Lesage’s incredible passage to India

Jean Francois Lesage, scion of the legendary Parisian couture embroidery family, speaks on what drew him to India, and his fascination with the country’s royal embellishment traditions.

The incredible Indian design journey is full of extraordinary legends. Embroiderer par excellence Jean Francois Lesage is one of these. The son of the founder of the prestigious Paris-based House of Lesage travelled halfway around the world to find the true meaning of his calling, by establishing a renowned atelier in south India.

 While his father, François Lesage, created a sensation, working with fashion’s most influential designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, Lanvin Givenchy, among others, Jean Francois Lesage chose to focus on home furnishings, working alongside design luminaries like Jacques Grange, Alberto Pinto and Peter Marino, adding adornments to shoes by Christian Louboutin, and curating and reviving palace decors across the world.

 Lesage’s projects for the Windsor Castle, the throne of Napoleon, an embroidered version of the Nizam era in Hyderabad, the Vaux le Vicomte palace near Paris, brought him closer to researching vintage archives. 

In Chennai , where Lesage set up his studio Vastrakala 25 years ago, he finds a resource-bank of embroiderers who are capable, sensitive and “knowledgeable gems when it comes to working on long-term projects”.

 But how are the petites mains, broiderers in Chaville, or anywhere else in France, where he hails from, different from those in India? “The craft ladies in France are exposed to trends; they see themselves as a filter able to translate into embroideries the key words and crucial points expressed by clients and designers. The south Indian embroiderers are modest and courageous; their humility pushes them to work discretely,” he says. A craft person, whether French or Indian, shares the same rhythm of life punctuated by similar interrogations when it concerns work. How to perform better, but keep a personal life besides work? How to connect with those who have chosen to modernise tradition? How to get recognition? “I would compare them to sports people and athletes, having dedicated their lives to beauty,” he says. 


The royal courts have steered the craft tradition in a big way, in India and in Europe. Craft needs method, concentration, rules, discipline, agility, pride and passion. Much of this was influenced by the royalty, says Lesage.

 For instance, he adds, “South India embraced embroidery only 250 years ago, influenced by the rulers who integrated in their customs a few ‘latest musts’ in vogue at the elegant courts of Delhi, Lucknow, Bidar or Hyderabad.” 

With the setting up of the East Indian Company, embroidery posed new opportunities for trade. Elegant ornamentation on palampores, kalamkaris and other exotic luxury products were exported from the Coromandel Coast for the British or French markets.

 In the past, the Persian tradition of zari and zardozi had an immense success in the Asian royal courts. This work was made using real gold threads. Elegant garments, thrones, canopies, drapes, pelmets, sofas, diwans, cushions, flags, tents — fascinating symbols of joy and abundance, dignity and elegance — were used by the royalty and affluent patrons to dazzle. Even today, zardozi refers to the main idea people have about luxury. 

“The beauty of zardozi seen today is re-interpreted more as texture, the metallic shades of bronze, copper, silver and gold help to give abstract or semiabstract designs, all the magical lights essential in contemporary embroidery,” adds the master embroiderer. 


 When he was 23, Lesage worked on a giant drape, featuring the grand coat of arms of England. It was graphically embroidered using white silk ropes and white wool appliqués on a red wool background. Unfortunately, this work burned during a fire at Windsor Castle. The Prince of Wales asked him a few years ago that they might have to do it again soon.

 Another challenging assignment was to recreate the zardozi ornamentation on one of the six thrones of Napoleon. A private collector in Paris had acquired one of the nearly forgotten thrones; the original embroidered upholstery was destroyed, and the only trace of what it used to look like was a portrait of the emperor standing beside his throne. 

Lesage and his team enlarged to real size the photograph of the portrait, focusing on the throne; and slowly retraced each detail of the embroidery, rediscovered the imperial symbols, the bees, the laurels, the oak leaves and the decorative borders inspired by the Roman era to finally recreate an authentic empire style embroidery using real zari, gold bullion and gold sequins. 

Closer home, The Park’s Priya Paul requested Lesage to reinvent an embroidered version of the Nizam era in Hyderabad at a luxurious suite of her futuristic hotel. “We embroidered a regal bed, mixing modern black vinyl used as canopies for the autorickshaws, treated it as a noble material mixing it with silver zardozi volutes and sculptural embroideries to finally create an incredible bed which would have impressed the Nizam himself,” he says.

 They also re-embroidered lifesize portraits of the Nizam and his wife, as it was fashionable to do on the prints of Raja Ravi Varma in the early 20th century. It worked and gave to the suite an incredible ambience sketched successfully, a product verging between dream and reality, between the past and the present.

 For the Vaux le Vicomte palace near Paris, they recomposed a royal embroidered décor piece, which had been destroyed over time. “The adaptation was like a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Scrupulously, we recomposed the entire décor, found back the original techniques and materials, discovered hidden embroideries lying under recent ones. At the end, the artisans managed to recompose the large number of missing elements so well that the owner of the castle, the Vicomte de Vogue and his curators, could no more distinguish the new from the old.” POPULAR EMBLEMS

 Regarding the kind of patterns chosen by the royal courts, Lesage says, “Royal houses were originally ‘protectors’ against all possible troubles and innovations; they naturally identified themselves and were identified as ‘winners’. They chose strong emblems to show their supremacy and power, which is why the sun and moon, lion and tiger, bison and horse, eagle, cobra, thunder, rain, fire, ocean, crown and the sword were popularly chosen. 

The common folk could not read but through these symbols the royal kings conveyed their message of authority. The artists of the time had to reinvent these symbols continuously to stay close to the royal patrons, without drying their creativity.

 “The palette of colours, the audacious superposition of techniques have been mastered in India far better than any other region in the world, which is why it is for me and my IndoFrench team a permanent source of inspiration which we use in all our works from New York, Paris, London, Dubai or India,” says Lesage. 

Regarding the future, he says it’s fine and necessary to continue to enrich Indian textile with contemporary creations as long as the minute and knowledgeable process is respected. “Modern should not mean easy, technology must remain a servant to the human genius, and the rules of the art must continue to be used as a strong base for contemporary invention,” he says. We agree. Long live craft.