“What we do should normally not exist,” says Jean-François Lesage. “Because it's too complex. Too sophisticated. Too difficult.” He adds with a grin, “Which is a good thing.”

The house of Lesage, after all, has always been about luxury. And creators of luxury must necessarily be wildly ambitious, and — at the same time — extraordinarily patient. At Vastrakala, the Alwarpet workshop, set in an airy, graceful old garden bungalow, craftsmen sit in cross-legged rows, carefully working on intricate embroidery. Some of the stitching is so fine a microscope is needed for the process. Over here, a mere window blind can take six master embroiderers 2000 hours of work.

This year, Lesage's joining forces with Christian Louboutin, the influential maverick shoe designer, in a move likely to trigger waves in the world of fashion. This is Louboutin's first line for men. Lesage's most publicised collaboration with him so far has been the Marie Antoinette-inspired shoe collection (each pair costing roughly Rs. 3 lakh). Only 36 of these were released. “They're very difficult to make. One pair takes more time to put together than a BMW or Mercedes — 600 to 1000 hours.”

We study the first three shoe designs on Jean-François' desk: all unabashedly elaborate and saucily flamboyant, complete with Louboutin's signature glossy scarlet sole. “Christian said, ‘We could do something for men. I would like to wear them.' Dapper Jean-François grins, adding, “I would too!”

They worked on the line in Chennai a few months ago, with a big pin up of the jewellery-laden Maharaja of Gwalior set up in the workshop for inspiration. “We thought, why deprive men of embroidery when traditionally they always wore it… There's a sense of generous opulence in India. People here are not afraid of ‘maximalism'.”

Modern day fashion might frown on too many frills and flounces for men, but in cultures from Persia to India, accessory-laden dandyism was never a bad thing. Louboutin's all about edgy seductive styling and Lesage spells classy opulence, so their combined work is predictably lavish, and startling. “We bring together an equal amount of energy,” says Jean-François. “We all write stories in our own way. Some people use a pen. Some people use a brush. Some a needle. And some people invent shoes.”

This collection will have six styles on the whole, with just 500 shoes in each style since every pair takes about 20 to 60 hours to create. They will be released in December, and then one season later the women's shoes will make their debut along with matching handbags. “The shoes are inspired by the exuberance of India. Gwalior, the maharajas, the jewellery. In honour of Louboutin's great friend Mika (the British singer-songwriter) they're called ‘Mikaraja'.”

Louboutin and Jean-François, who have known each other for 20 years, share a love for India. “He came to India first when he was 17. I came when I was 19. We are both lucky our work is our passion,” says Jean-Francois, adding — with a smile, but no trace of irony — “We make extremely important things that are absolutely superficial.” Given his passion for embroidery, it's surprising to hear he vowed never to join the family business when he was a boy. “My family was in the business for so long. I felt it was taking up too much of my father's time,” he says. Of course, there were perks. “It did make me a very popular kid in school. I was exchanging Swarovskis for all kinds of goods… such as footballs!”

When his father bought a company in India, Jean-François figured it was the perfect excuse to renege on his dramatic oath, and join the family tradition. “People thought it was odd to try and manufacture quality in India. For me it was very logical. I stepped here and felt I had reached home. I was 27. To me India felt natural, normal, necessary.”

He quotes Queen Marie Antoinette's stylist, who when asked to create a new hairstyle said, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” Similarly, the work of Lesage today combines ideas from all over the world with traditional skills instead of merely recreating masterpieces. “There are cycles of fantasy and expression. It's a new way of appreciating the old. A new level of energy.”

He believes that despite industrialisation, luxury will never go out of style. “People will come back to real luxury. Luxury is something done for you, thinking of you, putting you at the centre of the story…” If luxury gets expensive, Jean-François says that's probably a good thing. “This way craftsmen won't be taken for granted. They'll be respected for the work they do.”

He adds, “My family… we consider ourselves craftsmen. That's why I feel so close to my workers. In a way we share the same background. We just happen to have been born in different countries… we share the same universe.”


They design, so they areNovember 2, 2010

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