Modern treatments of lace

4 Apr
The following is a very interesting commentary on the full range of the lace business in modern fashion.
See our fall 2011 collection for a luxurious cashmere blend trimmed in lace for a day to night look, and very feminine too!
The Wall Street Journal
MARCH 31, 2011
New Life for the Historic
Art of Lace-Making
The Return of Lace as a Major Fashion Trend is Giving a Boost to a Once-Faltering European Business
By CHRISTINA BINKLEY

Columnist's name

Lace seems to be everywhere on fashion’s runways recently. But much of it starts in a small French town called Caudry, where 100-year-old looms are used to weave lace using methods that pre-date the Reformation. WSJ’s Christina Binkley reports.

Caudry, France

Lace, suddenly, is everywhere.

Looking nothing like your grandmother’s doilies, lace is the fabric of whole dresses and suits for summer, as well as next fall. Lace hasn’t been this popular since Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

Lace on the Runway and Red Carpet

The couture lace industry has shrunk in size, but lace itself has spread across runways around the world.

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Getty ImagesMarc Jacobs used Swiss-made ‘guipure’ lace in this dress, which will retail for $4,200 this fall.

The lavish lace is a dramatic change—not only for high fashion but also for a European industry that has been dwindling since the 1920s. Europe was once famous for lace—hundreds of types of Swiss, Belgian, French and at one point even English lace. Now, much of the lace shown on high-end runways comes from one town in northeastern France.

The French lace industry was famous when Jerry Lee Lewis crooned, “Chantilly lace and a pretty face….” in the 1950s. But Chantilly lace is no longer made in the French town of Chantilly. The high-end lace industry has mostly shrunk to the area around a town called Caudry, where rival companies Sophie Hallette and Solstiss supply the likes of Christian Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Jason Wu and Valentino.

The region is known for its stinky Maroilles cheese and the slurry of its “Ch’tis” dialect, made famous in France by the 2008 comedy “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis” or “Welcome to the Sticks.” The factories here specialize in “Leavers” lace, using looms that imitate the intricate knotting of 18th-century handmade lace. These machine looms, named after the Englishman who invented them, can work cotton, silk, rayon, polyester, wool or other materials into exquisite laces that are sturdier than they look. (Handmade lace is now a hobbyist’s product, though some machine lace is embellished by hand.)

Of course, the Leavers machines are far slower than the knitting machines now used to make mass-market lace in China. Heidi Cho, who trades in lace at Victorian Lace & Trim, a Los Angeles-based lace wholesaler, sells large quantities of Chinese lace to fast-fashion and budget-clothing manufacturers in the U.S. “The China quality is low, but the price is low, Ms. Cho says. Created with an entirely different technique, it isn’t nearly as nuanced or beautiful.

Still, Chinese factories haven’t made headway into the market for couture-level lace—largely because new Leavers machines haven’t been manufactured in decades.

Outside of bridal trims and lingerie, lace hasn’t been a big part of women’s wardrobes in recent decades. Perhaps that’s partly because it’s so truly, almost wholly feminine—in an era when women have been focused on competing with men.

How Lace Is Created

The Sophie Hallette factory supplies lace to high-end designers, using methods that have changed little since the 19th-century introduction of ‘Leavers’ looms.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalNew lace patterns are drawn by hand—every single thread.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalA technician loads bobbins with fine thread.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalThreads on a lace-making machine are as thin as gossamer.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalAfter lace is woven, women repair any tiny faults by hand, with needle and thread.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalThe laboratory where the factory creates custom colors ordered up by design brands.

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Christina Binkley/The Wall Street JournalThis sample of Sophie Hallette lace has hand embroidery.

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The fashion industry’s most contrarian designer, Miuccia Prada, prepared the way for lace’s comeback. For fall 2008, she used heavy Swiss-made lace—a type more often used in curtains—in Prada’s skirts, dresses and accessories.

French lace makers celebrated, knowing Prada was likely to influence other designers. Sophie Hallette’s U.S. sales representative, Jane Pincus, recalls that she was at a Paris fabric trade show in the spring of 2008 when word spread about the huge Prada order. “There was champagne popping in the booth,” she says. “The sheer size—they put it on every product—the shoes, the bags.”

Then the financial crisis hit, with Lehman Brothers collapsing in September. Many designers stripped expensive details from their collections to slash prices. In late 2009, Don O’Neill, designer of the midpriced Theia line, used a wedge of Sophie Hallette lace at the neck of a gown that was priced for retail at $450. He says one U.S. luxury retailer asked him to use cheaper Chinese lace to bring the price of the dress closer to $350.

The French lace cost $22.33 per yard, compared with $2 or $3 per yard for lace from China, he says. This wasn’t the most expensive lace—in fact, the average wholesale price of Sophie Hallette lace is about $63 a yard, says Maud Lescroart, the company’s head of marketing.

At retail, a garment is often priced at five or six times what it cost the designer to make, after markups by the brand, the retailer and sometimes middlemen. So $20 of lace can raise the ultimate price of a dress by $100. “They didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just put Chinese lace on it,” says Mr. O’Neill, who refused to switch laces.

Not every designer made the same decision. During the financial crisis, Sophie Hallette, which also owns the Riechers Marescot lace brand, laid off 25% of its work force in Caudry—a painful time for the family-owned company.

Now, as the world economy sputters along in recovery mode, lace has a fresh new appeal for designers. Indeed, European couture lace provides a near-perfect metaphor for what’s going on in the luxury market, where designers have been rethinking classic materials from mink to pearls. Lace is expensive and utterly traditional, yet it’s being put to use in a modern, whole-hog way, such as a hoop-shaped lace skirt from Yohji Yamamoto or Valentino’s winter coat with lace stitched over a more substantial fabric.

Some of the machines in action at the Sophie Hallette factory in Caudry are 100 years old, says Ms. Lescroart, who is the 38-year-old granddaughter of the company’s founder. Many jobs are inherited from parents. Eric Lernon operates a tulle loom that his father worked on as a tulliste. “It’s like a 19th-century company in the 21st century,” Ms. Lescroart says, glancing around the factory floor where she spent a good deal of her childhood.

In a showroom, she and creative director Pierre Alain Cornaz pull out lace trims so complex that it takes a person two days to make one meter. Often details such as embroidery, sequins and other embellishments are added by hand.

New lace patterns from Mr. Cornaz are drawn by hand—every single thread —by a team at the factory. The lace patterns they were drawing in February 2011 will be seen on runways more than a year later, in September 2012, and the clothes will hit stores in January of 2013.

Threading the tulle loom takes two months and two people, says Ms. Lescroart. “Tell the designers that’s why it takes so long to fill their orders,” she jokes.

In another room, women mend tiny faults by hand, holding the lace on their laps. “This is a woman’s room,” says Ms. Lescroart. “It takes patience.” Down a hallway in a laboratory, chemist Philippe Desmaretz measures dyes in beakers and vials.

“He’s got a lot of work now because of the shows,” Ms. Lescroart says. “All the designers want special colors.”

—Contact me at Christina.Binkley@wsj.com or twitter.com/BinkleyOnStyle.Write to Christina Binkley at christina.binkley@wsj.com

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One Response to “Modern treatments of lace”

  1. RevLee April 5, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Excellent, very interesting article. I appreciate the complex historical details.

    It was The Big Bopper who crooned Chantilly Lace in the 50’s. Jerry lee Lewis then had a hit with it in 1972.

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