Parisian school trains budding couturiers
Paris — If you were a fashion fan being interviewed on a television quiz program, one of the questions might be: ''What do Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Louis Scherrer, Andre Courreges, and Karl Lagerfeld of Chloe have in common?''
The answer is that these four world-famous designers, top names in the highest echelon of French fashion, are all graduates of the Paris dressmaking school organized and run by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
This trade school, considered by some Americans to be far superior to anything comparable in the United States, attracts pupils from all over the world. They are drawn by that intangible ''air of Paris,'' which leads so many designers to insist they can only be truly creative in this ''city of light.''
The school was founded in 1927 by the late Lucien Lelong, famed couturier of his epoch, who was able to dissuade the Germans occupying Paris in World War II from moving the entire couture, bag, baggage, and designers, off to Berlin. ''We cannot stop you,'' said Monsieur Lelong, ''but you will soon discover that Parisian designers can only design in Paris.''
The two-year course covers every phase of fashion including fashion history, sketching from live models, pattern drafting and grading (establishing a muslin pattern on a dummy figure, which each student has already padded to specific measurements), and the detailed study of balance, proportion, and volume before actually adapting a design to a moving body.
The tuition, covering the three terms from Sept. 15 through June 30, is 14, 000 francs (roughly $2,500). There are 140 students enrolled this year. Eighty percent of the students are young women, but two of the three star pupils scheduled to receive their diploma next June are young men: a Japanese and a Frenchman.
The three terms of the couture school do not coincide with the French scholastic programs, which have short holidays six or seven times during the nine-month school term. This tends to break the rhythm, says Madame Olga Saurat, the directress. The dressmaking students have just two weeks of vacation at Christmas and another two weeks at Easter. But many are so enthusiastic and totally involved in their studies that they have requested that classrooms and ateliers remain open during these holidays so they can continue to work on their own.
No special requirements, other than the equivalent of a high school diploma, are needed to enroll in the first-year courses. Madame Saurat insists that many students were totally incapable of even sewing on a button when they arrived at the school. Yet by the beginning of November, after just six weeks of intensive instruction, many of these future stars of the fashion firmament are capable of skillfully executing an imposed design on a dummy figure.
Olga Saurat, literally the guiding hand that rocks this cradle of creativity, has been associated with the school for the past 30 years, first as a teacher and then as directress since 1968. Madame Saurat speaks just a few words of English, but since all courses are conducted in French, foreign students learn the language along with their studies and feel free to drop in for a chat from time to time with this friendly, outgoing woman.
Four American women are currently enrolled in the second-year program. Joyce Michel from Houston, Texas, said she investigated all the leading fashion schools in the US before coming to Paris and considers the Chambre Syndicale's formation the best in the world. Allison Earl from Salt Lake City heard about the Parisian school from her university in Utah. She arrived here to work as an au pair girl to earn some money and learn some French before enrolling in the school last year.
For the first time last June, students presented a professional fashion show featuring their own original models. Each pupil showed at least one dress or ensemble that he or she had designed and made. Professional mannequins modeled the clothes, although occasionally one or two of the students proudly strutted down the runway dressed in one of their own creations. Pierre Cardin, ever the altruist and a firm believer in lending a helping hand to the new young generation of designers, loaned his premises in the Espace Cardin on the Avenue Gabriel opposite the United States Embassy for the presentation. Major French textile houses donated the fabrics for the pupils to make their models.
This show received an outstanding ovation from the fashion pros and press and is now slated to become an annual event. Pupils are already planning a new collection to be presented at the end of the school's last term next summer.
''It's such fabulous motivation throughout the entire year,'' says Madame Saurat. She notes that many students go on to do a month's apprenticeship in some major Paris couture house that will accept two or three of the most talented graduates without pay but also without the requisite working papers, which are incredibly difficult for most foreigners to obtain in France.
Like Joyce Michel, many young women dream of working in the waning field of custom-made fashions or teaching other young women to appreciate the infinite scope of sewing at home. The English brochure from the Chambre Syndicale School opens with a quote from the French writer, Germaine Beaumont:
''When the world is taken over by the anonymity of machines and their soulless perfection, there still remains the ultimate aristocracy of hand craftsmanship: Handwork is said to be touched by the gift of grace.''