Paris - Part 2...Madame Picco

Paris - Part 2...Madame Picco

November 4th

You would not have believed how excited I was about today, but honestly,  it was even better than I could have ever imagined...

After breakfast, we all met in the lobby for a lovely early morning walk over to the Paris American Academy where we were scheduled to spend an entire day with Colette Picco, who became the head of workroom for the Madame Grès couture house from 1964 until its closure in 1988.

The Paris American school is housed a spectacular 17th century building near Montparnasse and the Sorbonne in the 5th Arondissement,  a very famous part of Paris known for its artistic residents and creativity.....Hemingway, Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani, Dali, Mirò, Beckett and Degas all lived here. Its a beautiful area of Paris, with lots of wide roads and stately buildings, very grand with a lovely feeling of light and space.

View of the Val-de-Grāce church from the classroom

We were met by Peter Carman, the president of the Academy, a fabulous Australian, who has been lucky enough to call Paris his home for decades.

(Their summer couture programme is really tempting me, a whole month of living and learning in Paris sounds divine, and access to the haute couture shows...heaven!)

Madame Picco starting working for Madame Grès as an apprentice when she was very young, eventually becoming head of workroom, as well as the recipient of numerous sewing awards within the haute couture field.   She is very funny, warm and incredibly grounded...


We spent the first hour or so listening to Madame Picco talk, I can't describe just how lucky I felt to sit there and hear about Madame Grès, all the history and evolution of the house, and Madame Picco's personal thoughts and memories of that time.

She began her apprenticeship with four years of training before she was allowed to make a skirt for a client, and says she remembers being absolutely terrified the first time....but soon was making dresses, both draped and pleated to order.

The house of Grès eventually closed due to the popularity of RTW,  as well as a lack of willingness for the house to evolve with the times....Madame Grès was by all accounts incredibly stubborn and clung to what she loved, which sadly was to be the financial ruin of her.

Madame Picco tells of the day the staff turned up for work to find that the doors were locked and the landlord was preparing to burn the contents of the design house,  because of months of unpaid rent.

After much pleading,  the employee's were allowed in but only to collect some of their personal belongings before everything else was destroyed  (thrown from windows to be taken and burnt) and so she was able to save some of the samples and original sketches..

an original pleating design sample

Madame Grès orginal design drawings

I was so surprised to hear that when the house closed,  it was a year before Madame Picco found another job. Apparently couture houses prefer to train young apprentices and have very specific ways of running their houses, and so do not like to take on employee's from other houses who have their own habits and ideas...

She did eventually join Balmain and stayed for three years,  before moving to Nina Ricci.

Although she is now in retirement, she does occasionally teach and in the last few months has been working on some miniature dress forms,  re-creating copies of her work...... you would not believe the details, they are completely to scale, right down to a fully boned and complete corset.

The white dress took 122 hours to reproduce in scale

The green 82 hours

and the black....180 hours.

The dress form above shows samples of the techniques used

and an original corset.  

The pleated dresses are attached to a very light corset..made by using two layers of silk organza - one on grain and one of the cross of grain for strength.

This helps keeps the weight of a garment to a minimum, as the yards of silk jersey needed for a dress become very heavy very quickly..

The full size blue dress needed 15 meters of fabric and the red 9 meters.

The jersey itself was designed to be extremely fine so that layer after layer could be used without creating a bulky garment, and was incredibly expensive to manufacture -  12" could take up to 8 hours to produce!

There was a small sample of the original fabric and I was really surprised at just how thin it was, almost like a china silk with minimal give....

and I absolutely loved when she told us that some clients would insist that the dress remain unlined so that they could see the work involved to make sure they were getting their moneys worth!

Apparently, in today's money a Grés dress would cost around $35,000... 


What did we do?!

We got an in-depth lesson on how to pleat the haute couture way, and let me tell you it takes hours and hours and hours!  and needless to say, I loved it :-)

(Susan wrote an article for Threads no. 173 with more details and step by step photos for anyone interested) 

To begin, we were each giving a square of paper, and a piece of silk organza.

The paper is placed on the dress form, and pinned very tightly adding folds or darts until it lays flat and then the organza is pinned in place on top, again pulled until it is perfectly flat.

Then a large strip of jersey is cut and laid flat on the table...and using a cardboard guage for accuracy, pins are placed every 1.5"

Working from the top, and using the pins as a guide, a pleat is created by folding up a pin line to the pin line directly above.  Once folded, the pin is removed and the fabric is re pinned to hold the pleat in place.

Once the pleats are completed and all are the exact same size, the fabric is transferred to the dress form.

I pinned the fabric to the the form, trying not to stretch or pull it while keeping it taunt....

and once firmly attached, a row of pins should be inserted down the middle so that the pleating can be held firmly in place for sewing.  All the horizontal guide pins can now be removed.

and then the fun starts?!!   Using a curved fine needle (French no. 40 - 2" long)  you sew a running stitch down each side of the fabric one pleat at a time to hold the pleats in place (its as hard as it looks!)  I snapped a couple of needles, trying to force them up at to much of an angle, there is definitely a lot of skill involved in using them correctly.

and why the paper?  it acts as a warning signal.  If your needle hits the paper or tries to sew through it you hear a "clicking" sound as the needle hits it....the aim is to hear the paper click so you know you are above it  or to use it as a guide so that you don't sew the pleating to the actual dress form!

When both sides are securely sewn and still pinned,  its time to sew the horizontal pleats permanently in place.

Using a pin you fold back every other pleat, and with a curved needle use a pick stitch along the entire length, (making sure that the pleat below will hide the stitch) this should also pick up the pleat above...its not much but every other is quicker than everyone!

Totally in my happy place here!!

and then the section can be removed, I was so worried that I had sewn mine to the dress form but thankfully it came off easily...

Madame Picco said a quick steam would normally be next and then it would be pinned to the relevant section of corset and sewn tightly to it (the pleats need to be pulled firmly again to hold their shape - as you can see above,  they relax once loose)

So, now of course I want to spend hundreds of hours trying to replicate one of the originals and of course move to Paris and be an intern for the next few years!!

and as an added and very unexpected bonus,  we got a visit from Bernard Chandran, who had spent some time studying the pleating technique with Madame Picco.

He stopped by to show her some of his Spring/summer 2015 collection in which he incorporated his version of the pleating and draping he had learnt...

and was very happy for us to take pics and open up his garments to study as they had been already been shown at British fashion week.

 and to finish the day?

Peter had organized Champagne and Macarons, the perfect end to the perfect day.....  before we wandered back to the hotel at dusk with our samples.


For more info on Madame Grès this is a great article from the Independent UK

New York Times

and the Met Museum

 and here

Paris - Part 3 ... Parasolerie Heurtault, and Janssens and Janssens...

Paris - Part 3 ... Parasolerie Heurtault, and Janssens and Janssens...

Paris - Part 1

Paris - Part 1