Interning with Christian Lacroix

This is an entry written by one of our frequent visitors Katy Robinson, who was tenacious enough to have pursued the lofty goal of getting an internship with a haute couturier in Paris. In addition to this entry, she kept a near daily journal when she was there, quaint snapshots of her time in France. She says to please overlook the typing errors you’ll find there; the french keyboards are a little different. Currently, she lives with her husband Eric in St. Louis MO. Thanks Katy!
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I spent 2 months in June and July 2003 interning at Christian Lacroix Haute Couture Salon in Paris, France. The following includes my responses to that experience as requested by Kathleen. Below is a photo of me and Christian Lacroix.

I spent June 2002 studying the French language in Paris. After falling in love with the city, I decided I would do everything in my power to get back. With the best of my ability, I translated my CV into French in fall 2002. I mailed it to a dressmaker I had met the previous summer when I asked to borrow her phone. I explained I was looking for a summer job or internship. She did not have enough work to have an intern, but graciously revised my CV both culturally and grammatically and mailed it back.


Next in the spring of 2003, I went to Dallas on a field trip with my French class to the French American Chamber of Commerce meeting. A French diplomat was delivering a medal of honor to a Dallas businessman. In the Frenchman’s introduction, it was noted that he had written his thesis on the Dallas businessman, Neiman Marcus. I was in the research phase of my own thesis, discovering what makes a designer successful. My conclusion was good business sense or a strong business partner. Ironically, a few days ago WWD.online posed the question who is in charge the CEO or designer to several fashion CEOs and designers. Obviously I was ahead of the times!

So, after the presentation, I approached the man using my thesis and love for France as common ground. I introduced myself and let him know I was extremely interested in an internship in Paris with a fashion designer. We traded e-mail address and began corresponding. It turned out he was close friends with the Director of Christian Lacroix’ Haute Couture Salon, Marie Martinez. In the 80s she was his favorite model and continues to be a muse. Plans were finalized in the middle of May 2003. Plane tickets were purchased, housing plans put in place and I was off. I’d also like to give credit to my professors, Dr. Lusk, Dr. Purdy, and Ms. Greene at Baylor University. They definitely prepared me for this experience!

What I Learned
The words haute couture and couture are ridiculously overused. Haute couture costs a lot more to produce than is charged for the final product. I’ve seen a few of the invoices for garments and they are extreme. First, they are several pages long detailing countless hours of hand-work, the finest laces, trims and fabric, custom embroideries, etc. It is rare for a haute couture garment to have any machine stitching. Everything is hand sewn, hand embroidered and the fabric is often hand painted. It really is a work of art. Haute couture associates a status with a name and the companies make money with their ready-to-wear lines or branding. I’ve found an excellent pictorial representation of this is in the book, Fashion, The Century of the Designer by Charlotte Seeling. This particular pictorial (photo album) is of Christian Lacroix. Garments are produced for the show both in the atelier and by designers who work outside of Lacroix atelier. Garments made for the show are offered a half price to the customers that can fit in them they are tiny. Those that aren’t sold are stored. For other sized customers, they can customize any of the collections’ items or “design” anything they can imagine.

An interesting tidbit about couture houses is a lot of them have some sort of cafeteria for their workers. Lacroix didn’t but they did offer a “meal voucher” worth a certain amount of Euros for a greatly reduced rate. These vouchers can be used at most restaurants in the area.

Most of the rest of my work included running errands around the building and city, organizing fabrics and lace headers by style, organizing the costume collection, and proofing correspondence sent to English-speakers. I also assisted with seating people at the show.

Appearances Are Everything
The salon and Lacroix grounds are exquisite and gorgeous. Fresh flowers arrived weekly for the front desks in the salon, coffee is served on the finest china. Several gourmet snacks are on hand for the clients, though I found that the employees used them more than the clients! I must say strawberry juice is very tasty. In 2003, Lacroix was still owned by LVMH so champagne was offered as well. Once again, the staff finished any left-overs. The walls are constantly being refreshed especially before the shows in July and January. The summer of 2003 was especially hot in France. Few residences and businesses have air conditioning. Lacroix had portable units available for the fitting areas and work areas.

I found it interesting that a few key people provided sketches. As long as the sketches were made on paper with the Lacroix header, it was considered to be his.

Embracing Other Cultures Is Important
I was answering the phones the second week and a lot of the people that called could speak only French. Also, most of the employees in the ateliers (the seamstresses and pattern-makers) spoke French only. So understanding idioms and cultures in foreign languages helps prevent miscommunication and frustration. By no means am I saying I speak French perfectly. I emphasizing that being willing to try and mess up and try again does matter. I was speaking in English with a co-worker about muslins, or samples. He stopped me and asked about the word and how similar it was to Muslim. I agreed they sounded alike but was able to explain the difference. I was most surprised to find that half of the clients are from the Middle East. Logically, it makes since they have a lot of oil money.

It is Who You Know
As I mentioned earlier, the Director of the Haute Couture Salon was formally one of Lacroix’ favorite models. The opportunity for her to have this position resulted from her experience with him and the industry, as well as her distinguished personality. Another employee in the salon began as an intern. Because I inquired with the French businessman, I was given the opportunity to intern with Lacroix. The French businessman invited me to a dinner party he threw during the week of the haute couture shows. Other guests included Danielle Steel and French royalty. I don’t say this to name-drop but merely to mention you never know whom you might meet. By all means invest in a business card, the people you network with will generally help you out! Also remember, that people don’t always remember you. Follow up, remind them of why they need to do business with you, or network with you. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!

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12 comments

  1. Carmel Dolcine says:

    Congrats Katy. Very nice post. Networking is key and this is a fine example of how important it is to take initiative, take some risks, and go after opportunities to learn first hand the way couture really works.

    If there is anything else you can contribute concerning the way the business side works in terms of client interactions and order fulfillment, I would really appreciate hearing more.

  2. Penny says:

    Wow! What a cool experience for you and for us to read about. It would be fabulous to be surrounded by so many exquisite fabrics and artists. Thanks so much for sharing your amazing adventure with us!

  3. Marie-Christine says:

    Amusing that you appreciate the meal tickets and very cheap ‘cantine’ to be such a benefit of Lacroix – they’re a standard French benefit. One of those things expected to be picked up by any decent employer, while the state provides directly nearly-free health care, bursting public libraries, road repairs, comfortable retirement, art and research budgets… all amenities that the american public has nearly forgotten, sadly. There’s a lot to be said for a public budget that doesn’t go entirely to defense!

  4. KatyRenee says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed! Carmel, I’m not sure what I can add about client interactions and order fulfillment. Clients generally had appointments scheduled. I was surprised by one client in particular. She was requesting designs for a wedding dress. She came to our offices 3 or 4 times in one week. In the end, it turns out she was going to other haute couture houses as well and selected another designer. The amount of time that was put into meeting with her, requesting sketches, requesting embroideries, requesting fabrics, etc. was significant. She did make a small purchase from us–something in the model size from the previous collection. But it was quite small in comparison to the work we provided. Most of the ‘regular’ clients would either come to Paris around the times of shows or would wait for Marie to make her rounds to London, and the US–generally a stop in NYC in another in California. They’d order a few garments for the upcoming season. Some items were for day, some for night. I think it took about 1-2 months to fulfill orders that were created from scratch. For items purchased off the runway, they typically made any adjustments (adding fabric where sheer isn’t practical, fitting to the client, etc.) within the week or few days the person was in Paris and the clients generally took the garments with them. For the ‘regular’ clients they had forms with their measurements in the studio and made things based on that. They’d ship the garments, if they weren’t local, and Marie would come with a seamstress to do any final touches. Any time a wedding gown was ordered, someone from the salon (Marie or one of 3 others) generally went with the gown to make sure it was perfect. They’d take a seamstress to make any adjustments.

    Let me know if you have any more questions!

  5. J C Sprowls says:

    KatyRenee said: In the end, it turns out she was going to other haute couture houses as well and selected another designer. The amount of time that was put into meeting with her […] was significant. She did make a small purchase from us–something in the model size from the previous collection.

    While less common that clientele in this arena would shop several designers, it does happen. This clientele tends to be much more selective and chooses firms carefully after pre-screening (i.e. attending shows, reviewing sketches, etc.).

    I think images like these are what a lot of design school students visualize their careers to be. They have no idea the significant amount of time, money and effort (on many people’s parts) that goes into providing the world-class service that is expected at this level.

    The “small purchase” this client made was a gesture to reimburse the house for their upfront investment. She recognized their effort. Sadly, this etiquette is also lost. I presume she is European?

    RE: vouchers. These are a common employment benefit, as M-C mentions. However, I believe they are also voluntary. Several of the companies I worked for offered them. In fact, we took them for granted. That is, until some higher-paying jobs didn’t offer them.

    RE: Paris:

    I miss: public education, public transportation, immense libraries, fresh food, the Opera, the Marais, etc.

    I don’t miss: postage stamp sized apartments with thin walls, water restrictions and tight budgets.

  6. Rocio says:

    Hi Katy,

    I found your post very inspirational… and it’s great that you shared your experience with us!

    You are a great example of how far perseverence and being polite to people can take you.

  7. Tim says:

    “I found it interesting that a few key people provided sketches. As long as the sketches were made on paper with the Lacroix header, it was considered to be his.”

    Hi Katy,

    I was wondering how much you got to see Lacroix design. Did these “few key people” design most of the runway collection or is it mostly his hand on the sketches? What about designs for specific customers? Did he receive clients himself for special made-to-measure dresses?

    Thank you, by the way, your post is most interesting!

  8. Jillian Krebsbach says:

    Hey Katie,

    Nice to see more details about your internship. That seems like such a long time ago at Baylor. I was just checking out some articles on here and link to your post came up. I realize it was from ’07, but still cool to read.
    Hope you are doing well…

  9. monica kailas says:

    Dear katie,

    Thank you so much for telling so much about your internship!
    It has been very usefull for me. I am interrested in haute couture and I will probably write my essay in this subject. I saw that you wrote your own thesis about “what makes a designer succesfull”. I could use every information I could get about this subject. There is not much information available about it here in Holland.

    Could you please let me know if you are willing to send me your thesis?

    Thanks in advance!

    Sincerely,

    Monica Kailas

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