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More Than a Dress: What it Takes to Create a Chanel Couture Gown

Chanel, Fall 2018, Haute Couture, Adut Akech

Adut Akech Bior closes the Chanel Fall 2018 haute couture show.

Chanel’s head of atelier flou, Olivia Douchez, details the extraordinary making of the FW18 haute couture wedding dress and why the work of petites mains is truly art.

One doesn’t have to look beyond Instagram to know that women are choosing all styles of dress for their wedding day. At the Chanel FW18 haute couture show, with a Parisian faux backdrop erected under the glass dome of the Grand Palais, Sudanese model Adut Akech Bior closed in a slender-fitting, almond green, zip-up jacket with an officer’s collar in embroidered woolen fabric. Underneath, a sleeveless bridal gown with round collar in the same material was embellished with a braid underskirt in satin crepe.

Few truly comprehend what thorough work is involved in bringing to life an haute couture piece. Amid the hectic days leading up to the shoot, Chanel’s head of one of two flou ateliers, Olivia Douchez, opened the doors to her workspace on rue Cambon to describe an age-old practice available to but a lucky few.

“I will have to excuse myself if they call me,” warns Douchez as she balances on a stool within hearing distance of the atelier that she oversees. The show is just days away. Pieces of dresses are being worked on in silence and nothing can break the seamstresses’ rhythm. Douchez already has extensive experience at some of Paris’s most esteemed couture houses, beginning her career at Givenchy 13 years ago. Before this, her passion for sewing grew as she watched her mother “always sewing – curtains, dresses – and it became natural for me to do something with my hands, too. I always wanted a creative job. The satisfaction of seeing something come to life is magic.”

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia

She was ultimately head-hunted by Chanel and persisted through six months of interviews. “Karl Lagerfeld was my last meeting,” she recalls of the process. “He really put me at ease. You can count on him for that,” she assures. “I didn’t know what to say, or how to sell myself. As I arrived and walked towards him at the other end of the atelier, the first thing he said was, ‘Oh la la, you are young!’ After half an hour he asked, ‘When do you start?’ I thought I would cry. It is the most beautiful memory I have.”

Chanel, Fall 2018, Haute Couture

The olive leaves are embroidered using a sample validated by Karl Lagerfeld. Courtesy Chanel.

Hers would be a start that would begin an infinite cycle of creation. As the head of one of the two ateliers flous – dedicated to fluid, aérien couture – the work she directs complements the ateliers tailleurs, which are devoted to rigorous and tailored couture. None of the studios use the same materials or techniques, but the work is showcased together and a dress – like the wedding dress featured – can be shared across various ateliers. On this occasion, her workshop created the bridal dress and the atelier tailleur made the jacket. Other elements are sent to Chanel’s various specialty ateliers. The bridal look’s embroidery and braids required 530 hours of work for the atelier Montex to complete 82 500 elements. The olive leaves and braids were made with 62 500 bowl-shaped sequins and 20 000 rocaille beads and embroidered with the Luneville crochet hook. Luneville embroidery is achieved on the underside of the fabric on an embroidery frame. One hand holds the hook while the other gently moves the elements forward beneath the frame. With a needle, the leaves were then assembled as olive branches.
These branches – symbols of peace or victory – adorning the jacket were directly inspired by the green civil uniforms worn by members of the French Academy, who represent France’s intellectual elite.

Next, braids were included, the length of the zips on the sleeves and the zip of the dress. Lagerfeld referred to this as the “high profile” silhouette. “You can close the sleeves or open them. You can open the skirt, and the leg is more beautiful in profile, it makes an endless leg.” The finished piece was then accessorized with a Maison Michel veiled fascinator and almond green lambskin boots from the House of Massaro and embroidered by Montex.

“I await a collection with impatience,” smiles Douchez, describing the couture process. After receiving Lagerfeld’s sketches, five weeks of nonstop work from 9am to 9pm begins. “I really need to be 100% there for Karl,” she states. “We are in the creation phase and I love it. Along with my team of 40 – 37 petites mains (seamstresses) and three men – we work precisely and patiently. You cannot be in a rush when you do haute couture.” After studying the sketches, Douchez creates patterns and organizes the logistics of the dress. Then she mounts a canvas.

Chanel, Fall 2018, Haute Couture, Adut Akech

Assembling the embroidered pieces. Courtesy Chanel

Next, the fabric and embroidery are validated – if they have not already been decided by Lagerfeld. After a fitting, a model is made on tracing paper for the embroidery. “I need to show Karl how a piece looks as soon as possible. He arrives at the atelier in the evening, between 7 and 9pm, and it’s very rare that he changes something. He will even have decided how the dress will close and how many buttons it will have. Five buttons never mean four,” she stresses. Lagerfeld credits his in-house team and various outside ateliers, which Chanel has invested in over the years and at times wholly own. “Haute couture, it’s a way of making dresses. We are lucky to have ateliers that know how to do everything,” he comments. “To make the embroidery and all the details of the silhouettes, you need artisans with a traditional savoir faire. If Chanel hadn’t bought all these houses, I don’t know how we would do it. What I love is that I have the possibility of creating anything I want, in the best possible conditions, with the best people. This is an immense luxury.”

Later that week, the 68 couture looks were revealed, including the almond green bridal gown. Striding alongside the bouquinistes stands, Akech Bior took the hand of child model (and Lagerfeld’s godson) Hudson Kroenig, who was joined by the designer for the finale. Lagerfeld, who has lived in Paris since he was 18, appeared like a fish in water against the river bank backdrop that he, for all his fame and fortune, rarely if ever has the opportunity to enjoy on a morning stroll.

Chanel, Fall 2018, Haute Couture, Adut Akech

Model Adut Akech Bior in the final fitting of the Fall 18 haute couture dress. Courtesy  Chanel.

“After the show, some clients will come to the salon to see the dresses up close,” explains Douchez, initiating the second part of a dress’s journey, following its spectacular reveal. “Some clients want the model exactly how it is made, others want adjustments. We can make only a few transformations,” she stresses, “to adapt to a woman, while staying true to Karl’s design.” From order to delivery, a client can wait three to four months, while a couture wedding dress can take longer to make.

Douchez notes that the months after a show are more intense than the five weeks preceding the collection reveal. “I travel every three weeks as the clothes are brought to various cities – London, Dubai – where we show the collection in its entirety to women who didn’t see it in Paris.” One dress is sold per continent. “We have to pay attention. Our clients have homes all over the world. If two women were to attend the same event in the same Chanel couture dress it would be dramatic,” she confides with a knowing look. “This is why we only ever sell the same dress twice.”

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