At Maison Lesage, Beauty Embroidered By Hand Exquisite creations for the world's top designers are in the works at a 130-year-old embroidery studio in Paris. At Maison Lesage, a small army of highly skilled sewers — affectionately called petites mains, or "little hands" — draw, sew and embroider for the biggest names in fashion.

At Maison Lesage, Beauty Embroidered By Hand

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Amid hurricanes, flooding, economic troubles and all the concerns about terrorism, we have one small reminder this morning that life goes on.

In a charming old building in Paris, fantasies of beauty are being fashioned, luxurious pieces of embroidery that will trim designer clothes in the upcoming fall fashion shows.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited the oldest embroidery studio in the City of Light.

SUSAN STAMBERG: A friend's son got a tattoo. She was appalled. Forty years ago, she'd given birth to a perfect, pink-skinned cherub. Now bright blue wings, dark red hearts and some birds were inscribed on his bicep - appalled. Comfort, however, came in the words of France's top embroiderer, Francois Lesage.

Mr. FRANCOIS LESAGE (House of Jean-Francois Lesage): It's in human nature...

STAMBERG: He says its human nature to want to look different. Self-adornment like this goes back to the Lascaux Caves. Think of scarification. That's the ancestor of embroidery.

(Soundbite of a sewing machine)

Mr. LESAGE: ...the ancestor of the embroidery.

STAMBERG: Adornment rules in a series of sunny rooms at Maison Lesage, the House of Lesage in Paris. Workers in white lab coats attach sequins, beads, rhinestones, shells, ribbons, feathers to pieces of air-thin fabric, which will adorn de luxe designs by the top names in fashion.

Ms. ANGELIQUE GINGUENE (House of Chanel): Dior, Louis Vuitton, St. Laurent...

STAMBERG: All the famous French designers. Angelique Ginguene works for Chanel. Their chief designer, Karl Lagerfeld, bought Lesage in 2002 to ensure that this 130-year-old embroidery business would stay in business in a world of mass-produced, made-in-China clothing.

The House of Lesage is a house of handwork, done by what the French call petit mains - little hands. They do it all.

(Soundbite of a sewing machine)

Ms. GINGUENE: The drawing, the sewing, the embroidery. It's very precious hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Embroidering trimming for a long cream-colored gown by Dior, those little hands will hover their bead-baring needles over thin pieces of tissue-paper patterns, on which are sketched designs for just one small section of the dress.

Ms. GINGUENE: Eight different parts and eight different drawings for this top.

STAMBERG: To make only the bodice of upper portion of it.

Intricate. Delicate? If butterflies could sew, they would work for Lesage. There are some 50,000 samples in the Lesage archive, a museum of embroidery, really. Shelves there buckle with cardboard boxes marked Yves St. Laurent, Winter 1975, Chanel, Summer 2003 - inside the boxes, samples of the embroideries Lesage produced for that particular collection.

Angelique Ginguene names the various elements on a single, small vintage piece.

Ms. GINGUENE: You have cotton, you have...

STAMBERG: Gold cotton.

Ms. GINGUENE: cotton. You have red thread, gold leather, gold pearl pailette sequins, brown thread. Everything, everything is possible to do.

STAMBERG: And it's on this little, thin, flimsy piece of fabric.

Ms. GINGUENE: Yes, this is muslin.

STAMBERG: Muslin or chiffon. Chiffon, no?

Ms. GINGUENE: Chiffon, yes. Exactly.

STAMBERG: You can't walk in off the street and buy a yard of Lesage embroidery. It is all custom work, commissioned especially for a particular couture, high-fashion collection. The embroidery is the product of an on-going artistic conversation between the designer and the embroiderer. Angelique says that conversation begins with the designer's vision.

Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld might offer a single word: trails or Russia.

Ms. GINGUENE: The inspiration can be everything: a book, an image, just a word. And for each fashion show, he has an inspiration.

STAMBERG: Lesage responds with maybe 30 possibilities. Chanel picks maybe three. The result: The most delicate, exquisite, improbable sewing.

The work is so fine...


STAMBERG: ...that it looks as if he's taken grains of sand that are sparkly, but also pure white, or tiny, tiny beads...


STAMBERG: ...and fixed them on to this fabric. And they glitter.

Hundreds of hours of handwork, thousands of sequins, beads, miles of silken threads. These rarified creations come naturally with rarified costs. But 82-year-old Francois Lesage is philosophical about matters like price.

Mr. LESAGE: I prefer to sell one dress for 100,000 euros, than 100,000 dresses for one euro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: That 100,000-euro dress - surely only a princess or hedge-funder would buy it - might be encrusted with gold ribbon or silver braid. Packets filled with them are stuffed on shelves at Lesage. The seamstresses come to this trim library to get their supplies.

Ms. GINGUENE: They have to count how many blue pearl, how many red pearl the girl will need for realize embroidery.

STAMBERG: The precise number of red or blue pearls are put into little, transparent baggies and carried off to big embroidery frames where the magic begins.

Francois Lesage says years back, in good families, all the girls knew how to sew.

Mr. LESAGE: You know why? To occupy them not to think of the boys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LESAGE: It's true.

STAMBERG: About 20 years ago, to keep his petit mains on salary and to perpetuate the art at a time of economic slump, Francois Lesage started an embroidery school in this tranquil 19th century Paris building. One of his embroiderer/teachers, Marie-Lee Lyon, says she's fulfilling a life's dream at Lesage.

Ms. MARIE-LEE LYON (Embroidery Teacher): (French spoken)

STAMBERG: A dream since you were a little girl...

Ms. LYON: Yeah.

STAMBERG: work in couture.

Ms. LYON: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Marie-Lee weaves her dreams in beads and sequins and hundreds and hundreds of tiny, invisible stitches, all created at the House of Lesage.

Now, monsieur.

Mr. LESAGE: Yes, Madame.

STAMBERG: How is your own sewing?

Mr. LESAGE: I don't know how to sew a button. I can make three stitches with a hook and maybe sew my button.

STAMBERG: Mr. Lesage...

Mr. LESAGE: Yeah.

STAMBERG: ...I'm shocked.

Francois Lesage, his father Albert bought the family embroidery business in 1924 from a man who sewed for Charles Frederich Worth, thought to be the world's first high-fashion designer. In the 1860s, embroidery was a hallmark of Worth's style. And the House of Lesage has extended that stitching tradition now, into the 21st century.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

GREENE: If you'd like to see some photos of the embroiderer's art that Susan just told you about, you can visit

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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