To lovers of haute couture, Madame Jacqueline Mercier is legend. She supervises a team of first-rate seamstresses in the tailleur (tailoring) atelier at Chanel’s Paris mothership on rue Cambon, and had been Karl Lagerfeld’s trusted première for more than two decades until his death last year. Her eyes fill with tears when I ask about working with Lagerfeld. Mercier, who projects a soothing combination of warmth and calm, which makes her well-suited (pun intended) to the high-pressure world of couture, remains steadfastly loyal to Chanel, where Virginie Viard is now artistic director. This past October, she joined the iconic fashion house in Los Altos Hills as it showed its Fall-Winter 2019-2020 haute couture collection to the area’s luxury connoisseurs (including Sloan Barnett, Nicole Lacob and Chandler Evans). And what a treat it was: Mercier personally helped guests sew tweed bracelets during a hands-on demonstration that served to enhance appreciation for the talent and precision that go into crafting a custom-tailored jacket, among other Chanel classics. Afterward, the French artisan huddled with the Gazette (through a translator) about her craft, how she celebrates a successful runway show, and life without Karl.
You’ve worked in couture since the age of 15. How long did it take for you to master your profession? It takes 10 years to completely master the art of couture. … I felt a strong attraction to fashion, even when I was a younger child. I trained at the tailor, a traditional tailor, and then after that — when I had the knowledge to start passing some exams to get a degree — I was lucky enough to get to know very experienced people who would teach me some good tricks in the profession and make me fit to move on and get even better at what I was doing.
What is your creative process, from sketch to design? Everything starts with a sketch. When [my team] gets the sketch, they also get the story and inspiration behind the sketch — the ambiance of the story the designer wants to tell. From there, the work is to translate the sketch and make it real. We are the hands of the designer because we actually make come true what they imagined.
That can be a lot of pressure! How do you handle it? It’s a challenge when you get the sketch at the beginning. Then, when you see the model [wearing the clothing] at the end — that you actually managed to re-create exactly what the designer intended — then you feel immense pride and joy. And that’s where you feel your work actually makes sense. … I remember that Karl sometimes told me, “I have nothing to say about what you did. It was great. Sometimes I even think that it was better than my sketch.” That was the biggest compliment I ever got.”
What did you learn from Karl? He was, of course, a great professional, and he was the one who would bring you up, drive you up, push you up. He was demanding to the atelier, but that’s what also made [the seamstresses] grow so much. It was such a push for them to get better, be better, and they were so inspired by his example. He really took them up to the next level.
On the Netflix documentary series 7 Days Out, we saw the hard work and long hours involved in the lead-up to a Chanel runway presentation. How do you decompress? After a haute couture show, I feel much better because the pressure [is off] and everything went well. There are two things that I like doing: Either I go to a restaurant and enjoy a meal, or I might go to a museum to see an exhibition that I really like. That’s the way that I reward myself for so much work.