This article was in Stella magazine last week, and I thought I'd post it for those people who don't buy the Sunday Telegraph (actually we don't either, but our neighbour drops the fashion supplement around every weekend for me. How kind.) I knew alot of work and the very best materials went into designer products, but I didn't realise it was this extreme. They even have secret ways of sewing seams..
Chanel handbags: Quilt trip
If a handbag, and its contents, is among the most intimate of our material possessions, and a Chanel 2.55 more prized (and therefore fiercely guarded) than others, then you would expect its making to be done in the utmost secrecy. Which is what brings me to the gatehouse of an unmarked modernist building, about an hour and a half’s drive from Paris, where my passport is checked and double-checked as part of a meticulously conducted security procedure. On the other side of the gates is the Chanel handbag factory: not that it looks industrial, nor is it marked with the famous double-C logo. Outside it is clad in chic matt-black quilting; inside there are sketches by Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative supremo, in the entrance hall, and glass cases of the kind one would find in an art gallery, containing perfectly positioned, pristine white handbags from the latest Chanel collection.
In pride of place is Chanel’s undisputed classic: the 2.55, named after its launch by Coco Chanel in February 1955. Like several other of Chanel’s iconic creations – most notably, the perfumes (No 5, No 19) – the numbers are part of the mystique, coded clues as to where they came from (the second month of 1955; the fifth bottle of sample perfume, chosen by Mademoiselle herself), and perhaps where they might take us (the first row of a fashion show). Thus the 2.55 has established itself as a classic whose days are un-numbered; a handbag seen dangling from the influential shoulders of Kate Moss, Sofia Coppola, Phoebe Philo, Anna Wintour; a precise sign of status in the hierarchal world of the fashion industry; and a dreamier symbol of aspiration for those who cannot afford its exacting price tag (the 2.55 never needs to be marked down, whatever the state of the economy, and sales are up, even at a cost of more than £1,000 apiece).
Thus a glimpse inside the place that manufactures the 2.55 is, in sartorial terms, the equivalent of a sweet-lover’s tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; although my guide is less eccentric than Roald Dahl’s slightly sinister candy-maker. Bruno Trippe is a calm and quietly spoken man, unusually tranquil in an industry known for divas; now occupying the key role of production manager, he has worked on the manufacture of Chanel handbags for a quarter of a century, after joining the company at the age of 22. 'There are 180 stages in the making of the bag,’ he explains, as he leads the way to the first of a mysterious series of rooms, 'and 340 people work here, most of whom have been here for an average of 17 years. It’s like making a piece of couture – you need a lot of expertise, 10 years of training, and we have a very particular way of working that is unlike any other factory.’
The starting point is with the leather itself – far softer than that used by other brands, layered on precisely placed wooden pallets and shelves. There are stacks of rose-coloured lambskin, and others in pale lilac, black patent, scarlet red and beige. 'We’re always looking for soft fabrics to work with,’ says Trippe, and gestures towards the rolls of tweeds, jerseys and satin, 'the same fabrics that are used in the making of the label’s ready-to-wear collection’. Afterwards he takes me through the six ateliers that every bag must pass through, where each stage is done by hand, aside from the occasional computerised invention. Everyone wears white coats; everyone displays that traditional French courtesy (handshaking, the formal use of 'Madame’ or 'Monsieur’ in conversation); and everyone is intent on their work, whether stitching or cutting or using delicate tools of the trade (little hammers, or small sewing-machines for intricate jigsaw quilting). It’s the very opposite of a sweatshop; rather, a place for highly skilled craftspeople, who take huge pride in what they produce. 'They all work on each stage of the process,’ says Trippe. 'They know every element of the 2.55, and the 60 pieces that go into the assembly of each bag. We need three lambskins for one bag, because we only use the softest, best part of the skin, to make it as soft as cloth, but it can’t be too fragile, so there is also a special kind of lining, to give structure to the bag, and the quilting process is secret to Chanel, as is the way we turn the bags inside out for the seaming. And, naturally, the lining has to be perfect – Mademoiselle Chanel was very particular that the inside of a handbag should be as beautiful as the outside.’
He doesn’t need to repeat the mention of her name for her presence to be manifest everywhere in the factory, and stitched into each of the bags that bear her mark. And although they were originally created because of Chanel’s characteristic desire for practicality – 'I was fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them,’ she declared, 'so I added a strap and carried them over my shoulder’ – they also contain within them an inherent mystique. This is partly because of Chanel’s history and iconography: the quilting, for example, or 'matelasse’, is suggestive of her love of riding as a young woman (quilted material was originally worn only by stable-boys), while the trademark chain of golden metal plaited with a leather cord has similar connotations of horse bridles and girdles, and also perhaps of the garb worn by the Catholic nuns who educated Coco as a girl. ('The final step in the making of a 2.55 is to add the chain,’ says Trippe, with the religious reverence that you hear in the voices of all those who work here. 'It’s a very delicate stage – if you get it wrong, you’ve ruined the bag.’)
But perhaps most significant of all are the inner compartments of the 2.55 – the flap contains a secret pocket for hiding love letters or money; inside there are three more discreet compartments, including one for lipstick (without which Chanel never showed herself to the world). Then there is the double-C logo stitched inside the second flap – that magical code, again – and another logo on the fastener, which was designed after her death in 1971, known as the Fermoir Mademoiselle.
There are trays of those potent logos in the last room of the factory, and you can see others on the famous matt-black boxes that each bag will be lovingly placed in, after being wrapped in layers of white tissue paper. Inside, in one of the secret compartments, will be an individual serial number and the carte registration, which proves that the bag is authentic, rather than a clever fake. This means that a customer, if they wished, could actually check who in the factory had made their handbag, reinforcing the Chanel manifesto 'handmade in France’; which is perhaps appropriate for a product that is the legacy of a desire for individuality, at the same time as being the embodiment of the power of a monolithic global brand. In the end it is this that is as important to the 2.55 as any of the 180 steps in its manufacture: the process that cannot be numbered or accounted for, however hard one might try – the alchemy that turns uniform ubiquity into something entirely unique.
written by Justine Picardie for the Sunday Telegraph Stella magazine