'Embroidery has expanded beyond a needle and thread," says Irish embroidery diva Laura Weber, creative director of the New York Embroidery Studio, a US version of Lesage, the famous French embellishment house. In what was one of Dublin's most exciting fashion shows Now and Then at the Chocolate Factory, organised by Nigel Cheney and Dr Helen McAllister of NCAD, guests got a taste of the quality and intricate detail of Weber's customised work along with other successful textile graduates.
Weber's client list not only includes Michelle Obama and Anna Wintour, top US designers like Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang and Thom Browne, but she has also made clothes for musical stars Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Cher, Miley Cyrus, Katie Perry, Bette Midler and the green-sequinned gown worn by Saoirse Ronan for the Oscars.
In New York’s Garment District, she heads up a team of 50 drawn from all over the world, each with specific specialist skills and workmanship. One craftswoman, for instance, has been hand-beading since she was a child and crochets beads. Another experienced artisan has been working on a specialist machine for 40 years “and the studio manager who runs the show has been in the industry for 60 years”, she says. “We are the couture house behind the scenes.”
The embellishment trade covers specially made 3D printed buttons, laser cut, custom printed sequins and punch on rhinestones using old world machinery for techniques such as chain stitch, smocking, spaghetti, cording and pleating along with state-of-the-art laser, milling and modern embroidery machinery.
"The most elaborate item we ever made was a dress for Tory Burch made of hand cut and hand embroidered eyelets which took three weeks to make – that was for a runway show. For Anna Wintour, we made a full length floral dress with appliquéd leaves embroidered by hand that took 12 people three days to make.
“For Beyoncé, we did an embroidered beaded leotard that was a ton of work, sourcing settings and stones – we had to punch on the stones with machines and sew on dripping crystals for one of her US performances. And for Rihanna, we made a sweater adorned with silver domed nailheads,” explains Weber.
Her enthusiasm is obvious despite a punishing schedule of an 18-hour day, six-day week. “Working here is like a dream come true. It’s a Wonka factory for embellishment,” she says. “I am kept on my toes with only an occasional day off, but what I love most about my work is the detail. It’s arranging stitches and beads in such a specific way to make something so ornate that it is seen as an art piece. That’s what makes it so special.”
The design process depends on the teams of designers and stylists with whom she works – some make suggestions or reference images and others give very clear instructions. “We make samples or swatches and if they are successful, we go right into the final piece,” she says.
“We have binders of books with different weights of thread, bags of crystals, heat transfer elements, buckets of hardware like eyelets and studs and sheets of plastic and acrylic to design sequins.”
Weber's love of embroidery began as a child growing up in Rathfarnham. "When I went to NCAD I originally wanted to do fashion, but fell into textiles and it was the best thing ever for me. I love detail and beading, so it was the perfect course for me and I was so lucky to have Nigel Cheney as a tutor".
After graduation in 2012, she went to London and found work in backstage management at London Fashion Week for four seasons, but didn’t want to stay. “So I decided to pack a bag and go to New York where I didn’t have a job, didn’t have a place to stay and no contacts.”
The first thing she did was to head to the New York Embroidery Company in the Garment District where she applied for a job and showed them her portfolio. She was taken on immediately in July 2013 and has been there ever since.
The owner of the company Michelle Feinberg founded it in 1984 at the age of 21 after graduating from FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). “She is super talented and I work directly under her and she has taught me everything she knows. The most difficult time is getting through the Met Gala and fashion week. We make entire runway collections for each designer, so September is usually the biggest and most demanding time for us.”
She explains that the Garment Centre of New York is a little radius of four blocks which supplies every single thing needed for garment manufacturing. “It could be a small studio on the 17th floor where a little tab for a zip could be found and unless you are in the know, you would never find these places. We are in the heart of it.”
Supplies come from all over the world. The company ships in Swarovski crystal from Slovenia for instance and has production centres in China and India for bigger orders like the 30,000 US Olympic uniforms embroidered for Ralph Lauren.
At the Dublin show, her leather and sequinned frock coats, all sparking detail and sequinned tulle kimonos were some of the highlights, though pressure of work in New York meant she could not attend in person. Ambitious plans are afoot however.
“I want to take advantage of my resources here and what I have access to and have been talking to the owner. We hope to do something amazing and start our own creations and that would be our goal. And it will be happening sooner rather than later.”