I am staring into the heart of an exquisite canvas and leather boot that once caressed the calf of the legendary Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and I am mesmerized. This rare piece of footwear is on display at the atelier of the bespoke shoemaker Massaro, which is just one of the workshops at 19M, Chanel’s sprawling new campus dedicated to supporting and preserving the artisans whose creations—like this incredible boot—are the essence of haute couture.
It’s a beautiful morning in Paris, a few days after the Chanel couture show, and I am visiting the spectacular five-level edifice on the northern edge of the city where the label has gathered 11 of its 40 Métiers d’Art, among them experts in feathers and pleating, embroidery and jewelry, who spend their days perfecting the kind of detailed craftsmanship that has almost vanished today. (The annual runway presentation that showcases their skills is scheduled for December 6 in Dakar, Senegal.) These rare breeds have found a happy home here, safe from the relentless exigencies of the modern world, in which there is less and less room for such specialization, such refinement.
The building, a spiky 270,000-square-foot affair designed by the French architect Rudy Ricciotti, is meant to resemble the weaving of concrete threads. Its name is no accident—the 19 refers to the site’s arrondissement, and also to August 19, the birthday of Mademoiselle Chanel. The M stands for métiers, mode, and, most important, mains, those famous petites mains, or little hands, that have long whipped up sartorial fairy tales with a mere needle and thread.
Like a Silicon Valley incubator, 19M flaunts outdoor parapets and plenty of shared space, the idea being that its talented denizens—600 or so at any given time—will have a chance to hang out and maybe even collaborate. So a feather specialist from Lemarié might shmooze over a baguette with a goldsmith from Goossens, or a milliner from Maison Michel could swap trade secrets with a chiffon master from Paloma, while a pleater from Les Ateliers Lognon eavesdrops at the next table.
At Massaro, Antoine Besnard, a 26-year-old last-maker and the head of the atelier, succeeds in dragging me away from Chanel’s boot (she wore a size 38 wide and added a little height with a hidden platform, and her preferred leather was deep blue—never black!) to show me other treasures, including Delman pumps (white satin with a jeweled heel) that once graced Marlene Dietrich’s delicate feet. The tools that were used to hone these relics are the same ones employed today, and the house is always on the hunt at flea markets for more of these instruments.
But not everything here shrieks vintage glamour. J.J. Cale is playing in the background as Besnard takes me through racks crammed with endless rows of leathers, in every hue and texture imaginable—some exhibiting a somber gleam, some brandishing leopard spots, all awaiting personal orders from the firm’s client base.
For those loyal patrons, there is a series of intensely personal fittings—Massaro comes to New York every two months to accommodate stateside appointments—and an obsessional attention to detail. We stop by the station of an artisan who is concentrating on the decoration of a pair of evening shoes that a client wants embroidered in a bouquet pattern to match a couture gown.
I ask her if a customer’s fanciful notions are sometimes a bit daunting—what if, say, a gentleman is dreaming of a portrait of a beloved house cat on a pair of brogues? She is unfazed. “The most fun is finding the solutions,” she insists.
My next visit is to Atelier Montex, a house that has been embellishing fabrics since 1939. If Massaro offers a seemingly inexhaustible panoply of leathers, here there is arguably an even vaster array of embroidery swatches. “We try to have an organization, but there are no real rules,” says art director Aska Yamashita.
And indeed, if there were rules, they would have to be bent or broken to include the Liberty of London fabric I spy stretched on a table, barely recognizable atop tweed and re-embroidered with wool, then further cheered up with a ribbon of chiffon. If the techniques are old-fashioned (one artisan is operating a Cornely machine that works via a foot pedal, reminiscent of a 19th-century sewing machine), the staff is exceedingly youthful.
Many are in their early twenties; one young woman has a butterfly stud in her nose, another sports large floral tattoos, and a third is wearing baby blue pearlized sneakers. But at this moment, all of them are oblivious to contemporary concerns, plying ancient crafts with a skill that belies their ages.
Paillettes and pearls, bugle beads and sequins dance before my dazzled eyes. “We don’t see the finished creation until the catwalk,” Yamashita tells me, leaning over a work-inprogress, a wedding gown that will take more than 2,000 hours to create. “It’s crazy! Yes, this is a lot of work—but, after all, it’s high fashion.”
This story appears in the October 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
Lead image: photographed by David Schulze, styled by MaryKate Boylan, hair and makeup by Regina Harris at Elyse Connolly, nails by Sunny Han for Chanel Les Vernis. Model: Julianne Steege at Partsmodels.com, who wears a Chanel Haute Couture Wool Tweed Jacket and Chanel High Jewelry 18k White Gold and Diamond Necklace and Brooch, 800-550-0005.
Lynn Yaeger writes about fashion and design and contributes regularly to The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vogue.
Read More:Inside Chanel’s Sprawling 19M Campus