Move over “Emily in Paris” meet “Estelle in New York”! Instead of a fictitious ditzy American with a propensity for dressing outlandishly, Estelle is a pragmatic Parisian who dresses others in her made-to-order couture. As a classically trained fashion artist, Estelle’s design resume is one of the consummate professional.
I had the bonne chance to interview Estelle Chatorrier, one of our newer Lookonline subscribers, near her home on the Upper East Side. Her extensive experience in the fashion world belies her youthful appearance – she has the quintessential spirit or “joie de vivre” that the French embody, particularly as she speaks passionately about her work.
From the best French schools including Maison Lesage for embroidery, Estelle honed her skills first at Lido de Paris and on French period films for over four years, then went on to work with Christian Lacroix Collections Haute Couture for two years, and finally arrived at the House of Chanel with Karl Lagerfeld for almost 11 years. After that, she made the brave move to New York to become an “independent designer.”
“In France everything is thought out and organized for you. In America there’s an open mind – an opportunity to reveal your talents and think for yourself.”Estelle Chatorrier
In her four years in New York, this last pandemic year was a true test of her fortitude – as we know it was slow going for everyone in fashion but particularly for such high-end apparel. It’s not like she was going to switch over to making sweatpants (although you will see her running in NYC’s upcoming marathon), but somehow she managed. Estelle used this time to do some handcraft creation and found some new techniques to show to her clients.
Estelle has worked with Zac Posen, Alexander Wang as a pattern maker; for Schiaparelli as a tailor of haute couture apparel sent to New York clients from Paris. At the same time, she is also building her own private clientele for both bridal and special occasion creations. Estelle’s early dream was to work for Yves Saint Laurent and thanks to her mother she got a chance to meet her idol before the house closed. “My mom wrote a letter to the house of Yves Saint Laurent, 5 Avenue Marceau in Paris.”
“They were touched by her letter and for my twentieth birthday, I had the chance to be hosted for a day at his Couture house. I met him with his dog Moujik IV, but I was a bit afraid of the dog,” she said with a smile remembering the magical experience. Unfortunately, Saint Laurent died not too long after that but she still has the personalized autographed photo to remember him by.
At the Lido de Paris, Estelle worked with Mine Barral-Vergez (owner of the costumes atelier) and Edwin Piekny (costume designer) – “They are two incredible characters – both are passionate and I love that.” Estelle worked with them doing a project for her graduation from art school as they were beginning a new choreography which only happens every seven years. “It was meant to be,” she said.
“Mrs. Barrel-Vergez invited me to stay with them for the four days during the last adjustments of the show. I visited everywhere and I met everybody. I was like at home. I learned a lot. The first evening when I was going to leave they played the entire show and instead of leaving I stopped and sat in front of the scene alone. Mrs. Barral-Vergez came to me and said ‘Honey, it is the end of the day, you have to go home, do you want to stay here all night?’ I said ‘Can I?’ She smiled at me and said ‘enjoy but not too late!!!’
She forgot the fact that we have insurance and rules we have to respect (after the workday you are not covered), she just understood I was enjoying it. I realized how lucky I was. When you watch a show you cannot see all that is happening in the background. I was so impressed. It is like the Broadway “King Kong” – one of the shows I have attended.” Realizing one of her dreams led to an honorable mention on her graduation diploma as well as the affirmation she needed to be able to work in Paris.
How does one get a start in the vaunted haute couture ateliers?
“I started low level as a ‘petite main‘ and learned how to work with precision and taste. Then I started to assist the head of the atelier in a fitting, learned how to drape and make a pattern. Working in a big company in France can be sometimes frustrating due to the hierarchy. What I like is making a garment from start to finish.”
What was it like in the atelier of Chanel?
“Everyone is quiet. When Karl gave us a sketch it was so detailed. It would say where each seam should go, which part should be topstitched – he knew everything about the garment so there was no figuring anything out for yourself,” she explained. Estelle describes Lagerfeld surprisingly as being very humble which doesn’t seem to jibe with his public persona. She described her first day at the studio – a long hallway of 23 doors. “When the doors opened I gasped,” she recalls with a sudden illustrative inhalation.
On coming to New York…
She earned a specialized skilled worker visa allowing her to come to New York and work with Zac Posen for two years: “He was very lovely and I learned my job in a different way. He sponsored me and I worked with so many really nice people.” While I think of Zac Posen’s aesthetic (at least when he began his collection) as very architectural, I asked Estelle to define hers.
“I like a very feminine, natural shape – very elegant, very simple but with a touch of art.” This is where the fashion artist’s description comes in as she designs her custom embroidery. “I’ve learned to work with art. I try to combine rapidity with quality and technique with affordable prices,” she added. It can take her anywhere from two to six months to make a garment. “If it’s two months I work around the clock.”
Is there a dream person she’d like to dress?
“It was Mariah Carey when I was younger because I loved her voice, her spirit and her body was in shape. She defines the ideal body of women today. It is really interesting to create a gown with a body not too slim, it makes the work full of dimension and possibilities. I also like Scarlett Johansson. Then there is Adriana Lima who I enjoyed meeting in New York and would love to see her wear my name. I really love her personality.”
Where does Estelle get her inspiration?
She references historical books as well as online photos of the red carpet. “I look at something and think how can I improve it, make it different with my own vision? Not to copy, that’s not good. Today you see too much extravagance and not enough elegance. Many designers forget that they are supposed to create something to make the body beautiful. Now they just want to impress and everybody is getting tired of that. Even aspiring designers in school — they are teaching young people how to make money, not how to do good work.”
Interestingly, Estelle mentions that the single most important part of a garment is the seaming. “You cannot have a couture gown with bad seaming. If the seams are not good – sewn properly and located in the right place – the entire garment will not be good, everything has to make sense. A bespoke designer has to understand the fabric, the shape of the body, and know what the client wants” she said.
It’s as clear as the Swarovski crystals she often uses as embellishments that she has found her milieu.