Two Legends of Parisian Haute Couture

SLIDESHOW: Beautiful new samples and artistic experiments with fabrics, metal and other materials by Jean-Pierre Ollier and Philippe Grand.

Billionaire visits the ateliers of Philippe Grand and Jean-Pierre Ollier for a rare glimpse behind the scenes.

Jean-Pierre Ollier
Esteemed Parisian embroiderer and textile designer Jean-Pierre Ollier founded his own atelier back in 2000. Specialising in hand-painted and hand-embroidered textiles, tie and dye, Japanese shibori, batik or more classical techniques, anything he had to hand, Ollier would systematically push to new heights.

Today, Ollier works for couture and luxury maisons such as Givenchy, Dior, LV, Marc Jacobs, Roger Vivier and Saint Laurent. Running a tight ship during fashion weeks, he is often given a visual reference and a couple of days to create a corresponding fabric. Sleepless nights are often the norm as ideas go back and forth between stylists and Ollier’s atelier. He says: “They want new ideas, a new take on old techniques, a sense of unseen modernity.”

For the last Louis Vuitton collection, Ollier worked around the idea of a half-woven, half-braided handle: an instant hit, it ended up on every model on the runway. “I create prototypes and replicas, items for the shows or for press presentations; I make up to 10 pieces per series then it is handled by outside factories or suppliers. I am a live laboratory of ideas,” he says.

Ollier adds: “For the past 15 years, every day, every new brief has been a challenge, a surprise, a creative ballet. Of course, there have been highlights such as Dior’s Japanese haute couture collection [January 2007], for which I created six origami looks; or six years of couture collaboration with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy.”

During these creative processes, Ollier has replaced the pencil with needles, threads, weaving techniques, cutters, rulers and stencils.“When you draw, every curve or line is the result of a choice. When I compose fabrics, accidents and surprises happen that create unprecedented textures and materials. And it is often what looks the most obvious that is the most difficult to achieve.”

Ollier adds: “I never repeat the same idea twice. Even though techniques and gestures never change, there is always a way of looking at things differently. Today’s savoir-faire is less about spending hours on perfecting a technique but rather coming up with a luminous idea.”

And it is this search for ideas that Ollier takes deeply into the design process. “Everywhere I go, I’m on the look-out for a vintage piece, an exhibition, a colour range. Then I confront periods and style: how can modern and baroque architecture have a dialogue, for example? How will a coarse material respond to an 18thcentury curl? I study shapes and fabrics out of context, create sequins from feathers or piece together Chantilly lace motifs to invent new patterns.”

This process has led him into some uncharted and transformative outcomes. Ollier says: “I invented hybrid feathers — half real-feather, half-satin; individually painted sequins with nail polish; applied make-up to fabrics; and even crushed silver-coated volumes to create uneven, glistening surfaces. I love degenerative solutions; every material can be transfigured, techniques crystallised, fabrics eaten up by another. To imagine new samples, I disrespect materials, I forget how precious they are; I manipulate them.”

A young graduate from Penninghen, Ollier seemed destined to be an illustrator. He tried working for an advertising agency, lasting one month. When he met scenographer Elia Kim, however, it was a key moment in his creative career. “I learnt everything through [Kim], from printing techniques to matching materials.”

This apprenticeship was supplemented by good old-fashioned bluff: he knocked on the doors of John Galliano and Christian Lacroix to present them with sample fabrics. “I really had small pieces of fabric and ribbons in hand. Within a week, I received a firm order from them both: a ribbon to be placed on a jacket for a Lacroix show and 10m of custom fabric for Galliano. For Galliano, I had bleached a Lelièvre fabric, painted over it, tied and mended it with a gold thread.”

Ollier never looked back. “Couture or not, the point of view changes; I take risks, and create new rules,” he concludes.

Philippe Grand
Around him, in his Parisian atelier, haute couture fashion jewellery designer Philippe Grand’s walls are covered with show invitations, pictures of past work, ad campaigns and drawings. On a late Friday afternoon, Grand is waiting for one of Céline’s team to assess the pieces he’s created for the next show. “One has to keep up with the rhythm; it’s sometimes frustrating to have only a few days to create a collection. Yet the boundaries of what we can create are limitless. We create desirable jewellery but never have to deal with preciousness,”Grand says.

Collaborating with Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Mulberry and Givenchy this year, Philippe Grand graduated as a master-silversmith from École Boullebefore he met Jacques and Yasmine Hurel. An iconoclastic couple, the Hurels worked as leathersmiths and jewellery designers,transforming objects into creative pieces.

“Jacques was wonderfully crazy, a true Jack of all trades; I learnt everything from him,”recalls Grand, who stayed eight years before setting up his own atelier in 1998. He then worked for Christian Lacroix and, later, exclusively for Chanel for four years. “The vital part of our day-to-day work is to be confronted to something new: a technique, an approach, a print. There isn’t an hour that goes by during which we don’t have to come up with a solution. We are problem solvers, real chameleons,” says Grand.

For Jean-Paul Gaultier, he remembers creating oversized halos for modern-day Virgin Marys. “They had to be theatrical and yet weightless so that the models could walk the catwalk; we came up with a rigidified bronze structure. Often, we revert to rare, traditional techniques to find the appropriate solution,” he adds.

For Nicolas Ghesquière’s first Louis Vuitton collection, Grand was also faced with a challenge to compose ‘colourful crisps’. Working hand in hand with a resin expert, the pieces ended up on every look of the show. “Sometimes we get lucky: an exterior element such as fashion jewellery becomes the heart and soul of the show. But most of the time we create dozens of variations and only one gets chosen,” says Grand.

Stamping, hammering, ratcheting, welding — the techniques Grand uses are countless. “We are also influenced by the digital revolution; we can cut lace out of metal today in a way that the hand cannot. The machine creates extremely delicate patterns,” he says. Matching ancient techniques with modern-day tools is what Grand prefers: once an item is finalised, he hammers it, polishing it to give it a ‘soul’, a soft finish. He believes that makes the difference between a collectible and a generic piece.

For Tom Ford, Grand recently worked on a collection inspired by John Chamberlain’s crushed sculptures. “We had to find the right metal and the right way to torture it. Painting it brought on other interrogations, as it started to look too precious and shiny. We ended up scrapping and scratching the paint to give the piece a sense of movement and personality. In the end, it really feels like you are wearing an art piece.”

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