Jan 16, 2008
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Haute couture flower power

Jan 16, 2008

PARIS, Jan 16, 2008 (AFP) - With only days to go before the haute couture collections for summer 2008, the workrooms of Marcelle Guillet tucked behind the Bastille opera house in Paris are a hive of activity putting the finishing touches to orders for the house's unique speciality : artificial flowers.

Marcelle Guillet with one of her creations in her parisian showroom in December 2007
Photo : François Guillot/AFP

Whether pinned to the lapel of a jacket, nestling in a cleavage, or trimming a hat, the exquisite floral creations that grace the catwalks of the top designers will all have emanated from no. 1 avenue Daumesnil.

At one workbench pleated white tulle is being assembled into the house signature camellia for Chanel and carefully laid into tissue-lined boxes. At another one of the "mains" -- as the women with magic at their fingertips are known -- is deftly shaping petals using a pair of tweezers and a tool like a tiny ice-cream scoop heated over an open gas flame.

The walls are lined with shelves heaving with 10,000 matrices and moulds for a seemingly infinite range of flowers and foliage.

Heavy machinery is used to cut the petals, as many as 20 at a time for silk but more delicate or difficult materials like leather have to be laboriously cut individually. Colouring is also done by hand with a paintbrush. Not surprising then that a flower can take anything from an hour to 10 hours to complete.

It was Guillet's idea, 25 years ago, to take the business founded by her grandfather into haute couture. It had started out purely as interior design, although her father already began forging links with fashion. He became famous for his window displays for Dior, Hermes and Gucci as well as one of the French capital's most elegant department stores, Galeries Lafayette.

Her initiative to branch out into fashion immediately took off and soon she was in demand with all the top designers and houses including Balenciaga, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel.

Above all the job demands creativity and an ability to work closely together, Guillet says.

"With 70 percent of the customers I take them my designs. They may decide they want a different size, say 30 centimetres in diametre instead of 15. Or different colours, say, grey and beige instead of gradations of pink and straw. And experience is very important. I create things with them in mind, which are already in their style."

Among the 30 percent which submits its own designs is Chanel.

Chanel was Guillet's fifth customer when she started out, so it was to the prestigious house that she turned when she was approaching 60 and realised that none of her three sons, all successful in their own chosen careers, was interested in taking on the family business.

"I couldn't bear for all this know-how to be lost. Chanel is one of my biggest customers and appreciates the importance of craftsmanship." After contacting them in November 2006 it took only three months to conclude a deal, which still leaves Guillet free to create for all her other clients while ensuring the company's future for posterity.

Seventeen years ago, at 43, she set out to conquer Japan, feeling sure that she could make it in this country with its ancient civilisation and appreciation of art, and particular sensitivity to flowers.

She was welcomed with open arms. "The Japanese were so encouraging about my work, I immediately felt at home. I loved it."

The Japanese market now accounts for 20 percent of Guillet's turnover and in February a major retrospective of her career is being held in the Takashimaya store in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

While deeply entrenched in tradition, Guillet relishes experimenting with new materials. "The choice of materials today is much vaster. Once it was only silk, chiffon, velvet, feathers, maybe lace. Now we use PVC, leather, tweed, fur. We are constantly pushing the boundaries. I have even tried cork. That is what is so exciting. Any dream a designer has can be made a reality."

Testaments to her creative genius are crammed into every nook and cranny of the showroom: from voluptuous silk cabbage roses to tight buds, more-perfect-than-nature red carnations, to hot-house orchids in dusky pale pink velvet and tulle with dangling ostrich feather stamens or futuristic gardenias in rich chocolate leather.

An exotic flower to add the final touch to a wedding outfit or evening frock comes for as little as 50 euros (74 dollars).

By Sarah Shard

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