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Gaëlle Billard, Creative Patternmaker

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

We are surrounded by creativity, not only in terms of styling but in terms of model-making, too. This is all in a day’s work for Gaëlle Billard, who has been a pattern-maker at Hermès for the past 15 years. She explains why.

Gaëlle Billard at work in the Hermès workshop in Pantin

Gaëlle developed an appreciation of the importance of vocational experience while she was studying at ESMOD. Between 1995 and 1998 she took courses in model-making while at the same time working an in-house job: “I started after a two-week Lectra training course. Fearing that I would lose everything if I didn’t start practising immediately, I started work at a company that manufactured baby and children’s clothing, where I managed to get an apprenticeship contract. It was the perfect financial solution for me”.

From the time she left school, Gaëlle had a number of jobs, initially working as a pattern-maker and assistant designer at Anne Fontaine for 2 years, followed by a detour via a temping agency before fashion caught up with her again in 2002, when she joined John Galliano. Model-making, pattern-making, launch management and organisation, fitting... everything she experienced at this designer firm fascinated her, and she would stay there for four very fast-paced years. Her experiences didn’t prevent her from choosing a more institutional company to work for in 2007, however, when she joined Hermès.

In fact, it is from this very workshop in Pantin, just a stone’s throw from the ESMOD campus, that she is answering our questions now, amid preparations for the Hermès ladies’ autumn-winter 2023 collection by Nadège Vanhee Cybulski.

Hermès Spring/Summer 2022 design by Nadège Vanhee Cybulski

Planet ESMOD: How do you explain your passion for model-making, and why did you choose not to take the fashion design course when you began your training at ESMOD?

Gaëlle Billard: For me, model-making is a state of mind; I’m interested in fashion, but not in the same way a fan would be. I love the technical aspect of clothing - conceptualising the models, researching different fits, designing the manufacturing process, monitoring the mechanics, working with the pattern-makers, thinking about the finishing touches, etc. It’s something that comes from within you. I didn’t find the style aspect very fulfilling, and I also took my course as part of an apprenticeship contract. I was young but already independent and I had certain financial choices to make, too, so I don’t regret sacrificing the style element of the course. While I was enrolled I was studying part-time and working at the company part-time.

P. E.: So where exactly does this interest in the technical aspect of clothing come from?

G.B.: First of all, I don’t come from a fashion background. My father was a scientist, a physicist, so my family initially steered me towards a career in the scientific field, which probably shaped me to some extent by giving me a feel for mathematics. Then I started to study pharmacy, but in my second year as a pharma student I realised that I didn’t have a competitive spirit; I was more of a team player.

P. E.: How did you learn about ESMOD?

G.B.: At a student fair, actually. I really loved what the school was offering. I also discovered Thierry Mugler’s fashion shows when I started to get interested in fashion, and that was a revelation! Beyond the beauty and style, though, I was already fascinated by the technicality of his creations. I remember the first fashion show I saw; there was hardly any fabric. It was the android collection, all metallic plastic, and the way those designs were created just blew me away! It was shortly after that that I joined ESMOD.

P. E.: And did the school meet your expectations?

G.B.: Of course. I loved making models, but the fact that I was also working in the professional sphere at the same time really served me well. I did a third year specialising in menswear, which was a very technical and clear-cut[LR1] module that Claire Wargnier taught at the time. I missed the moulding of ladieswear, though, and the technicality of tailoring, so I explored this more later on, in the company.

I loved my third year, though, because the student pattern-maker would then choose the student designer they would work with for the end-of-year ESMOD show. I had spotted an extremely creative guy and it was all very exciting. The main thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to make sure you never say ‘no’ to something different, and being able to provide a technical solution that is also creative.

Thierry Mugler’s android collection in the book Manfred Thierry Mugler Photographe. Editions La Martinière.

P. E.: And did your first foray into the profession go well?

G.B.: Yes, but you always need to find yourself a companion when you’re starting out. That’s important, and it’s what I’m trying to do now with the new apprentices in the workshop. All creative talents experience writer’s block - whether you work with text, drawings or canvas, it’s the same. When you’re given a sketch, you’re never quite sure where to start, whether you’re going to get it right, etc. You can experience hours of little beads of sweat running down your forehead as the clock keeps ticking... It’s always a challenge.

P. E.: Do schools really have their fingers on the pulse with regards to the needs of the workplace?

G.B.: It’s difficult because every company has its own way of working, its own tricks, its own ways of doing things, etc., so the school can only pass on the basic techniques. I sort of did things backwards in that I became a workshop assistant very early on and then later wanted to return to model-making to hone my purely technical knowledge. At that point, I got the ESMOD textbook back out and revised everything again. The model-making process allows us to adapt, refine and translate this method in a way that suits the company in question, and in this respect I’ve really flourished ever since. I’ve stayed with the same company, but over the last 15 years at Hermès I’ve changed designers and workshop managers three times, and you have to be able to question your technique every time.

“What we learn here is to respect quality, finishing requirements and the culture of timelessness. Hermès garments are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and it starts right here in the workshop”.

P. E.: Are some creative people easier to work with than others?

G.B.: They’re all artists and all have different temperaments, but it is always exciting to enter their own particular worlds. All of them have a huge weight on their shoulders with each new collection they release, hence the stress that inevitably manifests itself at some point.

P. E.: Was your 4-year collaboration with John Galliano any different?

G.B.: I was the workshop assistant at the time, so I was doing canvases; not always the most complex ones, but we had some really great times. It was the most creative time at John Galliano and there were no financial constraints - it was incredible! We worked so hard, but when it came to the show, which the whole workshop was invited to attend, we were so happy we cried. We were exhausted, but we were back to it the very next day with such incredible energy. He is still the greatest fashion designer in my eyes. The things he was creating with his team at the time were extremely sophisticated. I remember one jacket that consisted of a whole roll of fabric, with so much draping and gathering and floral motifs attached and what-not. Even the designs were unprecedented, and the end result was always similar to the first draft. It was really professional.

The commercial collection was enhanced for the show, and we could spend 3 days and 3 nights non-stop working on it at the workshop to produce creative ‘explosions’ for the show.

John Galliano Fall-Winter 2005 collection

P. E.: Your work at Hermès is probably very different today, isn’t it?

G.B.: What we learn here is to respect quality, finishing requirements and the culture of timelessness. Hermès garments are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and it starts right here in the workshop. The work is much more consistent, organised and structured, which is another bonus, and it also means you get to have a family and personal life outside of work, which is almost impossible at some companies where things are too turbulent. I’m passionate about my work, but you also have to be able to balance your job with quality of life.

P. E.: Do you have a specialist field at Hermès?

G.B.: I now make mostly large and somewhat complex coats for the ladieswear collection. I like to give my brain a real workout trying to find the perfect manufacturing solutions for each one, and it’s often the case that those designs that appear to be the simplest are the most complex to produce. It’s important to always come up with a solution and never present a designer with a piece you’re not proud of. This is one piece of advice I'd give to those just starting out: we may work on wooden mannequins, but the client moves, they need to breathe, they need to get in and out of the garment, etc., which may seem obvious, but it’s important to always keep that in mind.

P. E.: What advice would you give to current ESMOD students?

G.B.: Stay grounded in the reality of the fashion business. I also still think that an apprenticeship contract is the best route as it’s really important to have one foot in the workplace you’ll be entering later on. Here at Hermès, the apprentices make some of the models themselves and see them presented in shows, but mostly important they get feedback and explanations all the time, they have their finger on the pulse, even while still at school.

At the same time, I would advise our apprentices against staying with us for too long, because even though the professional standard is very demanding, it’s important to experience other perspectives. You need to get a variety of experiences under your belt when starting out, even if it means later going back to whatever it is that really suits you, and on the whole, the fewer resources a company has, the more its staff are required to undertake a whole host of tasks. It’s always a more formative experience.

P. E.: Which brands do you think are the ones to watch today in terms of pattern-making?

G.B.: I’m seeing some very complex patterns coming out of Saint Laurent, with a very distinct style, obviously. Sometimes I see collections by young designers that are really cool, but I just feel I want to help them improve the interiors of the models, for example, or the overall quality of the pieces. Some even do really well in terms of creativity, but the value for money just isn’t there.

P. E.: So creativity, for you, comes into play on a number of levels, not just in terms of style?

G.B.: Absolutely. A designer can, and probably should, in fact, have their head in the clouds, but the role of the pattern-maker in the workshop is to keep them grounded, meaning that it is the pattern-maker’s role to actually make the dream a reality, to bring the garment to life, and this is where our creativity comes into play. It’s also important to be mindful of production techniques, because the aim is to sell these garments and therefore to produce them on actual, standardised machines. With some companies it can be impossible to get collection pieces into production, and it’s the pattern-maker’s job to bring that element of reality back to the cutting table, which is also a very creative process!

Hermès Spring/Summer 2022 collection. Detail.

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