Exclusive: In the Atelier of Chanel during Haute Couture

Veronika Heilbrunner visited the Chanel Atelier during Haute Couture in Paris

“Always when it’s being said that haute couture is about to disappear, the opposite happens,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Fashion President at Chanel, in an interview a year ago. Today there are around 1000 couture customers at Chanel alone, and that’s more than 15 years ago.

Today we’re happy to publish an excerpt from a feature about my visit in the Chanel atelier in the current October issue of German Harper’s Bazaar that we were able to realize together with Chanel itself and the wonderful photographer Adrian Crispin. Fitting to the theme, all of the photos were taken on analog equipment. Barbara Kranz has wonderfully written down my thoughts, feelings, and so much more about this memorable visit. Her summary is below.

There are few places where fashion has retained its mystery. The haute couture studios, where the petites mains – the little hands – guard the holy grail is one of them. They cut, sew, stitch, mold, and cobble to create magical creations that only a few get to see, and even less are allowed to slip over their heads and wear. Or can afford.

I have to think about the biography Paul Morand wrote. In her radical, independent candor, Coco Chanel – she was 63 at the time – confided in the French writer, her longtime friend. “Money isn’t nice. Money is practical.”, she is quoted as saying in his book The Allure of Chanel. Then a few pages later, “the affordable can only come from the expensive. To be able to offer lower-priced couture, haute couture must first be there.” Money opens the doors to the inner circle. (Others marry into money, she said mockingly, which for her was never a question.) Still, the mystery of fashion lies elsewhere.

For example, in the hands of the qualified women and men who command the highest artistry in the industry and guard the treasure from which every fashion is served and developed. This doesn’t mean just the most highly refined handwork, and today there is also the chance to find new paths into the couture laboratory – unexpected techniques like laser cut embroidery, tweed 3.0 formed into never-before-imaginable silhouettes, computer prints, and 3D fabrics more sumptuous than cashmere.

For me, a visit to fashion’s workshop of wonders had already long been one of my heart’s desires, the red carpet at the Oscars and the Met Ball wrapped into one. And now I’m standing right in front of it and having heart palpitations. Strong ones. The tour begins with one of the biggest fetishes. That means: with the shoes.

Stingray, crocodile, snake, cork, neoprene, patent leather, suede, vinyl, the finest napa in every color, heavy buffalo skin, and rolls of velvet, canvas, satin, and silk – the fabrics from which couture shoes are made are seemingly countless. A large number of them are stored in the workshops of Massaro Paris. Since Sébastien Massaro opened his shoemaker’s workshop in 1894, the name has stood for custom production, but also in the meantime for haute couture, or as Karl Lagerfeld put it, “for good shoes that are the right path to luxury.” Good shoes like Chanel’s two-tone slingback pumps in beige with a black toe, which took their leap right here from Mademoiselle Gabrielle’s drawing and into real life. And are still as successful today as Chanel N°5.

The first pair of these pumps is on display in the exhibition room of the Massaro workshops, cream-colored leather with a black satin toe and an elastic band over the heel. But not so small, however – Coco lived like a lord down to her feet, and how nice that my own size 41 shoes wouldn’t have been worth a shrug.

The most elaborate pairs by Massaro for Chanel were over-the-knees with straps, nearly pants, that every single model walking the couture defilee had to have tailored to her foot and body. 40 hours of work and three fittings go into every conventional made-to-order pair, which start at 1500 euro, open end.

More than 10,000 lasts are stored in the well-guarded archive room, each with the name of the customer on show. Jean-Etienne Prach, the studio’s press attaché, cautions me not to make notes or take pictures of anything which isn’t freely given. It disturbs the handworkers, and most of all the discretion of the house. Still, it’s known that the Duchess of Windsor only wore custom pairs by Massaro, like Barbara Hutton, Elsa Schiaparelli, and René Coty, to name one of the men who form (or formed) almost 20 percent of their regular customers, a growing trend.

Liz Taylor’s shoe lasts are still hanging here in their place under T, Romy Schneider’s under SCH, and under G, very current, those of Daphne Guinness. The shoemakers undergo five years of special training to meet the demands of these shoes and the often staggering ideas behind them. Like those of Lagerfeld. For this couture season, it was a relatively reserved height, soft leather boot all in black – only the bride wore white.

But heels that resemble the turned legs of rococo chairs, cork plateaus in dizzying heights, transparent pumps, and satin sneakers with rich, ornamental gem edging, all of those were also seen in earlier collections. “Chez Massaro, tout est possible”, is their slogan. And 3000 private customers appreciate it.

In 2002 the shoe house with its head office on Rue de la Paix was acquired by Paraffection S.A., a subsidiary of Chanel, in which a total of seven couture studios have been merged to guarantee the most highly refined craftsmanship in the future. “Par affection” means as much as “with devotion”, an appropriate request. The made-to-order shoe master works independently and also for the other couture houses – there are 28 at the moment – that meet the strict requirements of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and present their defilees to demanding fashion fans.

Read the entire article (which is unfortunately only available in German) in Harper’s Bazaar, or find it online here.


Text: Barbara kranz
Photos: Adrian Crispin
Video: Julia Zierer
Translation: Melissa Frost


– in cooperation with chanel –

Born and raised in Munich/Germany, Veronika’s professional career has developed from being a model to a fashion editor, to online luxury retailing and most recently style editor of Harpers Bazaar Germany. She currently lives in Berlin where in the beginning of 2015 she started a company with Julia Knolle, the ex-editor at large of Vogue Digital.
Oh, and she loves pugs!