Inside my Couture Tour of Paris with Susan Khalje

If there’s one thing I’ve realized over the course of my sewing career, it’s that there is ALWAYS more to learn. Sewing engages the knowledge-hungry part of my brain and continually learning and improving is key to my creative process and progress. Earlier this week I shared the gown I made during a couture sewing workshop with Susan Khalje; that experience was so sewing consciousness-expanding that I talked myself into joining her annual couture of Paris in November. A big part of my design inspiration comes from travel (hence our Rome Collection). I love nothing more than seeing how people interpret style and fashion around the world, and I was over the moon about spending concentrated time in the most stylish city in the world with a guide who knew the ins and outs of the sewing and couture scene in Paris intimately.

Every year Susan leads tours in London and Paris. I think the itinerary changes a little bit each time, but she’s established relationships with so many interesting businesses and people that you can count on having a very special, unique experience that you would never get otherwise. The big draw for me was gaining access to artisans and makers I would never have the opportunity to interact with here in Montreal, and every day was filled with filled with new ideas and ways of thinking about sewing. We were in Paris for over a week, and I left filled with inspiration, ambition and plans for how to incorporate everything I had learned into my personal practice and how we work in the studio.

I got to Paris a day before our tour started, and spent my free time jetlagged but happy in le Marais, wandering in and out of all the fabulous stores and boutiques. One of my favorite activities when I’m travelling is window shopping; I can easily spend days checking out clothes and may have stopped by Bon Marche (the best department store in the whole world) at least three times. That first day I ended up stumbling on a huge bazaar of second-hand clothes and snagged a few vintage blazers for a song.

On our first day as a group, we got to know each other on a boat tour of the Seine (something I’ve always wanted to do in Paris) and had a fun crepe dinner. There were around 15 of us altogether, mostly American with a few of my fellow Canadians along for the ride. I always get a bit socially awkward in groups of strangers but it was easy to bond; nothing is a better icebreaker than asking someone about the me-mades they’re wearing!

On Monday we had a private tour of the Unicorn tapestries and a gorgeous embroidery exhibit at the Cluny Museum. I’ve never had a private museum tour before and honestly, it was AMAZING. There are so many deeply knowledgable tour guides in Paris who specialize in various subjects, so to get an intimate tour of these incredible textiles from a professional art historian was a real treat.

To close out the day, we headed out to Tissus Edre, a tiny store packed with remnants from the couture houses. After much deliberation, I left with 3 meters of Hermes camel cashmere coating, to be sewn into an elegant winter coat next year.

Tuesday was a very special day, the highlight of the trip for me. We spent the day at the Paris American Acadamy with Madame Picot, a veteran atelier artisan who spent decades working in couture houses. She spent many years working at Madame Gres before the house closed, specializing in creating the iconic pleated designs that literally make my brain and heart explode.

She told us the story of the house of Madame Gres, and shared “behind the scenes” photos of her time there, along with a number of samples she had rescued when they were kicked out of their studio when the house went bankrupt (a really heartbreaking story: she showed up to work and the doors were locked and the owners of the parent company were burning and throwing away everything. The workers had to call the police so they could enter the building and get their things, and she had to grab as many samples, pictures and drawings she could before they were escorted out). She was the only person at the house who was capable of executing these incredibly complicated designs, which take so long to create she could only make a handful each year.

Each dress is painstakingly hand-pleated to incredibly structured foundations. A few people in our group managed to squeeze into the samples and everyone said they were remarkably comfortable since the weight was distributed so well. One thing I found interesting was that these bodices have zero ease; the dress won’t fit properly if there is any wiggle room, so they really feel like a second skin (and are hard to eat a large dinner while wearing, I imagine).

Susan with Denis and Madame Picot in a dress she made for herself

Here is a muslin of a foundation garment; you can see the design of the pleating drawn on top. Each section is pleated and then handstitched in place. It takes hundreds of hours to make one of these gowns!

I fell in love with the architecture of the bustiers.  I would love to create one for myself as a fun intellectual exercise on my dress form, so I took tons of notes on how they’re constructed. They’re made from silk organza, boning and ribbon, and it’s hard to imagine they are strong enough to support up to 15 meters of fabric but they are!

Madame Picot was truly lovely. I was so grateful to meet and learn from someone who spent her entire life dedicated to the art and craft of sewing at the very finest level. It was like meeting a Dutch master in the flesh. It’s all too easy to forget when you’re admiring haute couture fashion shows on your iphone that there are teams of highly skilled, passionate people who make all that magic happen with their bare hands. So much of that knowledge is being lost, and meeting her and seeing how eager she was to share her experience was a once in a lifetime opportunity I will treasure always.

We spent the afternoon trying to recreate a small pleated sample entirely by hand. This was my handiwork:

My dream is to make a silk jersey maxi skirt using these techniques. I managed to try on a partial sample and I fell in love with the volume – how fabulous would this be with a fitted cashmere sweater and heels?

The Academy offers a summer program on the Madame Gres method and there were student examples all over the studio, although Madame Picot is retired and doesn’t teach the course. How I would love to spend the summer in Paris exploring these techniques in a more intensive way! I *may* have asked the president of the school if it would be possible to bring Harry with me into the studio since I can’t imagine spending that much time away from him, but quel surprise, dogs are not really welcome in a couture atelier.

On Wednesday, we had another private tour, this time at the Yves Saint Laurent foundation. I’ve never been the biggest YSL fan (I’m more of a Balenciaga fangirl) but I found a totally newfound appreciation for his point of view and incredible artistry. My favourite part of the tour was seeing the recreation of his personal office; it made me feel so much better about my own cluttered work area.

We then visited the shop of Anna Ruohonen, a Finnish designer who specializes in sustainable and ethically made clothes. She talked about how she designs and manufactures her collections, and everyone had a riot trying things on. Later that day we had a private talk with a dear friend of Susan’s who has the largest private collection of Christian LaCroix in the world. She was a perfect archetypical Paris character, with a flawless coif and the most elaborately knotted silk scarf paired with a chic black suit trimmed with mink (!!!)  She talked to us about the history of the Little Black Dress and brought some of the highlights from her personal collection. That night, the group met at the private home of a friend of Susan’s for wine and hors d’oeuvres, but I had a little tummy trouble so I stayed in my hotel and ordered soup from bed.

I still wasn’t feeling great in the morning so had to miss the tour of an atelier that has been making Chanel’s haute couture silk flowers for decades. A lot of people loved this experience the most so I was sad to have missed it. I got it together for a trip to Janssens et Janssens, perhaps the most awe-inspiring fabric store I’ve ever visited in my life (also the most expensive!) It is filled to the ceiling with the most breathtaking couture fabric you can imagine, and I spent a few hours just touching and aww-ing over everything. I left with one small piece of gorgeous Hermes-esque silk to line a French jacket if I ever get the chance to make one (I’m still hoarding some Chanel boucle I got in Rome for just this purpose).

Some exquisite lace from Janssens et Janssens – the one woven with feathers was jaw-dropping

We then finished the day at a gorgeous storied hotel for high tea, which had the fanciest bathrooms with heated seats. I never wanted to leave.

On Friday, we visited another fabric store, one that stocked discount designer off-cuts (I can’t remember the name, please forgive me!) This place was more my speed financially, and I picked up some gems, including a few deeply discounted pieces from Lanvin when Alber Elbaz headed the house (I got three meters of the most gorgeous textured wool coating fro 20 euros!)

We then went to the Musee Bourdelle for an incredible exhibit called Back Side: Fashion From Behind. This was my favorite museum visit since it focused on clothing highlighting the back, my favorite body part. Our private tour guide was INCREDIBLE; she was a super-smart, funny fashion historian and had so much insight and knowledge about the context of every piece. I learned so much. Also, the fashion was OFF THE HOOK.

Givenchy gown worn by Cate Blanchette
Gown by The Row
Rick Owens and Jean-Paul Gaultier
Thierry Mugler
Vintage 30s gowns

The highlight for me was seeing this piece by Ossie Clark, one of my all-time favourite designers (he defined the best of 70s fashion for me):

Backless Ossie Clark dress

Stuffed with all that glamour, it felt only appropriate we end the night at the ballet. I was delighted with the avant-garde program Body & Soul, choreographed by Canadian Crystal Pite. It was weird and beautiful and I cried when a stage full of dancers physically recreated a wave crashing on the beach. Susan encouraged me to wear my gown for this evening, so her daughter Soraya and I did a little photoshoot around the opera house. I was definitekly the most overdressed person at the entire ballet (tourists in jeans!!!) but in that setting, it was hard to care.

Saturday was another very special day. Susan has been long friends with Julien Cristofali, a master patternmaker who worked for greats like Azzedine Alaia (he also drafts all of Susan’s patterns!) He taught us how to properly tape a dress form to ready it for draping, and demonstrated various ways to drape directly on the form. It was the first time I was able to wrap my mind around draping, which is a much more creative, hands-on way to design than flat patternmaking. My biggest goal this year is to tape my dress form and start custom draping clothes for myself; he made it look so easy and I’m excited about the idea of designing from a more sculptural, intuitive place. We ended the night with a “gala” dinner at a gorgeous, old school Parisian restaurant. One of my favorite things about that evening was how masterful Susan was at asking questions that engaged the entire group. Being the introverted person I can be with new people, I felt like I got to know everyone in a totally unexpected way.

Susan and Julien at the ballet

On our last day, we headed to one of the smaller flea markets (not St. Ouen, which is my favourite stop ever in Paris although it’s so huge and overwhelming you could get lost for a week and never find your way out). I picked up some pretty vintage buttons and a vintage linen tuxedo shirt I need to hack into something wearable this summer. We met back up at the hotel at the end of the day for a show and tell where everyone shared the fabric and notions they had purchased during the week. I never did get a picture of everything I got, but it was definitely a struggle getting all that beefy coating home in my suitcase.

All in all, it was an experience I will never ever forget, and I am filled with thankfulness that I could go. Every detail of the trip was so thoughtfully planned and executed, from the daily itinerary to our welcome notes and the special places we went to eat and see. I’ve never had such a sophisticated, elegant experience traveling before and it was truly the highlight of the last few years.

My mind was buzzing for weeks after I got home, and I’m filled with super ambitious sewing plans this year to apply what I’ve learned. It’s all well and good to read books and watch youtube, but being there and meeting people in person really adds a richness and dimension to learning. I’m hoping I can filter some of this experience into the work we do here at CCP, and I’m excited to continue my casual couture journey over the coming year. If you’d like to see more from my trip, I saved a lot more images to our saved stories on Instagram.

What are your favorite sewing or fashion experiences in Paris?

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Hi! I'm Heather Lou, a pattern designer and sewing educator for the modern maker. At Closet Core Patterns, we transform your imagination into step-by-step implementation that helps you create a wardrobe you love - not one you're limited to buying off the rack.

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