Though France and India are miles apart, literally and culturally, they have a common bond — an art form, a thread — that unites them. One creative French businessman is making sure we never untie that knot, weaving the past with the present, and ultimately, not only preserving the two cultures but connecting mankind again with its roots, its humanity.
“Embroidery has no limits,” says Jean-François Lesage, the founder of Lesage Interieurs and heir to the famous Parisian embroidery House of Lesage, responsible for popularizing the traditional decorative art with fashion houses Chanel, Lanvin, Balmain, Givenchy, and Christian Lacroix. “Embroidery is as free as painting, drawing, or writing. It has always been a way to singularize a room, to give it its own expression. For any culture, it has always been perceived as one of the ultimate luxuries.”
The Priceless Handmade Decorative Art Is a Quintessential Luxury
“The human hand thinks with its eyes, its heart, its knowledge accumulated since millenaries, its emotions. It sublimes a material in a transcendental manner,” Lesage says. “Luxury is something made for you which speaks highly to your sense and your emotions.”
Today, Lesage has continued his family legacy, embroidering for royalty and nobility around the world, creating the most demanding works of art, such as the revival of lost stitches and designs of Napoleon. His team, however, is not only in Paris, France, but also far away in Chennai, India, the city of the descendants of the East India Company embroiderers.
“The embroidery tools, the needle and the hook, are common in both Indian and French traditions,” Lesage says. “The threads are mostly the same, as the two traditions happened originally in Persia. What differs are the designs, not so much the techniques.”
Of course, there were other deeper reasons — philosophies, life perspectives — that have made India the founder’s perfect new home, culturally and entrepreneurially.
“Chennai is a place where people still take time for each other,” he says. “Like in France, the Indian culture has evolved for more than 3,000 years in an uninterrupted manner. The variety and the richness of the Indian craftsmanship, as much as French, celebrates first what human hands can achieve in a joyful manner. Beauty comes first.”
Though India has a heritage of world-class embroidery, meeting the high standard of Lesage Interieurs is extremely difficult. Each craftsman must master 7,000 interior and 75,000 fashion samples from the 15th to 20th centuries to join the elite artisanal circle.
“It has been a long training for the embroiderers to analyze the ancient techniques and master each style without any concessions,” says Lesage. “The large variety of the technical knowledge of the embroiderers can help to face any kind of design challenges, adapted to any situation.”
The dedication for this shared philosophy came to life with Lesage Interieurs’ red silk velvet embroidery for one of the official thrones of Emperor Napoleon.
From Oil on Canvas to Silk on Velvet
“The Throne of Napoleon has been nearly an archaeological adventure,” says Lesage. “The only trace of the embroidery was shown on a painted portrait of Napoleon next to his throne.” From this oil painting, they defined the size of the motifs by its different proportions, such as the height of the emperor and size of the throne.
“We also had to retrace the provenance of the ornamentation of the throne to ensure that the embroidered décor would be historically realistic, comparing it with other works of the architects and ornamentalists of Napoleon,” he says.
A few hundred hours of needlework in the identical techniques used during Napoleon’s reign symbolized even more than the glory of a former emperor.
Preserving ancient embroidery, to Lesage, “is like a dictionary of rare, beautiful words. It helps to ensure the richness of contemporary embroidery by not allowing the knowledge to get diluted. The final work should be incredibly alive, playing with the light. It’s a joy, a pleasure. It’s a part of myself.”