The first thing that strikes me about Elisabeth Rolleau is her sparkling eyes. Seated in the comfortable Plantation Lounge at Sofitel JBR, Dubai, the French haute couture embroiderer has just finished teaching a group of afficianados both traditional and haute embroidery; sadly I could not take part in the workshops this time round (but I promise to visit her studio in Lyons, France, some day!). Elisabeth recounts her journey into the art of haute couture embroidery and her vision to share this French handicraft with the world. She studied under the tutelage of Ms. Le Vaillant who is one of the best embroiderers in France. She has also worked with the likes of Hermes, Jerome Dillinger, Christian Dior, Chanel, Azzaro and Alexis Mabille; and describes that it is like a dream working on prototypes of their dress collections. She calls this a miracle; “when you have an idea of what you want to do for the embroidery and your hand is able to execute it, that is magic.”
Elisabeth admits that she is a creative introvert (something that we have in common) but when she gets talking about embroidery – the love of her life – the words spill out of her mouth like beads and sequins flowing onto threads and into the rapphia. I, then, remember my mother who used to stitch clothes for me and embroider them with love and care.
Talking about care, Elisabeth is very possessive about her little black box – the album that showcases her beautiful works of art (as you can see in the photos in this blog story). And rightly so. I ensure that I sip at my cappuccino and chip away at the bisque, turned away from her pieces of work. It’s like blemishing a highly polished diamond with chimney soot – a first class craftsman would shake his head in disbelief! I know the feeling. There have been times when I showcase my mixed media artwork at craft exhibitions and passers-by do not understand the work that I’ve put into crocheting a piece of unique jewelry or bangle. They lift it from my table, stare at it for a minute and then drop it to the table without so much of a care that they have just damaged a piece of art and have torn at my heart. So, when Elisabeth says, “Attention! Be careful, Jan!” I know what she is trying to say.
Thanks to Elisabeth, I have a chance to peek in-depth into the world of embroidery and share it with you through this interview. Elisabeth is a great believer in changing our own inner worlds, a mantra that is similar to my own (Awaken Your World). The more we discuss art and life, I realise that we had much more in common than just love for all things handcrafted by employing the use of hands.
Without further ado, here is the interview with the talented French embroiderer.
What is the difference between Traditional Embroidery and Haute Couture Embroidery?
The difference between the traditional embroidery and Haute Couture embroidery is the material that we use. Traditional embroidery employs needles and threads. Haute Couture embroidery employs a special hook called Tambour. We work with frames so that the fabric is taut enough. We also work from the back of the fabric in the case of Haute Couture embroidery.
What is the difference between Richelieu, Reticello and Hardanger techniques of embroidery?
These techniques are closely related. In general, we make holes in the fabric by taking off threads of the fabric in a particular place. We do an embroidery to fill the holes that you have just created! Richelieu is a French technique, Reticello is an Italian technique and Hardanger is a Norwegian technique.
Why did you choose to study embroidery?
I was “in love” with embroidery since I was a child. However, in those days, for someone of the female gender, saying that I wanted to become an embroiderer was really frowned upon. In France, people in general, do not appreciate artisans who do minor arts such as embroidery. It was very difficult for me. It was not so easy to say, “I want to do that and nothing else!” But as soon as I took my decision, it was done and nobody or nothing should have push me to change my mind! I’m glad I persisted. Embroidery, for me, is not only a thing to do, it is a thing to share. Like a gift.
I have just witnessed how you treat each and every piece of embroidery you showed me as your babies.
Creating embroidered work requires hours of work and total dedication. So, all the embroidery handiwork that you have seen in the black box, I say, “This IS my life.”
Why do you feel the need to keep the art of haute couture embroidery alive?
Our lives have become so busy. We are surrounded by technology such as mobile phones, the internet, gadgets – all at our fingertips. It almost seems that we are going round at dizzying rates and we are missing out on the things that give us real pleasure. The pleasure of using our hands to create beautiful things. Using time to slow us down, to go into a meditation, to make things as a time to be with friends or share a special moment – that’s what life is about.
As far as embroidery is concerned, I chose to become an Embroidery Ambassador because embroidery is a part of many cultures. There is a sense of bliss when working with your hands, because you are changing your own world. If you change your inner world, then you become a model for people and you give them one of the keys that will help them to change their world.
What is your vision in the area of embroidery?
My goal is to share my passion in France and on a global level. I love to meet people from different countries and different culture. I bring them the French techniques of embroidery to give them the opportunity to be more creative and to open their mind. Teaching in Dubai is very important for me because embroidery gives me the possibility to discover techniques from all over the world.
In your quest to teach Haute Couture embroidery to as many people possible, you have travelled all over the world, delivering workshops. Which countries have you visited to impart your knowledge?
I teach to Central Saint Martins in London, IED Madrid, Barcelona, Roma, Milano and Torino, AMD Munich and Dusseldorf, Fine Arts School of Lyon, Koefia di Roma, Scuola al Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Alliance Française of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Croatia, Prague, Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan, Taipei in Taiwan, Bangkok in Thailand, Hand & Lock in London, University of Trinidad and Tobago, IFM and Parsons School in Paris.
I love the work that you do. Have you ever thought of opening your own line of fashion clothing?
I am not a Fashion Designer, I am an Embroiderer and for the moment, I prefer to work for fashion designers who come to me with a specific request and I do my best to realize it. In addition, I also love to teach. This is why I want to open a bigger studio in Lyon, France, so that I have the possibility to receive more people for the workshops.
Where is your workshop based in France?
My studio is based in an old city called Le Vieux Lyon. It is a very nice place dating back to the Middle Ages and built by Italian architects. It’s a place with a rich history and I’m grateful to have a beautiful workshop to work from in this city.
Now, it would be a dream for me to visit Lyon, France, and not only taste a bit of French culture (food and music), but also take part in one of Elisabeth’s workshops. Talking of dreams, I had blogged about my dream to meet and interview famous fusion guitarist and guitar maker Kamal Musallam one day.(Read my blog story – you gotta scroll down to the part where I have posted photos of him in performance). So, imagine my surprise when I was introduced to him during the reception organised that evening by Alliance Francaise. How awesome! He is currently in Japan. In the photo below, is an upcoming singer, Thea Shengalaia, who is a doctor in the making. A bit of trivia. Thea and her twin sister (the Healer Twins) are acting in the upcoming Star Wars that was shot in Abu Dhabi.
That’s the power of meeting like-minded people. That’s the power of putting out your intention and see miracles and dreams unfold!