The Friendly Side of Fashion

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The New York Sun

Olympus Fashion Week, which gets under way tomorrow at the tents in Bryant Park, is the culmination of hours and hours of hard, unheralded work. The cutters, drapers, seamstresses, tailors, and managers who turn a designer’s sketch into a sublime creation don’t take bows, sip champagne on terraces, or receive accolades in the international press.

But for tonight (and for the next four Thursday evenings), the people who make it all happen take center stage on the Sundance Channel. An excellent five-part series, “Signé Chanel” documents the start-to-finish process of making an haute couture collection at the venerable house of Chanel. The cheerful spirit captured in this documentary is an antidote to the vicious depiction of the fashion press in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

It’s not that everyone is happy all the time at this atelier. But from the start of the first episode, we are introduced to the team of charming, vibrant seamstresses who turn Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches into wearable clothing. These ladies spend copious amounts of time together in a tight space. Their camaraderie is buoyant, and their banter is amusing. All of which the director, Loïc Prigent, captures in a way that shows their pride in their craft.

Before work on a collection can begin, Mr. Lagerfeld must sketch his designs. The film crew shot him in his Paris apartment, where piles of books, magazines, and papers surround him. Though we don’t see the things that are inspiring him, there is one instructive design link between the first episode, when the dresses are sketched, and the last, in which the models walk the runway. In the early stages of production, Mr. Lagerfeld is wearing so many rings on his fingers that his hands operate like metal claws as he lifts fabric samples. He playfully tells his studio manager that he’s set a record — 20 rings. Later, as the stylists accessorize the models for the show, he declares that every surface of their hands must be covered in giant rings that stretch over the hand and slip on two fingers. It’s a small detail, but for the non-fashion-obsessed audience, it’s an instructive note on why and how things happen.

Throughout the episodes, the film introduces a series of adorably Gallic artisans who contribute to the success of Chanel. The best of the lot is Madame Pouzieux, a 75-year-old farmer who lives 90 minutes from Paris and has been weaving braided trim for Chanel garments since 1947. The contrast between the atelier and her farm —where she raises horses and grows hay — is so vast as to be inconceivable. But there she is, in her attic, taking apart a piece of fabric and braiding the threads on a loom of her own design.

Though Madame Pouzieux is a bit grumpy with the film crew at first, she softens. By contrast, the Paris-based shoemaker, introduced as simply Monsieur Massaro, is ebullient and eager to discuss the trade that his father taught him. In fittings, he walks — along a precise route he has established for himself during the last several decades — over to Chanel from his studio with his offerings; after Mr. Lagerfeld makes his comments and requests, Monsieur Massaro goes back to his workbench to make the changes. And then back again to deliver.

Embroidery, too, is sent out to the specialists at the house of Lesage, where another team of women spends an intense two days embellishing a wedding gown with beads. From them we learn a superstition: Single girls who thread one hair into the beading of a wedding dress will get married within the year. True or not, the workrooms seem to breed these kinds of superstitions. Back at Chanel, the seamstresses have plenty of their own. A dropped pair of scissors means death is to come. But if a dress falls from a hanger, it will be liked.

As the date of the runway show approaches, the patience and good moods in the Chanel studio are severely tested. The asides and comments from the ladies, however, are priceless. “What’s good is experience when you have to work like this?” one declares when she’s forced to rush a dress.

Grumbling aside, a level of professional politeness is maintained. There is no maltreatment of underlings. Though Mr. Lagerfeld does veto a few things — a panne velvet dress that took painstaking work, and the initial location of the show, which workmen had cleaned up over a period of months — people take it in stride. And Mr. Lagerfeld himself is judicious in his comments.

The fashion show goes off without a hitch, and, as in real life, it is the shortest part of the whole process. It was heartwarming to see that as part of the models’ walk through the celebrity-studded audience, they take a turn backstage to give a show for the staff. After it all, the bold-faced names take their photos with the designer, who then heads to a massive staff party. In the middle of the celebration, Mr. Lagerfeld is called over to take a photo with two seamstresses who are retiring, and the camera rolls as he promises one of the ladies that he will make a sketch of the last dress she created. The retirees are given Chanel handbags, and they’re quite proud of them. It’s all rather sweet — and not at all the typically presented side of the fashion industry.

As a documentary, the greatest success of “Signé Chanel” is that it is both well reported and supremely entertaining. While most of the footage is shot in documentary style, there are some artsy moments that add bits of humor. And the music is often well chosen; the moments when Monsieur Massaro walks from Chanel to his studio are accompanied by the Italian circus music used on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” With his zippy pace and lively sense of humor, Mr. Prigent has made a fashion documentary in which even the fashion-challenged can delight in.

Tonight at 8 p.m.; September 14, 21, 28, and October 5 at 8 p.m.

The New York Sun

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