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Meet the Master Artisan Women Realizing Their Dreams in the City of Light

From Sweden and Tunisia to Switzerland, these master artisan women have committed their lives to excellence and are realizing their dreams in the City of Light.

Couture gloves by Thomasine Barnekow. Photo: Benjamin Taguemount

The recent funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was noted for its restraint. Due to Covid-19, rather than a public funeral attended by thousands, the duke was laid to rest with only 30 guests gathered at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. And yet, for the millions that tuned in to bid adieu to the 99-year-old royal, it was impossible to miss the exceptional display of pomp and circumstance via golden, monogrammed threads worn by church and military officials.

Each piece, whether made with cloth or metal, bore a story and all were made by hand. Craftsmanship remains one of the most virtuous and personal means of storytelling today. While we may not all be members of an official club or tribe, wearing our role on our sleeve, even the common man or woman can seek out some of the world’s contemporary craftspeople and gift themselves a piece of storytelling history. With time, it can become one with them, and in turn, speak of one’s own desire to uphold the high art of the handmade.

Thomasine Barnekow. Photo: Daniele Fragale

What defines the young woman who decides to dedicate her life to excelling in master artisanry? Perhaps it is her innate curiosity mingled with a desire to see things through. Paris-based glove maker Thomasine Barnekow recalls growing up amid wild flowers and a forest in the Swedish countryside. “I learned very quickly to know where to find which flower and what they looked like at different times of the year; from the early violets by the house wall, to the wood anemone carpet in spring, and the lonely apple on a branch come fall,” she reminisces. There is also the memory of her mother bringing out a special coffee and tea service, passed on from her Hungarian heritage – the hand-painted Herend Queen Victoria porcelain. “The fragility and beauty still give me a precious nostalgia.

Looking back today, I believe the colors are still with me: the pale green, the gold, and the combinations of vibrant candy hues.” She also cites her mother recounting the details of dinner parties, from the table settings to the fashion. “Listening to all this beauty made my imagination begin to paint its own images. Whenever there was a dinner in our home, I was eager to help; especially preparing the table, with beautiful plates, polished silverware, a flowering bouquet in the middle, and, as a final touch, turning a handwoven white linen napkin into a sculpture on every plate.”

Donia Allegue’s bespoke turban. Photo: Courtesy

Today, her eponymous brand presents gloves that appear themselves like sculptures. They proudly sprout like exotic flowers from her boutique in the Galerie Véro-Dodat in Paris’s first arrondissement. She asserts that designing a “simple model that can become an everyday classic is sometimes more difficult than making a spectacular glove.” The glove maker for the Paris Opera House and various couture houses, including Schiaparelli, who has also seen her gloves on the November 2019 cover of Vogue Arabia on Adriana Lima, shares that the process can take several seasons to perfect. It starts with a hand-sewn sample combined with a drawing using Adobe Illustrator sent to production for a first prototype. The mastery, of course, is in the details. One glove, which features a tulip cut at the wrist, offers an elegant vision of the hand elongated with diagonal cuts between the fingers. It also presents infinite material choices due to its cut. Barnekow often uses lambskin on the point finger and palm, “so that one can always use the gloves, feeling protected and at the same time use it on a smartphone with any finger one desires,” she notes. “Modern women should never feel handicapped by what they wear; just comfortable, elegant, and avant garde.” Each seam type is then executed by a specialist sewer. In glove making, the saying goes, that from conception to the moment they are placed in a box, the gloves have been touched at least 70 times.

Donia Allegue. Photo: Supplied

Sometimes the path to determining one’s own particular craft is through a deep dive into the world of high fashion, in the most resplendent city of all – Paris. Tunisian designer Donia Allegue credits her years at the maison Christian Dior for introducing her to the “true spirit” of couture. “Working with precious textiles and embroideries, I discovered the French art of handcrafting and saw that beauty is alchemy of senses and heritage.” Finding and embracing her own creativity (how many push it away!), Allegue looked to create something “new” for all women of the world – “A fashion accessory that would celebrate femininity and beauty, and would unite all women, beyond borders.”

Her decision to work with turbans led her to reinvent them, modernize them, and, as she posits, “Impose it as a must-have fashionable, yet timeless accessory.” Allegue sampled products with more than 50 specialized craftspeople in Europe before finding the right team in France.

Knitwear by Cécile Feilchenfeldt. Photo: Courtesy

Her brand launched in 2013, and soon afterward, her turbans were spotted on Beyoncé and HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Today, Donia Allegue stands as the leading reference of luxury turbans. Like the pieces at Thomasine Gloves, they are not all made-to-measure; rather, they are the fruit of a unique sewing technique, which maintains a made-to-measure fitting. Across Paris, in the 15th arrondissement, Swiss artisan Cécile Feilchenfeldt is sitting at her sewing machine, where she has been for years. The winner of the Grand Prix de la Création des Métiers d’Art 2015 has seen her creative knitwear on the runway for Schiaparelli. And don’t look for “just wool” – the experimental knitwear designer also works with materials like wood or nylon, along with luxury fabrics. The Grand Prix was not the first prize she won – she was granted the Brunschwig Award for Applied Arts in 1998. She used the CHf 20 000 prize money to set up her sewing workshop in Paris. She expresses that she is “more of a weaver,” her work appears to swell like sea water. She “draws” without paper and if a thread breaks, her drawing “disappears.”

Cécile Feilchenfeldt. Photo: Aurélie Cenno

Her experimental or abstract stitches can offer the surprise element to couturiers looking to add a certain je ne sais quoi to their work – and often that element is even unbeknownst to Feilchenfeldt, until the moment when she releases her knit from under the needle and it springs to enigmatic life. The impact of the prize money on helping Feilchenfeldt establish her career is not lost on her. Government and private funding like the annual Loewe craft award or even online directories like the Homo Faber Guide, which serves to connect master artisans, all work to bolster the art of this niche world. Each woman, while from various paths and places in life, and with different passions, upholds the value of community in her work. While craftsmanship is sometimes perceived as a singular métier, it is one whereby minds merge to push a story forward until it arrives wrapped in delicate tissue in the hands of its owner. She will carry it forward and, if cared for, will then gift it to another. Perhaps this is the ultimate gratification for the original author of the tale – that her craft lives on.

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Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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