PARIS, France — The blossoms of Paris’s ornamental gardens and squares have served as inspiration for poets, lovers and film directors, but they do not do a thing for Bruno Légeron of La Maison Legeron, France’s last remaining independent artificial flower maker. “My inspiration comes from my clients,” he says, referring to Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and other haute couture houses that form the backbone of his clientele. Nor does he relish any talk of gardening. “I cannot stand to put my hands in the ground,” he says with a slight shudder.
Maison Legeron: The Heritage
What Légeron, 58, does love is to create the most exquisite silk flowers and plumes imaginable for hats, dresses, evening gowns and shoes. It is a business he was born into. The Maison Légeron ateliers, tucked away on two floors of an ancient building near the Paris Opéra, date to 1727 and were acquired by Légeron’s great-grandfather in 1880. As a boy, Légeron rushed home after school to help his parents, thus acquiring the skills necessary in the intricate assemblage of flowers. “It is in my blood,” he says to explain his decision to take over the house in the 1970s.
At that time Paris could boast of 30 ateliers providing elaborate artificial flower and plume arrangements for the grand couture houses – as well as individual clients seeking decorations for dinner parties. But minimalist fashion and the steep decline in the number of couture houses have decimated France’s once lively tradition of artisans.
Maison Legeron: The Decor
On a recent day in September, just before the Paris Fashion Week, Légeron, wearing a black apron bedecked with flowers and safety pins, took me through the cramped warren of rooms filled with working antique machinery that he inherited from his family. We stepped first into the main room, a wonderland of glass and wood storage cabinets, gilded mirrors, and huge oak tables layered with swatches of fabrics, feathers and flowers.
Garlands of roses and other flowers draped the walls, white camellias hung from the ceiling, bouquets of lilies and greenery festooned an antique but still functioning brass cash register. A lovely sea-green silk pump with a feather pom-pom, an order from Christian Louboutin, perched next to swathes of shocking pink material destined for Baby Dior. Were it not for the sound of traffic outside, we could be in the mid 19th century. There was not a computer in sight.
Maison Legeron: The Craftsmanship
Légeron works with a team of eight trusted employees – les petites mains – to turn out the delicate silk flower creations sought after by the luxury firms, essentially for their fashion shows. Each petal or leaf is hand-made using the tools and techniques of another century. This involves first stretching the silk fabric on a wooden frame to stiffen it, then cutting the petals using metal casts, “waffling” or shaping them into curves and volume with minute hooks, pliers, and other instruments, and finally hand-dying them with a variety of colours that Légeron selects and shades to the client’s specifications. Only then are the petals assembled into the creation that will adorn a fashion model’s hat or gown on the catwalk. While he works mainly with silk, Légeron can make flowers out of anything from latex to leather.
The mechanics of the work may remain unchanged, but relations with the atelier’s customers have changed dramatically. There was a time when the Légeron family had easy access to Hubert de Givenchy and other leading couturiers. Now that the luxury business is largely in the hands of multinationals, such personal relations have been lost.
Today Légeron is under constant pressure to work more quickly to fill orders from corporate employees who manage collections for haute couture, prêt-à-porter, and accessories. The lack of time and the shortage of candidates to keep the atelier running – only one professional school in Paris offers the necessary training – are just two of the challenges facing Légeron.
Yet he remains optimistic: the son-in-law of Micheline, his closest associate, has agreed to take over the atelier when Légeron retires. But do not expect that to happen any time soon: as his colour-stained fingernails attest, Légeron remains passionate about colouring silk flowers. His workshop is his garden, he needs no other.