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  • Writer's pictureESMOD


Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Few fashion companies can boast the longevity that Esmod can, and 180 years is certainly something to celebrate!

In this respect, even the Louis Vuitton (167 years), Burberry (165 years), Chanel (111 years) and Christian Dior (75 years) brands might almost be classed as newbies. It is only Hermès, in fact, whose premises are located just a stone’s throw from Esmod Pantin, that has been around longer, with 220 years of history now behind. It’s no wonder, then, that all of these fashion houses, and so many others, immediately think of Esmod when it comes to breathing new life into their creative teams and their workshops.

A remarkable exhibition celebrates 180 years of Esmod in Paris and Roubaix

The Héritage et Patrimoine :180 ans d’Ateliers exhibition created by Claire Wargnier looks back at its history to establish what makes Esmod the robust network of 19 schools, not only in Paris and across France (Bordeaux, Lyon, Rennes, Roubaix) but also worldwide (Beirut, Beijing, Dubai, Damascus, Guangzhou, Istanbul, Jakarta, Kuala-Lumpur, Moscow, Oslo, Seoul, Sousse, Tokyo, Tunis, etc.), that it is today. The inventor and founder of the Lavigne school, the forerunner to Esmod, Alexis Lavigne, would surely not believe his eyes.

His 1841 cutting classes have become a method that has been applied, revised and adapted successfully the world over,

but there was more to the inventor’s achievements that this famous theoretical method alone. As early as 1837, in fact, he developed an adjustable ‘mechanical bodice’ to enable him to maintain his clients’ exact measurements after an initial fitting. This invention led to the patenting of the first plaster cast mannequin bust in 1854. This process would go on to be used by every tailor and seamstress, enabling them to make their own mannequin busts for their clients following the end of the 1870 war. Frédéric Stockman, an employee and disciple of Alexis Lavigne, would make this new standardised tool the global success it still is today.

Alexis Lavigne also designed another essential sewing tool in the form of the flexible waterproof tape measure, even patenting the manufacturing machine in 1847.

French-style riding habit made by Alexis Lavigne, a beacon of Esmod's heritage.

All of these inventions, which were pretty revolutionary at the time, served his vision of a new world, one in which made-to-measure clothing, unsuited as it was to the rapidly developing fashion market, would soon give way to more standardised production that nevertheless respected the body of the individual.

New digital tools are now used to design the garments we wear with even greater precision, and Esmod is once again right there contributing with the same visionary spirit to the continuous reinvention of these tools, from 3D design and laser cutting to thermochromy and shape memory, among other things.

Sensitive to the challenges we face in striving for a better world, ecology, recycling, decarbonisation and sustainability have also become valuable components of Esmod's professional training courses.

One of Alexis Lavigne's workshops produced mannequin busts for dressmakers. Advertisement from around 1880.

For Claire Wargnier, the head of publishing who is also responsible for heritage at Esmod International, it was important that this exhibition focus on the history of the workshops, which are, after all, the source of all fashion design, from those opened by the first director, Alexis Lavigne, to those of his successors, who happened to be direct descendants of his for 136 years.

Planet Esmod: What form does the exhibition take?

Claire Wargnier: It is divided into six spaces, each of which is a reconstruction of a workshop, including Alexis Lavigne's workshop, that of his daughter Alice Guerre-Lavigne and that of Berthe Lecomte-Guerre, Alexis Lavigne's granddaughter. The latter played a very important role in the school’s history as she stayed with the company for a record 65 years! She joined in 1900, with her mother, and stayed until 1965, with her son, and it was she that laid the foundations for our current cutting methods, among other things. Then we have the workshop of great-grandson Jean Lecomte, whose dynasty would last until 1976, followed by the creative styling workshop of Annette Goldstein and Paule Douarinou, and the even more international workshop of the current president, Satoru Nino.

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac with Mr Nino.

P. E.: And what do visitors actually get to see?

C. W.: Each space features a draper or cutting tables on which various heritage documents, including books, notes, patent applications, method trials and drawings, are displayed, along with the very first Esmod method, registered in 1841. Various other inventions are also on display, including Alexis Lavigne's first brainchild, the mechanical bodice, the first tape measures, the first mannequin busts, etc., along with a riding habit, alluding to Lavigne's role as tailor and riding habit-maker to the Empress Eugenie, and even a series of crinolines, since he was the first to open a ladies' tailoring shop, and later dresses with removable layers as the fashions changed.

P. E.: What will we find in his daughter Alice’s workshop?

C. W.: Mainly sportswear, along with all the fashions of the period between 1900 and 1925. Alice Guerre-Lavigne focused on education. She was, in fact, appointed by the government of Jules Ferry to help develop the teaching of cutting and sewing to young girls through the Guerre-Lavigne method, which she would introduce to schools the world over, at up to 105 different institutions from St Petersburg to Sao Paulo. She also founded 5 journals, which are on display here, including a very important cutting encyclopaedia entitled L'Art dans le Costume, covering designs from 1885 to 1947. She was, of course, married to a publisher, Octave Guerre, which must have made things somewhat easier for her in that respect. These magazines looked at the trends of the time and kept up to date with the latest goings-on at the Longchamp racetrack, which was really the place to be seen. These were trend magazines, after all.

During the World War I, she transformed her journals into correspondence courses, which allowed her to keep the school going in the post-war years - a strategy that she would once again turn to during World War II, and a lesson we more recently adopted at Esmod as a result of the various lockdowns that were imposed, except that this time we used video calls.

Alexis Lavigne also invented the tape measure - a vital tool for anyone in this profession.

P. E.: Did his daughter, Berthe Lecomte-Guerre, enable the school to focus on other issues?

C. W.: Berthe first and foremost continued to perpetuate her mother’s legacy. In her workshop we find, among other things, amusing fashion collages that were made long before any Photoshop or Illustrator software came about. She would also go on to launch a pattern system for making dresses at home, which she would publish in a new journal entitled La Femme et La Mode (‘Women and Fashion’), which I think she published in collaboration with Marie France magazine. She also filed a grading patent, but most importantly of all, her 1954 method continues to provide the basis for the methods we use today. Here we see the first photos of the school, which stood on Avenue de l'Opéra, in the heart of Parisian Haute Couture district, at the time, and these are followed by some student collections from 1948. Following World War II, the school also trained American GI veterans and Korean soldiers. The embassies of the time recognised the school as a renowned institution. Many partnership contracts would follow.

Kimono class at the school in around 1950.

P. E.: Which of her sons would bring about a minor revolution?

C. W.: It was in fact Jean Lecomte who changed the name of the Guerre-Lavigne school to Esmod, highlighting a real evolution in the fashion industry, and it was he who introduced the new profession of designer to the school. He also took the opportunity to revamp the group name. He had started working with his mother in 1949 and remained a school administrator until 1976.

P. E.: Was he also the one who would put an end to this family venture?

C. W.: By the late-1970s, no-one in the family wanted to take the school over. His sister was, by all counts, not very gifted in this field, and although his wife, who’d been trained by his mother, Berthe, during the war years, was really talented, she had unfortunately died in a car accident in 1952, throwing the family into turmoil. His own daughters were also raised by his mother, who had a reputation for being a woman you shouldn’t mess with, and they, in turn, lost interest in school.

This being the case, Jean Lecomte sold the company to his secretary, Paule Douarinou, and his first fashion design teacher, Annette Goldstein, in 1976. The two women would get the school back on track in keeping with the times and the tumultuous creative fashion industry of the day. Between them they would nurture the company until 1996, when Mr. Satoru Nino, the current President of Esmod, purchased it.

Sonia Rykiel at an Esmod fashion show in the 1980s

P. E.: How are the 80s and 90s reflected in the exhibition?

C. W.: We find various new fashion-related technologies in Annette Goldstein and Paule Douarinou's workshop, along with images of the great celebrations in which the school participated, such as the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, and the dressing of the Pont Neuf bridge by Christo in 1985. The 40,000m2 of flame retardant canvas the artist used were, in fact, sewn by students of the school.

Chantal Thomas in panel mode at Esmod.

P. E.: How is the school's historical heritage evolving now?

C. W.: We would like to establish a permanent conservatory within the school. Our heritage is naturally made up of lots of different traces on paper - patents, journals, patterns, drawings, etc. - and this is now combined with an academic desire to develop a collection of old clothes, some of which have been produced by the school and its students.

‘Héritage et Patrimoine : 180 ans d’Ateliers’ (‘Legacy and Heritage: 180 years of Workshops’) Open to the public from 16th to 21st November, 11am to 6pm. Esmod Pantin, 30 avenue Jean Lolive, 93500 Pantin (Porte de Pantin or Hoche Metro stations).

This exhibition will also be staged at the La Piscine Museum in Roubaix until 6th February 2022 as part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry.

For everything there is to know about the history of Esmod and to check out the jewels of its heritage online, head to

Esmod alumni are no strangers to even the most spectacular of sunray pleats.

Garments from the Alexis Lavigne era occupy a prominent place in Esmod’s heritage.

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