Earlier this year, I found myself in one of the best-kept secrets of the Chanel universe: its handbag factory located outside of Paris. Here are created supremely sophisticated designs which a strong cultural impact: style trophies, in a way. The process behind their fabrication is intriguing and mesmerizing.
The place is as mystical and fascinating as one could imagine. It is a compelling and isolated shell in the midst of green, lavish fields. Even though ateliers seem very calm and relaxed on the surface, there is absolutely no time for leisure – highly experienced craftsmen (and those yet in training) work roughly on 4-5 collections at the same time. Once we enter a long, polished maze of never-ending corridors and rooms, I wonder how much time it takes to feel at ease here. I quickly that the training process lasts around five years. During this time, the passionate craftsmen are supposed to master all the techniques required. “Everything is possible here” is a phrase I hear almost in every stage we oversee. I guess it doesn’t come across as a surprise keeping in mind that some of the world’s most beautiful pieces see the daylight here.
“Beauty” here is rigorously measured, shaped and cut with unparalleled attention. Chanel persuades that this ephemeral concept too complex to define actually resides in flawless planning and immaculate precision. It is all about lines, numbers, materials, and miniature details assembled into a harmonious whole. Beauty is impossible without impeccable execution, after all. There is no place for hazardous improvisation. The tiniest mistake in the process and the object is damned with imperfection. It won’t ever be marked with Chanel’s etiquette then and the whole process has to be reset to zero. One can just imagine the pressure in the final stages of production. This task falls into the hands of the most talented people for whom Chanel’s ateliers have long provided a second home. People who voluntarily take up this burden of perfection (and do so with cheerfulness and beaming smiles, even at the end of the tiring day) must be incredibly passionate about their job. There are 440 of them.
The very first stage of creation is actually the most elusive one. Once we are shown Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches it becomes apparent that factory workers have to trust their creative instincts and intuition in order to grasp the exact stylistic idea the legendary designer seeks to transmit. In these sketches, a handbag is nothing but a matter of several indefinite strokes. “Oh, yes, the sketches are not as explicit as one could imagine”, our guide and Chanel handbag specialist tells us with a mischievous smile. Once a prototype is elaborated, it is passed on to the Chanel studio for review; eventual modifications are pointed out. This studio later decides on materials and colors that will be used for a particular model. The goal is clear: tell the story exactly as Karl Lagerfeld contemplates it. However, some things remain constant, no matter which model we take. There’s a whole set of values inherent to Chanel’s philosophy that must be condensed into a single bag and one of the most important ones is comfort. Mademoiselle Chanel always emphasized it. In the quest of liberating women’s hands and gestures, she started adorning her bags with chains and straps that allow wearing them in multiple ways.
The development stage is extremely short: everything must be carried out in 3-4 weeks. We visit offices where a very rigorous work of measurements, documentation and data storing is done. Every little detail of the future handbag, including the tiniest metallic pieces, is meticulously described, its quality checked and recorded; prices and conditions estimated. A stack of sheets is piled on each other; some pieces are already checked; others wait for their turn. It takes extreme attention and discipline to navigate between all these less glamorous turns of the creation process. Every material is also subjected to various tests: resistance, sturdiness, coloring, reactions to humidity, heat and sun.
It is only after all these stages of constant checking and making sure any kind of problem is anticipated (and prevented) that we can move to the fabrication process. The whole process consists of roughly 180 operations and delicate gestures. Precise cut is the key and several techniques are employed. Even though various machines are preponderantly used in order to make the process as effective and correct as possible, it is mostly the human hand and regard that assures the bag is taking its form in the way it is required. Chanel values handcraft and human touch above else; this stance is especially relevant today, when young customers re-discover the magic of savoir-faire. What comes after the cut, is a whole mosaic of complex and unique procedures: putting chains on, posing the brand name inside of the bag, ensuring once again that all the measurements are well done.
As we enter a specific space of ‘ateliers’, we learn that there are different sections in it: one of them is dedicated entirely to training, others are for diverse operations depending on the material (for example, working with very exotic and expensive skins, such as alligator). In this final stage, bags are decorated with embroideries and finishing touches are put; many of the components are extremely dainty and minuscule. One of the most complicated operations is turning the bag inside out (or, rather, outside out, because it’s worked on from the inside at first) – the process is extremely subtle and delicate, and, of course, not suitable for all fabrics.
Once we come to the very last room (‘room’ is too vague a word, because the space is so vast) to review long shelves of just-made bags ready to leave for Chanel boutiques all around the world, everything seems even more surreal. Chanel handbags (or rather allusions to them, especially in the very first stages of creation and assemblage) are cherished and constantly refined with such unparalleled fervor that it’s quite difficult to put a price tag on the final object once you see it. After visiting the ateliers, I do not concentrate on rectangular shapes, unique clasps, candy colors, tweed details or any other elements which make a particular bag quintessentially Chanel anymore; all I can think of is how much craft, human effort and care made this little object of art come to life. Appreciating an expensive handbag does not feel like vanity at all. Coco Chanel’s audacity, outspoken ideas and taste for sartorial provocation changed the way women perceived their wardrobe and, more importantly, their attitudes and lifestyle in general. It is acutely evident in the brand’s designs. Chanel bags are sublimely purposeful objects, which act both as companions and objets d’art. Chanel is the kind of bag that travels through time and space and can be passed over to new generations who will appreciate their timeless design and impeccable beauty.
The article was published in L’Officiel Lithuania Summer issue in collaboration with Chanel
Photos courtesy of Chanel