A love of nature is at heart of silk flower-maker’s creations
Business was booming for fabricants de fleurs artificielles, or artificial flower makers in 18th and 19th century France as silk flowers were an essential element of the wardrobe of any wealthy woman.
Luxury houses sprung up to supply hat-makers, fashion designers, seamstresses and tailors... but, today, clothes cost less, last less time, and floral designs are less fashionable, meaning demand for artificial flowers has plummeted.
However, high quality flowers are still sought for weddings, haute couture, and in the theatre, which means the craft, though reduced in scale, continues to thrive.
Cheap, mass-produced artificial flowers have given the authentic item a bad name but a handcrafted silk rose has virtually nothing in common with a generic plastic rose.
Each of the hundreds of individual elements in the silk rose will have been cut, shaped and painted, using designs minutely observed from nature.
Séverina Lartigue, for example, says roses she makes in her Normandy atelier each contain more than 100 petals, as well as silk stamen and a number of leaves, each imprinted with a unique pattern of veins.
She started her own business 20 years ago and while she produces some pieces for weddings most of her handmade flowers are destined for theatres, such as the Opéra de Paris, and for fashion houses.
She loves working for Jean-Paul Gaultier. “He’s extraordinary. He uses my flowers in unexpected ways. I love working on his teams, bouncing ideas off one another. It’s creation in its purest sense”.
Requirements for the craft include being dexterous, precise and patient, with a sense of colour and shape. It is ideal for those who enjoy working with textiles and observing flowers in nature.
It begins with cutting petals of the required shape from the chosen fabric. This is done by hand, or using centuries-old tools like a swan’s neck press or a large mallet cutter. Artisans also use a series of detailed metal moulds and templates.
Petals may be white, cream or ivory in colour to start with and are hand-painted in a technique like watercolour that gives the nuanced tones of real flowers. Leaves are embossed with unique markings then silk stamen or pistils from the only remaining maker in France are added, and all the elements carefully assembled to resemble a real flower. Flowers can be combined in headdresses, broaches, or other items.
There is a two-year CAP as fleuriste en fleurs artificielles et plumassière, or a one-year Formation Complémentaire d’Initiative Locale (open to adults) in arts de la mode broderie chapellerie fleurs plumes from LP Octave Feuillet in Paris.
Some craftsmen may offer work experience and a handful practise the métier in isolation, producing flowers to order.
Three large artificial flower-making houses are still open in France: Légeron, Lemarié and Guillet. They are in Paris and supply major fashion labels.
Treasure trove of memories in a workshop
The ambience, smell, tiny drawers with a multitude of treasures, vast collection of antique tools, and, of course, the flowers in Séverina Lartigue’s Calvados atelier hark back to enjoying a milliner’s shop when she was young.
She was entranced by the multitude of drawers of materials to decorate hats, particularly the artificial flowers.
Not knowing her love of flowers and fabric could lead to a fulfilling career, she left school to work for a prototype maker and then set up her own company making models for the garden and, as her love of flowers began to beckon once more, a diploma as a landscape gardener.
On a visit to the now-closed Musée des Arts Populaires in Paris she was entranced by a mock-up of an old Parisian street containing shop fronts for all the traditional métiers. “When I saw the artificial flower maker, something just clicked,” she says.
When she set up her atelier, a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) in artificial flower-making was available, but was not open for adults and there were no alternatives for people wishing to retrain.
So she is self-taught, her years of fascination with floral structure serving her well.
For others like her, Mrs Lartigue advises observing flowers in nature; and to experiment with their own blooms.
“Each fabricant de fleurs artificielles has their own preferred material. Mine is silk, but for some people it might be felt, or wool. It’s vital that each craftsman finds the right medium.
“After that, it’s a question of interpretation. In Japan, craftsmen strive to imitate nature as closely as possible. I don’t do that at all. I study nature so I can interpret it. Each flower is a piece of art”.