read the speech prepared by his father last month when he was awarded France’s highest cultural honor: Maître d’Art.
In those words, Mr. Lesage, 82, talked about his “humble” métier and thanked the house of Chanel, which bought his business in 2002, securing its future. Chanel has done the same for other crafts, like the feather maker André Lemarié.
Mr. Lesage’s grandchildren also spoke, describing vacations in Corsica, where their nocturnal grandfather would play with their computer games half the night and then sweep them off on a boat in the morning.
Why was the death of this fashion figure, at a ripe old age, considered such a landmark moment in the couture world? Mr. Lesage, who took over the business from his father Albert in 1949, was one of the last links in a chain that stretches back to the golden era of haute couture. As a young man he was entranced by the silver screen and set up a business in America to support Hollywood costumers.
But he had known the playful designer Elsa Schiaparelli and had worked with Cristobal Balenciaga, whose studio was always a tomb of silence. His fruitful collaboration with Saint Laurent yielded dresses incorporating the birds of the artist Georges Braque and other art embroideries.
Mr. Lesage had moist eyes when he saw them paraded in what was one of the biggest fashion retrospectives ever presented — on a football pitch during the World Cup in France in 1998.
Mr. Lesage deeply appreciated the poetic essence of his work, saying “embroidery was the love of writing your dreams with a needle, with a pearl with anything that could enchant and bring tenderly to life a décor, an ambiance, a souvenir.”
Those words were at the heart of Mr. Lesage’s work. But the secret of his creative longevity was to embrace the new, as well as establishing profound relationships with designers, working in their individual cultures.
He had memories of watching Yves Saint Laurent going through Schiaparelli 1930s surrealist embroideries in the studio stock of 65,000 samples. And of remaking the original YSL Van Gogh jacket for a client to wear at a celebration of Mr. Lesage’s 50 years in fashion, which was filled with leggy Bluebell dancers, acrobats and jugglers.
Mr. Lesage found another soul mate in Jean Paul Gaultier, who pushed the boundaries of skill and taste to make a tribal reincarnation of a leopard skin couture outfit requiring 700 hours of work.
With haute couture a shrinking industry, is there still a demand for the extraordinary and the exceptional?
Mr. Lesage seemed to think so when in 1992 he set up his embroidery school on his premises in the Parisian district of Montmartre.
At the workshops of Ecole Lesage, the tulle is still stretched over wooden frames and jars are filled with glass beads, sequins, paillettes and pearls.
By serendipity, this technological age is learning to cherish once again handwork and artisanal skills that the haute embroiderer represented.
Mr. Lesage’s ebullient enthusiasm and prolific energy stayed with him to the end.
Or maybe a little longer. In the words of the priest, Father Christian Lancray-Javal, who helped to lay on the coffin a black lace shroud, hand-embroidered with moonlight dapples of silver, the indefatigable François Lesage might be up there now “embroidering the wings of angels.”