HAUTE COUTURE EMBROIDERER and textile researcher REBECCA DEVANEY likes nothing more than exploring her new neighbourhood in Paris, as well as working on some ARTISTIC COLLABORATIONS …
Just now I am working at Yves Saint Laurent and days have been long and intense – often twelve hours in almost total silence. As I embroider I am constantly in awe of the extraordinary craftsmanship and attention to detail involved. The gowns I work on must be impeccable before being flown to London or New York for final fittings. I have to sign confidentiality agreements to work at some of the couture houses. It is always a pleasure to see the gowns appear on red carpets [at Cannes Film Festival and the Met Gala].
On Friday evening I love nothing more than going back to my apartment, which is a cosy, light-filled rental for artists and writers, overlooking the Buttes Chaumont Park. It’s decorated with bright colours, Indian textiles and art. My weekends tend to be a balance of relaxation and exploring the city with new friends or visitors from home [Devaney is originally from Ballinteer, Dublin 16].
The reason I am here has much to do with my ongoing fascination with les petites mains – the artisans behind the scenes of haute couture. I often spent many happy hours researching the embellishments they made in lace, beads, ribbons and sequins for Dior, Balenciaga, Vionnet and Schiaparelli in the library of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, during my degree in Art and Design and Education. After a decade teaching, I returned to do an MFA in Textile Art and Artefact, after which I decided to enrol in the École Lesage in Paris in September 2017. The school was opened by Atelier Lesage to ensure the traditions and savoir-faire of French embroidery would continue. It took me six months to complete the course. Since then I’ve been very fortunate to work in the ateliers of Maison Lesage and Maison Lemarié, preparing collections for Chanel and Louis Vuitton.
My quartier is Jourdain, in the 19th and 20th arrondissements, which is like a typical French village centred around the church where Edith Piaf was baptised. It has a little square surrounded by cafés, restaurants and shops. On Saturday morning, I breakfast in a boulangerie and I have made a great effort to try all the different pastries; at the moment the almond and nutella pain au chocolat is a firm favourite. In the afternoon, a favourite walk is the route along the Seine past Notre Dame, visiting the Marché-aux-Fleurs, browsing in Shakespeare and Co and wandering through the Marais. Or I will explore the African, Indian, Mahgreb and Chinese neighbourhoods. There is always a long list of museums and exhibitions to see too, though the queues can be offputting.
In the evening I meet friends for an aperitif in a little square at the Parc de Belleville with stunning views of the sun setting over the city. Later we might go to The Bellevilloise which has concerts each week on its covered terrace with a tree in the centre strung with fairylights.
Sunday morning I get up early and go to the market at Place des Fêtes to stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers. There is a superb French bistro brunch at Chez Casimir where you can order from the menu and then help yourself to platters of cheese, charcuterie, and other Breton specialities. Afterwards I like to wander along the Canal St Martin, which is lined with lovely boutiques, galleries and pop-up shops and stop for a coffee at Chez Prune.
Wearing vintage clothes is a passion and of course Paris is a real treasure trove for these. The boutiques around Sacré-Cœur like Mamie Bleu, Chez PouPoule and Antirouille have carefully selected pieces while Renaissance Vintage in St Germain de Près is the real deal, with Dior, Balenciaga and YSL gowns. My favourite place to shop is the picturesque flea market at St Ouen with little alleyways covered in ivy, and vendors selling antique furniture, art, jewellery, books and vintage clothes from the 16th-century right up to the 1980s. There are lots of tiny cafés and restaurants, when a break is needed, and there is live music on Sundays which adds to the ambience.
I usually have a stack of books from the Bibliothèque Forney, which specialises in art, craft and design, and I like to catch up on those in the late afternoon. I also work on my research project. Last summer I did an artist’s residency in Tamil Nadu, India where I visited a stunning embroidery atelier run by the St Joseph of Cluny order of nuns in Pondicherry. Local women are trained in needlework and their exquisite embroidery is commissioned by embassies and maisons such as Cartier. This income and training gives the women financial independence and empowers them to make positive changes to their families and communities. With the kind help of an Irish nun, Sister Teresa Mundow, who works as a translator at the St Joseph of Cluny headquarters here in Paris, I am researching the fascinating story of the French nuns who set up the embroidery atelier.
Next on my agenda is a collaboration with the Mexican Embassy in France to organise an exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Paris called “Bordados: An Exhibition of Embroidered Textiles From Mexico”. The exhibition includes a collection of embroidered textiles I purchased during a research trip to Mexico funded by the Thomas Dammann Junior Memorial Trust Award in July 2015.
To round off the weekend, on Sunday evening I watch a film in one of the beautiful, old-fashioned cinemas around the city. I try to convince myself that this is the best way to improve my French instead of revising Leaving Cert grammar and conjugation.
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