Though it was founded in 1880, it is doubtful that any of us would have heard of Lemarie unless Chanel had acquired it in 1996 and promoted its extraordinary craftsmanship, most notably via their annual order of around 40,000 Chanel camellias.
Mademoiselle Prive at London’s Saatchi Gallery gives us a craftsman’s eye view of Lemarie’s work and even enables those lucky enough to book a workshop, to try their hand at it.
Lemarie started as a supplier of feathery confections to belle epoque hats, one of over 300 similar suppliers in Paris alone. Fashions changed and by 1946, they had diversified into a range of fabric manipulations, including flower-making, ruching, pleating and smocking. Their association with Chanel began in the 1960s, when they were commissioned to make their first Chanel camellia and the rest is history.
Today, from their Pantin atelier on the outskirts of Paris, they produce 30-40 flower samples for Chanel each season and then produce the 10-20 styles that are chosen for the collections. All their work is done by hand – each camellia is made up of a minimum of 16 petals and a basic version takes around an hour to make. The petals are cut and shaped using a technique unchanged since the 19th century. Then the flower is assembled with each petal overlapping its neighbours and attached with brass wire to its stem. Most complicated of all are the frayed tweed camellias that can feature multiple layers of frayed and fringed tweed, attached individually to the petals of the flower.
Why a camellia? It was Coco Chanel’s favourite flower. An early 1913 photograph shows her with one pinned to the belt of one of her innovative jersey suits and it is possible to see the camellia’s shape reflected in Chanel’s designs from the early 1920s. Chanel also drew design inspiration from masculine dress codes, in this case adopting the buttonhole flower. The camellia’s simple, white, geometric shape also, of course contrasted beautifully with a little black dress.
Today that simple design provides the template for the exceptional artistry of Lemarie – every flower a handcrafted artwork in its own right.
See them before 1 November at Mademoiselle Prive at London’s Saatchi Gallery and online here.