Monday 5 December 2022

Roland Chessel, “When I was little, I used to cut my mother’s drapes”

A Parisian style. A delicate air. A distinguished laugh. Roland Chessel, haute couture designer, is cut out for his job. As a child, he used to make outfits for his dolls. Today, these are for his clients. The French fashion designer has had his own studio for more than twenty years, in Geneva (Switzerland). A world full of luxury and high standards that he is not about to give up.

When did your love for sewing first arise?

It has always been my passion. When I was a child, I used to cut my mother’s drapes and steal my neighbor’s barbie doll to dress her. I always wanted to be a fashion designer, but my parents wanted me to do something more serious, more manly.

Did you finally manage to convince them?

Yes, but it hasn’t been easy. After high school graduation, I wanted to go to fashion school. My mother told me “Go ahead, but you have to be sure of your choice.” My parents had a lot of clichés about fashion. They used to see it as a dangerous environment, with drugs… I come from a family of provincials, so it was a bit extravagant for them. But I really fought for it and I joined a styling/model making course at the Bellecour school in Lyon, where I stayed for three years. I was one of the best students, and my parents were relieved when they saw my good grades.

Roland Chessel in his studio in Carouge near Geneva (Switzerland).

Photo David Mayenfisch

How was your start in the business?

When I graduated, I went to Paris with my drawings under my arm. I was barely twenty, I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t even know where to stay! I had to move heaven and earth to integrate an haute couture house on Avenue Montaigne. I dreamed of working for a fashion designer named Jean-Louis Scherrer. After six months, I managed to get an interview with his chief dressmaker. Either he would hire me to sweep up, or I would go back to the provinces. It was impossible to go back to my parents in Haute-Savoie. So, I told him that I was desperate to work. I was so ambitious that he hired me as his little hand!

Little hand? What do you mean by that?

I started out as an apprentice. There are so many things I wasn’t allowed to touch. Fabrics cost a fortune, so there is no room for error. It should be known that haute couture is very hierarchical. I started doing hems, then paintings, and I managed to present my drawings to Mr. Sherrer. I climbed the ladder very quickly because I was deeply invested into it. At the time, he had two designers, one of whom was at war with me. One day, he even tripped me up on the stairs!

At that time, were you able to make a living from your work?

The end of each month was tough. I earned 4,000 francs, and more than half of my salary was used to pay for a maid’s room. It was really miserable! (laughs). But I was happy because my dream of working in Avenue Montaigne came true. I stayed there for five years.

And then eventually, Mr. Sherrer sold his business. I had just started working for a designer in Geneva on the side. In one weekend, I earned 1,000 Swiss francs, which is more than 4,000 French francs. It put butter on your bread! So, I left France for Switzerland, a bit reluctantly. I loved Paris, I always had the good plans to go out and have fun, even without money. I was bored in Geneva. Even if I made a better living there, there was nothing much to do.

Did that calm make you leave?

No, because shortly after my arrival in Switzerland, I got to set up my own business. I was 27. It was quite simple because in Geneva, there are not many fashion designers. I took over the clientele of the stylist I was working for and had stopped. It was the logical follow-up of my journey.

You have had your sewing studio for a long time. Who are your clients?

More than half of them come from the Middle East, because it is their custom to have a lot a outfits. I have been dressing them since they were young and now, I am taking care of their daughters. But I have to admit that having a new client in front of me is a pleasure. I take time to discover her personality, it is very important. It’s all about the feeling. If I have a bad feeling right from the start, I don’t make the outfit. I am well aware that it is a luxury to do this, but I can afford it.

You design dresses, among other things. How long does it take you to make one?

I receive the client for the first time in my salon. I observe the way she moves, she expresses what she wants. On the second appointment, I present her some sketches. Then, it takes about three fittings. In general, it takes a month and a half, but it depends of the complexity of the dress.

How would you define your style?

I like clean, sober clothes. I think that the materials are beautiful in black, especially the velvet which is very dark, very deep. It is an amazing basic… there is not a woman who doesn’t look good in black. I’m letting myself go on the bags, it’s almost bling-bling! (laughs) Since most women no longer take the time to get dressed properly, I think a bag can make a difference on an outfit.

Do you feel like your job has evolved since you have started?

Today’s workforce is way less experienced than at my time… The training courses are less demanding, maybe because people are no longer used to luxury. Before ready-to-wear, women wore almost only made-to-measure. They were used to beautiful cuts, the perfect fall. Today, everything is massively produced. Quality garments have increased in value. I’m having trouble finding beautiful materials, because maintaining crafts is expensive.

Is it discouraging?

No, it’s a magical job. Even when I have nothing to do, if I have an idea, I go to my studio. Sewing is my whole life, I don’t even think about retirement. It will last till the end.

Translated by Cindy Hurtaud

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