Jessica Hemmings discovers business is blooming for makers of artificial flowers, Maison Legeron.
Maison Legeron makes by hand silk flowers for clients such as the fashion houses of Dior, Courrèges and Ungaro, as well as gracing the dresses and hats of discerning brides. Employing a mix of alchemy and patience, the Paris-based business is now managed by the founder’s great grandson and takes on private commissions, haute couture and made-to-measure. But its tools and techniques have changed little since the company’s founding in 1880. In a world where craft has come to mean computer coding and rapid prototyping as often as it does skilled handwork, Maison Legeron’s pace of work presents us with a rare – but thriving – anachronism.
The thought of turning the beauty of a flower into something artificial is enough to turn some tastes cold. Admittedly, the plastic flower displays that haunt the windows of cheap motels are hardly a human creation worth celebrating. The late American author John Updike took this opinion one step further when he observed, “Natural beauty is essentially temporary and sad; hence the impression of obscene mockery which artificial flowers give us.” But Maison Legeron deserves consideration in another category entirely. While their textile flowers may manage to fool some, it is the beauty and craftsmanship of each individual creation that allows them to be compared to mother nature’s finest creations.
Maison Legeron follow a system of hand production that has remained largely unchanged for well over a century. The tools of the past are, in this unusual instance, very much the tools of the present. The same carefully numbered and logged punches used when the company started determine the shape of each petal today – a small rose, for example, is number 70. This remarkable collection of punches have remained in the family business throughout its history, creating an archive of every conceivable size and shape of petal and leaf nature offers as inspiration.
To create each flower, the fabric is first pinned to a wooden frame and then dipped into a bath of gum, starch or flour to stiffen and help maintain the elaborate three-dimensional shapes of the final creations. After stiffening, the fabric is placed on a pillow and cut on the bias to further preserve the final shape. Segments are then coloured by hand in a mixture of aniline dyes and alcohol before slowly drying on blotting paper. Once the alcohol has 4 evaporated, further colours are added and more patience given over to the natural drying time. With admirable concern the company points out that any short cuts in the drying time could potentially create a mottled distribution of colour across the surface. Because – while each final creation is without doubt unique – the subtle gradations in colour are the very opposite of accidental.
Tools with anatomical names such as goffers (an iron used to crimp or flute lace), as well as spheres, liners and hooks help form the petals. To encourage the final shape, the fabric is softened on a damp blotter before being assembled by hand one leaf and one petal at a time. Heating over a flame followed by wax cooling helps to set the final form. In the last painstaking steps, the petals are one at a time secured to a brass stem and the central armature covered in silk and paper to complete the magic.
Maison Legeron’s production may run at a pace known to the past, but the relevance of their work is current. In an era when so much of our material world is worth so little, traditional methods of working by hand to create little moments of beauty can only be valued as priceless. •••
published in Selvedge magazine 2014