For centuries, bespoke lace has been a prized commodity, the precious product of a craftsmanship that demands a lifetime's dedication. Now its delicate beauty is in greater demand than ever.
Fashion's enduring love of lace
For centuries, bespoke lace has been a prized commodity, the precious product of a craftmanship that demands a lifetime's dedication. Now, from couture houses to the courts of modern princesses, its delicate beauty is in greater demand than ever. Gemma Champ examines the allure of fashion's greatest artform.
Once so precious that noblemen in France would sell their land to acquire it, so valuable that it sat in bridal trousseaus on equal terms with gems and gold, lace has taken a bit of a beating over the last few decades. It became, to be frank, synonymous with grandmothers' curtains or tacky, raunchy lingerie, its mass production in the Far East helping to render it deeply unfashionable for many years.
But lace is enduring: it's not just a fabric - it's an art, and its fortunes have risen and fallen with society's mores, one century the preserve of clerics in Belgium, the next a mark of wealth and power at the Sun King's court; so much the antithesis of the values of the French Revolution that lacemakers were beheaded at the guillotine, yet a symbol of the Industrial Revolution's simultaneous successes and failures.
That means that when, as now, it returns to prominence in fashion, there is probably a good reason for it. And there's no doubt it's back on the catwalk in a big way, for this summer and next winter. Red-carpet stalwarts such as Elie Saab have been using it for a few seasons to pretty up the celebrities who wear their frocks, and wisps of delicate lace are a signature of Peter Copping's designs for Nina Ricci. But edgier designers like Erdem, Simone Rocha and Yiqing Yin are just as smitten with its possibilities.
Those possibilities are manifold. It could be as simple as draping and ruffling lengths of delicate lace to create gossamer-light slip dresses and skirts in acid shades, as Erdem has done for summer, or layering up heavy lace in different colours, emphasising its graphic patterns, something that Miuccia Prada achieved at Miu Miu. It could mean cutting out the pattern of the lace then reworking and embroidering or beading over it on a new background, as Sarah Burton did for the Duchess of Cambridge's Alexander McQueen wedding dress. Or it might even involve irreverently encasing it in clear plastic and cutting it into A-line 60s shapes, as in Simone Rocha's punchily feminine collection.
And it's not just a catwalk trend. Since last year's royal wedding in London, the fabric has been a celebrity favourite. The front row at March's Louis Vuitton show in Paris, for example, was filled with lace-wearing fashionistas, from Sarah Jessica Parker to the beautiful Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, who was clad in gleaming white lace and scaled-up broderie anglaise, courtesy of the label itself (she also carried a white LV-monogrammed umbrella to protect the white lace scarf in her hair).
The awards season saw a web of lace too, with Rooney Mara's exquisite Givenchy gown blowing away the competition at the Oscars and Jessica Chastain's bright green Elie Saab dress standing out on the same night at Chateau Marmont. The musicians Florence Welch and Adele both wore lace at the Brit Awards and The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence sported a dramatic red lace dress by Marchesa at the film's German premiere.
It is interesting to note that, with perhaps the exception of the doll-like Bingbing, none of these women is known for being the sort of ultra-feminine princesses one might associate with this most delicate of fabrics. Quite the contrary: they appear to be among the stronger, more independent of showbiz's characters, and this, perhaps, is a key to lace's sudden popularity, says Maud Lescroart, who with her brother Romain has taken over the venerable family-owned lace business Sophie Hallette.
"I think that women can actually look like women at the moment," she says. "Five years ago, it was harder to wear skirts; we were all wearing trousers. Now we can be women - we don't need to work in a man's grey suit. You can wear lace and I think it's something that makes women feel good."
And no, that doesn't mean we have to go round dressed like a cross between Miss Havisham and Angelina Ballerina: the addition of just a shred of lace - an inset on a sleeve or a delicately scalloped hem - to a perfectly chic and understated top or dress offers a decidedly unfrilly way to look feminine. For an illustration, take Florence Welch and Adele as examples. Their dresses at the Brits were ideologically miles apart, yet both used lace to bold effect.
The tall, athletic Welch wore a girlish cascade of shell-pink ruffles with a lace train, an adaptation of an Alexander McQueen catwalk look: theatrical, glamorous, distinctive and pointedly seductive. Adele, meanwhile, who already projects a grown-up, womanly image, with her bouffant hair, cat's-eye make-up and curvaceous figure, chose to wear a buttoned-up black wiggle dress, its high-necked primness subverted by the use of dramatic black lace on the top panel and sleeves.
Lescroart has another theory about the fabric's sudden burst of popularity, and it, too, reflects a social trend. It is, she says, a surprising consequence of the recession: as we lose interest in spending money on lots of cheaply made, disposable fast fashion, we are replacing it with fewer pieces of high-quality craftsmanship. That's why luxury fashion is the one industry that rakes in huge profits while the rest of retail totters on the edge of another recession.
"It's priced as a luxury, but look at it - it's a piece that you want to keep because also it is never out of fashion," she says. "We think it's the most beautiful thing in the world. Take the Kate Middleton pattern: it's from the 1950s. We will remove it from the collection sometimes, and put it back, and it's never out of fashion. It was actually Alexander McQueen's favourite pattern."
It's not surprising that Sophie Hallette's laces are part of that luxury story, used by almost every couture and ready-to-wear designer, from Elie Saab and Georges Chakra to Givenchy, Chanel and Dior. They are still woven in the northern French lacemaking town of Caudry using 19th-century Leavers looms smuggled out of Britain during a ban on exporting the then-revolutionary technology to France.
Each pattern on a loom takes three men two months - yes two months - to painstakingly load with thousands of threads. A new pattern takes two months to develop. After weaving, eagle-eyed women search for flaws to repair, and then a creative team comes up with an endless supply of innovative ways to use the lace - handpainting it, beading it, embellishing it in formica, embroidering it with repurposed magnetic tape from music cassettes.
"The staff are craftspeople," says Lescroart. "It takes seven years to train someone to work on the looms. They stay there for their whole lives. They have this very precious know-how, and very often their wives, cousins, nephews, whole families work there. It's really a story of families, and that changes something in the product.
"You learn what time means," she adds ruefully. "You don't know the phrase, 'I don't have time', because everything takes time, so when you choose to do something, you focus, concentrate on it, and you're really sure of yourself."
Of course, it's no coincidence that Sophie Hallette sponsors carefully selected young designers with lace, including Erdem, Yiqing Yin and Christophe Josse, as well as providing fabric and mentoring for certain students at the great fashion schools, such as Parsons in New York and Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in London. That's a clever tactic that not only ensures their lace and tulle gets seen on newsworthy catwalks and a younger generation grows up knowing their products, but also that new ways of working with the product are developed, keeping it relevant and fresh up to 700 years after lace was first produced, by hand, in Flanders.
"If we don't come to them they won't have the chance to know about lace," argues Lescroart, "because it's something rare, and the lace that they can normally have access to is cheap lace; it's not the real product."
Ah, the real product. Because why, when China can churn out yard after perfect yard of lace on big, modern machines, would we need to use elderly Leavers looms that take two months to load? Apart from the creative treatments and endless archives of patterns, says Lescroart, it is the almost handmade quality that the Leavers offers - and hers is not the only company to think so.
Two years ago, the 150-year-old Cluny Lace Co, one of the last producers in the former lace powerhouse of Nottingham and Derbyshire, England, sold all its big industrial machines and returned to working purely with Leavers looms, their owner, Charles Mason, saying at the time: "[It's] the closest you can get to handmade lace that's made by a machine."
Lescroart concurs: "The Leavers machine is the best device for reproducing the work of a hand lacemaker. [Electronic looms] have the same problem as the music industry. Now the sound is so perfect that they are reproducing the little scratches - adding sounds. There's too much perfection and it's not human, and it's scary."
The irony of all this is that when the Leavers loom was first invented it was demonised as the end of lacemaking by hand, leaving thousands without work and its product considered inferior to the labour-intensive bobbin-made lace. Now, on the contrary, it's seen as the saviour of an ancient craft, something that we aspire to wear for its very handmade qualities, which probably says something about society's current direction.
That's a lot of meaning in your Erdem frock.