Lesage is not only France’s oldest embroidery house, it is also a living heritage museum. The company’s labyrinthine archives enshrine a detailed history of fashion over the past 150 years. Today the small firm is run by 80-year-old François Lesage, venerated as a “godfather of couture”. He inherited the family business in 1949 from his father Albert Lesage, who bought it from a famous figure in the trade, Albert Michonet, embroiderer to Napoleon III as well as Paris couture pioneers Madeleine Vionnet and Charles Worth. After serving an apprenticeship in the family atelier, 18-year-old François headed off to Los Angeles, where he set up shop on Sunset Boulevard, selling Lesage embroideries to designers and stylists for Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies, including Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich. When his father died a year later, François was called back to Paris to take over. François went on to work with the Who’s Who of the fashion world, embroidering leaping circus horses for Elsa Schiaparelli, translating Gaudi’s mosaics into an avant-garde dress for Guy Laroche and translating Van Gogh’s Irises into a famous iridescent jacket for Yves Saint-Laurent.

Although the firm was bought by Chanel in 2002, the dapper Lesage, who was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2007, is still to be found in his world-famous atelier most days, overseeing a team of thirty nimble-fingered brodeuses. Presiding over 60 tons of supplies (including 40,000 different kinds of threads, beads and sequins) and an incredible 60,000 hand-embroidered samples (estimated at 9 million hours of work), Lesage once declared that “a country that loses its crafts is a country in its death throes”. To avoid that fate for France, Lesage opened his own embroidery school in Paris in 1992, teaching interested amateurs and visitors as well as professionals the traditional techniques of embroidery, needlepoint and the Lunéville crochet hook.

13 rue de la Grange Batelière, Paris 9th.01 48.24.14.20. Ecole Lesage website

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of France Today.

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