remy de la mauviniere/associated press
Lorenzo Re might just have the fashion industry’s least glamorous job. Alone in his dusty Paris workshop, he carves, chisels and sands limewood chunks into rounded moulds used to shape toques and fedoras for the likes of Dior and Chanel.
So, how will the show go on when he retires? No one is sure. The 62-year-old is Paris’s last hat-block maker. He has searched in vain for an apprentice to keep his savoir-faire alive.
“I don’t even want to think about what will happen when he leaves,” said Ludovic Kornetzky, artistic director at Maison Michel. The Paris milliner makes much of its pricey headgear by stretching felt and straw over Re’s blocks. “When he retires, it will all be gone,” Kornetzky said.
The saga is now a familiar one in the rarified world of French high fashion, which is dependent on an aging pool of traditional artisans known as “petite mains” or “little hands.”
Few young people are drawn by the low-paying and fiddly work of making silk flowers and embroidery, buttons and other finishings that the multibillion-dollar industry can’t do without.
Succession has become an obsession for Bruno Legeron. The fourth generation faux flower-maker’s silk blossoms adorn garments by Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro, Sonia Rykiel and Dior.
“It’s a vicious circle,” said Legeron, 50. “Because I spend my life in the workshop, I never got out to find a wife, which means I don’t have a kid and won’t have anyone to leave this place to when the time comes.”
Each Legeron made-to-order blossom takes up to an hour to assemble and retails for the equivalent of $39 to $133 US. The process has remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. His great-grandfather, Louis, rose to the top of the firm in 1880 after starting as an apprentice for its original owners.
With many of his nine employees approaching retirement age, Legeron takes on teenage interns. But the long hours — particularly leading up to fashion houses’ shows, when workers often put in more than double the 35 weekly hours laid out in French law -— discourage many.
Six middle-age women sit around a table in the workshop-cum-showroom in central Paris, transforming scraps of hand-dyed pink taffeta into rose petals using a ball-tipped iron tool they heat over a candle. They then glue the individual petals to a ribbon-covered stem, wrapping each with a wire to hold it in place. “You have to have a real passion for this work, otherwise, forget it,” said Legeron.
Paris had hundreds of flower-makers at the end of the Second World War. Legeron is the last independent one. His last two competitors, Guillet and Lemarie, were bought by Chanel.
The privately owned luxury giant has become a beacon of hope for the artisans’ future: It also owns shoemaker Massaro, milliner Michel, button-maker Desrues and embroiderer Lesage.
“We had always worked with them and it was out of the question to stop,” said Bruno Pavolvsky, president of fashion at Chanel. “Their level of quality exists nowhere else. For Chanel, it was fundamental that their exceptional savoir-faire survive.”