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Stylemaker / Francois Lesage, the Sage Embroiderer

Details, Details

His bead-encrusted concoctions have lifted him to the rank of haute couture genius. For him, it's the little things that count.

April 09, 1999|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES FASHION WRITER

PARIS — Like a doctor studying an X-ray, Francois Lesage examines a swatch of sky-blue sparkles, a gazillion itty-bitty salt-sized granules glittering like sapphires.

"This fabric is for--how shall I say?--a fashion emergency," says the director of the world's most famous embroidery salon--the House of Lesage--rubbing his hand on the gorgeous glitz of fabric.

In a nearby--how shall we say?--emergency room, several of Lesage's embroiderers, or "my girls," as he affectionately calls the 50 women on his staff, are busy sewing the teeniest of beads onto a Michael Kors gown destined for a movie star in Hollywood in the next 72 hours.

He gets rush jobs all the time. "Once, my girls worked for days, almost 3,000 hours, on a John Galliano gown that didn't even make it on the runway," he says matter-of-factly, as if to imply it's, well, c'est la vie.

Au contraire.

To the fashion cognoscenti, Lesage, 70, is a living legend and simply known as "the beader." He supplies designers with exquisite fabric, hand stitched with sequins, rhinestones and such. He has created at least 65,000 designs of embroidery, the European term for what Americans typically call beading.

It was Lesage who produced the glitzy grape bunches on Yves Saint Laurent's satin jackets that wowed the fashion world a decade ago. For Chanel, he created memorable chess game jackets. And Lesage takes great pride in having helped put Christian LaCroix, his honorary godson, on the fashion map.

But his work doesn't come cheap--not at $100 an hour (only 3% of the cost is in beads; the rest in labor). Such custom work--he uses about 150 pounds of pearls and 100 million sequins in a year--is what drives couture prices up to the heavenly heights of $100,000 for a gown or $60,000 for a jacket. He does about $7 million in business a year, netting a 15% profit.

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Not bad for a man who admits, "I don't know how to sew a button." He does, however, know how to design--a craft he learned from his parents, Albert and Marie-Louise. Twice a year he and his staff design about 200 swatches, ranging from landscapes to clowns.

Designers can either choose from Lesage's swatch batch or come up with their own ideas.

For 51 years the master has worked with such designers as Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga and Karl Lagerfeld, as well Americans Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta.

"I've grown with the designers, with the industry," he says. He has worked with Saint Laurent for 40 years, with Givenchy for 42, and as a kid was bounced on the knee of Elsa Schiaparelli.

He only works with designers face to face. "I have to see the designer, the sparkle in the eyes. I have to undress the mind of the couturier."

Designers, he says, tapping his forehead, "have a very London kind of brain. It's foggy in there. They come to me and say, 'I want tigers, rats, Van Gogh.' Saint Laurent once said, 'Francois, make me something that is like a chandelier reflecting off the mirror with the sky of Paris in the background.' " Lesage succeeded in the vague mission.

Once Lesage was befuddled when Galliano said a rose beaded coat was too pretty and new.

"He wanted it to look like an old rag from 1890. So we put alcohol on it. We walked on it. We varnished it. We pulled it apart. He loved it. I said to him, 'Why didn't you just go to a flea market?' But, they throw me ideas; it's up to me to catch them."

The walls of his attic office are covered with letters proclaiming his brilliance, his friendship and the reason why his name alone--Lesage--makes him, well, the Sage Embroiderer.

From LaCroix, who has written several notes, is this: "My Dear Godfather, Your embroidery is like lightning, pure genius." Gaultier always draws a picture with his notes: "Dear Francois, What you did for me is sublime. I kiss you."

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Everywhere are photos of Lesage: with his four kids, Paco Rabanne, Monaco's Princess Caroline, socialites and his girlfriends. "She's one," he points to a photo of a dark-haired beauty. "That's another and another. I'm married, but I have girlfriends. I'm French," he says, laughing. "It's in my blood."

So is embroidery. "When I bleed, I bleed beads and sequins."

Since 1948, Lesage has ruled the roost at 13 rue de la Grange Bateliere, not far from another famous house, the Paris Opera.

Several small rooms on two floors serve as his workshop. It is here where women, most in their 20s and 30s, work in groups of two, four and six, stitching by hand with hooked needles.

Aline Gonzalez put her French literature studies on hold two years ago "because I love haute couture," she says as she and three others stitch the first of 80,000 sequins onto a Chanel gown.

"It's like magic doing this," she says. "We are all magicians."

But Lesage, everyone seems to agree, is the most magical, a bon vivant who smokes French cigarettes and loves to tell jokes ("Did you hear about the old man who took Viagra? He couldn't remember what it was for").

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