In the Atelier of Christophe Josse

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With only 72 hours to go before Christophe Josse’s couture show, it’s all hands on board in his small atelier to deliver the grand couturier latest visions: a romantic silhouette tempered by more architectural rigor.

Friday 19, 5.30pm

Just a stone’s throw away from Opera, on the first floor of an elegant 19th century building, Christophe Josse’s small Parisian atelier is a hive of activity.

In the largest of the three rooms, several seamstresses share a large table, hard at work on various garments. Two are draping a hand-painted tourmaline green silk crepe splashed with hot pink around a mannequin shaping up what will become a long sheath with a demure décolleté, another seamstress is sewing a rose satin organza dress with a particularly complicated neckline drape, while two more are painstakingly embroidering small pink crocodile-like scales on a fuchsia muslin following a detailed pattern drawing.

In a second, smaller room a seamstress is hunched over her large sewing machine working on the same fuchsia fabric piecing together the large skirt of a beautiful flowing dress that will be tightly pleated at the waist, while another woman is draping a mannequin with meters of sulphur coloured silk charmeuse for what will eventually become an asymmetrical shoulder evening gown.

But the centre of activity is in the front room, where seven people are cramming around Christophe Josse. Models are coming in and out, briefly cat-walking in front of him and the casting director. Some are asked on the spot to try on one or two of his completed dresses and a quick fitting ensues, some are sent away after a quick polaroid shot is taken in the outfit, only to be called back an hour later for a full fitting.

Three days before the Grand Couturier’s third haute couture collection, many of the dresses are still unfinished – not an unusual development for any couture house - and Josse appears slightly stressed, though he remains good humoured.

Julia, a willowy red-haired model, has just tried on a simple pencil skirt stunningly embellished with thousands of black and white rhodoïd lames, but Josse is unsure. "Let's try the purple and grey," he says.

Hand painted in the style of the French abstract painter Pierre Soulage, the one-shouldered, ruched evening gown in deep amethyst and malachite has another complicated drape around the waist and will clearly be one of the highlights of his very feminine collection.

At first the model appears completely dwarfed by the fabric. “If there is too much fabric, it won’t be sexy. I really want to give some consciousness of her form,” Josse tells Christian Macé, his atelier chief.

Mace and his number two start pinning the fabric to make sure the fit is not only perfect, but the silky fabric, a satin organza, falls perfectly from Julia’s narrow hips. As the dress slowly takes shape over a 20 minute process Josse continues to call out instructions: "Make sure the dress touches the floor, it's important," “Take in more fabric at the back, it flaps about and makes her look like a tulip.”

When the model’s body emerges and is flattered perfectly by the gown, the Grand Couturier is finally happy, declaring “divine, really beautiful. I think this young lady has found her dress!,” though Julia will have to come back on Sunday for her final fitting.

Meanwhile another model has just tried on an asymmetrical draped ivory wool dress. Josse fiddles with the back of the arm, “not great,” he points to one seamstress, while another is on her knees using a rigid tape measured to ensure the height of the helms is absolutely perfect all around. The model tries on a second outfit, the rich emerald green and fuchsia shealth/fourreau, which only an hour ago was still being built on the mannequin. These are unusually bright colours for the designer who has recently favoured more muted tones.

The model’s simple and demure front hides a sexy curved plunging back ending above generous pleats of mousseline spreading like a sunburst. Josse suggests lowering a pocket on the side, while instructing the model to make sure she uses it during the defile??. “I find this hand in the pockets less pretentious on an evening dress; I like the idea that the lady is not taking herself too seriously. She has this beautiful dress but she makes her entrance with a certain nonchalance,” he says.

Watching Josse at work on this Spring-Summer 2012 Couture collection, it’s clear he enjoys working organically throughout including on a model at the fitting, shaping his ideas on her. His drawings of each look pinned on the wall of the atelier are more rough outlines than detailed designs.

While Josse’s previous couture collection for Fall/Winter 2011 had a medieval feel, inspired by a visit to an exhibition of armour at the army museum in Paris, Josse found inspiration this time in the world of contemporary architecture and in particular the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic art in Doha, where straight lines and curves battle to shape spacs, as well as Zaha Hadid’s recent rounded-shaped architectural projects in Beijing. Yet, the designer also admits this fascination with architectural rigour was tempered by his continuous love for nineteenth century English paintings, this time the works of classicist painter Frederic Leighton, best known for his painting ‘Flaming June’ representing an ideal of beauty at the time.

“I wanted to mix sober and graphic lines with rounder ones that are very sensual and voluptuous. The construction of the elongated silhouettes found some of its inspiration in architecture structures. For example I’ve constructed some of the skirts with pleats in ogive shape. One black skirt has folded pleats of black lacquered organza which are reminiscent of roof tiles. It looks deceptively simple, but it’s a lot of work in the atelier,” he explains.

The influence of designer Ron Arad is also evident in the form of the blown glass shapes that Josse will use to decorate the neckline of a blouse, or the edge of pockets on a white evening sheath or embracing a waist.

By 8’oclock , having sustained himself with a box of chocolates, Josse is now tackling his final look, the wedding dress in lace doubled with organza, which is proving to be a bit of a headache. While the corseted bustier fits the model perfectly and a set of baleens is shaping her hips well, the skirt is falling awkwardly. After several attempt to strengthen it, Josse decides to lengthen the baleens to make sure the skirt will sit well on the floor.

Each season, Josse sends romantic and sensual silhouettes down the catwalk, always anchored in modernity and the Spring Summer 2012 collection would be no different.

As Published in Couture by Designaré – Vol 2 (April 2012)