At first glance, the Maison Legeron looks quirky, homey, topsy turvy. Hard to imagine that the charming, old-fashioned atelier houses the last independent family firm that makes and supplies the exquisite handmade artificial flowers worn by top models strutting down the runways at haute couture shows (and also sold for astronomical prices in high fashion boutiques).
Bruno Legeron, whose great-grandfather bought the establishment in 1898, tells me that there was a time when hundreds of firms like his turned out handmade flowers and feathers for ladies’ hats. Then came the automobile, more informal ways of dressing and notably, the demise of le chapeau. The legions of small ateliers were snatched up and became part of big fashion houses. Legeron is the last to hold out, fashioning his artificial flowers for designers from Dior to Jean-Paul Gaultier to Jimmy Choo and supplying feathers for the Lido and the Folies Bergères.
Times have changed, though, and Bruno admits that “we used to make flowers – now we make profit margins”. In spite of his words, you can tell that he believes in what he does and that in his atelier there’s more to the process than profit margins. There’s heart.
The process looks deceptively simple – the silk (or leather or latex) is stretched on wooden frames to stiffen and dry all night, then the petals are cut with dies and wax heated so that each petal can be individually shaped with a special instrument solely for that purpose. Some of the tools date back to from Bruno’s great-grandfather’s days. Bruno personally takes care of finding and mixing exactly the right colour for the petals.
“The only thing we don’t do”, Bruno joked, as he showed me around the picturesque atelier only steps away from the Palais Royal and its gardens – which are filled with “real” flowers – “is raise our ostriches down in the basement.” There are no birds in the basement, for sure, but there are bird feathers galore, whether from pheasants, black guinea fowls, swans or others, carefully stored in plain oblong cardboard boxes lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Ostrich feathers notably, are classified according to quality and labelled “très très belle”, “très belle”, and “belle”. Those feathers are used on everything from boas to accessories on shoes like the gorgeous bright blue pair in the picture below.
On the day I visited the atelier, Bruno was dressed in jeans and a tracksuit top over which he wore a black apron adorned with huge safety pins with various roses and feathers. He certainly looked “modern”, but he’s proud of doing things the old-fashioned and collegial way (workers in the atelier all have specialities but pitch in to help each other when there’s a rush, he says). Pointing at an antiquated cash register where the amounts are still in French francs, Bruno joked: “That’s my computer”.
I cast a glance at the “computer”, then gazed up at the ceiling. Hanging over our heads were rows and rows of enormous silk white peonies which Legeron had created for a Cartier window display.
I was filled with admiration for the exquisite craftmanship I had witnessed during the visit – as well as a fleeting but powerful desire to own a drop dead gorgeous 2 meter black and white boa made of top quality ostrich feathers that I gently fingered on my way out the door….But then, who wouldn’t want to possess a handmade creation with more than a century of French savoir-faire behind it?
This article was adapted from a passage in the chapter “Savoir-Vivre: Life as an Art Form” in my latest book, Joie de Vivre.