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!
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!