Sew cool

Sew cool

Lavish decoration is back at the forefront of fashion, as couture creations dazzle with intricate embroidery.

As fashion houses from New York to Paris unveiled their recent designs, Instagram was set aglow with colourful embroidery and detailed patterning. It’s a trend that continues to gather momentum, as leading brands with skilled ateliers—or simply a yen for intricate, elevating ornaments—are placing handicraft at the heart of their aesthetic.

In Paris, Sarah Burton, creative director at Alexander McQueen, covered her high-collared jackets in buttery soft, nude leather, with delicate sprigs of embroidered flowers. She sprinkled the palest pink silk dresses with colourful stitched posies and transformed basic blue denim into couture by covering tail-coats and tops with dense beading and threadwork that had the rich colour of an ancient tapestry. Even clogs on the models’ feet were decorated with sweet, romantic embroideries. Inspired by the Huguenots—the silk weavers who fled from France in the 17th century—Burton brought a centuries-old decoration style firmly into the 21st century.

Alexander McQueen S/S 2016

At Valentino, an African theme stretched the house’s couture atelier to its limits: monastic column dresses were ornate with tiny beaded Masai-inspired patterns and bold peacock feather trims, while the cuff s, lapels and edges of a black cashmere coat were finished with intricate geometric designs. The lightest tulle and lace gown was topped with exquisitely coloured beaded birds topped with fragments of silk and fluttering feathers. Accessories were layered with African beading and mask embellishments.

Dries Van Noten—another designer for whom rich ornamentation is an enduring hallmark—topped his already opulent brocade jackets or printed shirts with sinuous fans of tiny sequins in scarlet or deep purple and finished plain bustiers or full silk skirts with whirls of kingfisher blue, turquoise or magenta. Over at Gucci, Alessandro Michele is slowly reimagining the Italian mega-brand with a sweet and romantic aesthetic, rich with handicraft. Here, scarlet midi-skirts in duchesse satin were covered with cream embroidered flowers with a deep border of geometric patterns. Snakes slithered up the back of tulle and sequined bodices and geeky, retro jackets were overstitched with passementerie around the lapels and blousy embroidered roses.

The high end of fashion has always revelled in skilful embellishment, yet the current craft renaissance is putting these time-honoured techniques centre-stage. Intricate, time-consuming and hand produced, it can elevate ready-to-wear to couture levels, while highlighting a deep-felt need for something personal and unique; for cloth that has been lovingly decorated by the human hand, by artisans who have inherited ancient skills and passed them on to new generations.


Shortly after the spring/summer shows closed, the great sewing skills of one haute couture house were previewed at Mademoiselle Privé, Chanel’s immersive exhibition in London’s Saatchi Gallery. Alongside couture gowns, there were workshops to demystify the astounding skill of the petites-mains from ateliers such as Lemarie and Lesage, in Paris, where ornate feathers and flowers and intricate complex embroideries are produced for fashion houses and private clients.

Lesage opened in 1924 when Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage acquired the Michonet workshop, which was founded in 1858. Since then, the house of Lesage has been renowned for its incredible embroidery art. But while the name is known to many fashion fans (the house has worked with most of the great names, from Balmain and Balenciaga to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent), it was its acquisition by Chanel in 2002 that put Lesage—and its school, L’Ecole Lesage—on to the global stage. And it’s where students, and anyone fascinated by the incredible skills of the atelier, can also come to study.

Echoing the burgeoning popularity of needlecraft, Valentino has recently hinted that it will open a school in Rome, taking on a small number of students each year to continue the incredible skills for which the couture house is already world renowned. Although the house is yet to confirm when the school will open its doors, designer Maria Grazia Chiuri is adamant that it is part of the role of fashion houses to nurture skills for a new generation: “We think it’s important to share this Italian culture and Italian heritage,” Chiuri said, as she announced the news.

Contemporary brands are also focusing on traditional embroideries. Stylist and editor Kim Hersov founded her resortwear label Talitha along with business partner Shon Randhawa, whose atelier in New Delhi is responsible for many of Talitha’s beautifully embroidered wool capes, cashmere ponchos and silk kaftans. “That artisanal aspect is in the DNA of our brand,” says Hersov. “To know that you can get this beautiful hand-loomed fabric from some central region in India, which is embroidered by these incredibly skilled people—it feels very authentic.”

That same feeling of authenticity lies behind New York-based Coral & Tusk, which takes naïve drawings and transforms them into accessories and homewares with hand-stitched embroideries. They are based on founder Stephanie Housley’s designs, but sewn in factories in India.

Mary Katrantzou

Needlepoint and embroidered cushions are making a comeback too. The Paris-based firm Lindell & Co creates thoroughly modern embroidered cushions in workshops in Nepal or India using bold graphic geometric prints and rich colours. Each one uses an ancient chain stitch technique and each cushion is constructed from hand dyed New Zealand wool, Indian silk or wool and camel hair from Kazakhstan.

The Rug Company, meanwhile, produces hand-woven wool tapestry cushions based on designs from fashion luminaries such as Paul Smith, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. The trend towards these hand-crafted applications is perhaps most evident at London’s Mayfair emporium for craft makers, The New Craftsmen, which opened in 2012 as a showcase for contemporary artisans. The store is offering bespoke embroideries on items such as knitted toys and cashmere throws, alongside the beautifully embellished cushions made by mixed media embroidery designer Aimee Betts.

And it’s not all about shopping. The recent surge of interest in hand-stitched clothes and accessories has seen a similar rise in demand for needlework classes. British company Hand & Lock can trace its origins back to 1767 and describes itself as “a living antique, but moving with the times”. Embroiderers to royal households, the military, the church and fashion houses from Louis Vuitton to Chanel, it is currently running master-classes in New York to teach its signature rich goldwork and haute couture techniques, as well as beading and monogramming courses, for students in London and in Williamsburg, Virginia. Which is proof, if any be needed, that you don’t have to invest in a couture wardrobe to wear your very own piece of haute craft—you can make it yourself.

by Caire Coulson