Maison Fabre – Handmade for hands
Peering through her glasses, Solange Pinaud fixes her eyes on the piece of bright red leather in her hands. Without looking, she reaches up and gently turns the wheel of her ancient sewing machine. Instantly, the needle darts down and thrusts through the soft, supple leather to make three minute stitches. Solange pauses, and then pushes the leather forward a couple of millimeters. This excruciatingly slow work is called piqué-anglais (English stitch), and Solange is one of the few who have mastered it. At the age of 68, however, she should have retired some time ago. Which she did – but she enjoys helping out every now and then in the company where she spent her entire working life. Madame Pinaud has been sitting in exactly this spot, behind this same machine for 45 years. Faulty work is not in her vocabulary. "Rejects? Practically never."
Solange works for the glove makers – or glovers – Fabre in Millau. A small, sleepy town in the southwest of France with a population of about 20,000 that was once the country's glove-making capital. In those days – when ladies were considered improperly dressed if they left the house without gloves – over 60 workshops had hundreds of sewing machines rattling away. Today,
a total of five glove makers remain. Fabre is the second oldest atelier and the only one still in the hands of its founders. The fourth generation, consisting of brothers Jean-Marc and Olivier and a handful of employees, are trying to survive in a time when gloves have long ceased to be a fashion dictate.
Besides Solange there are only ten further employees working in the Fabre atelier. Most of the glovers are women who either work at dated machines or embroider by hand. In the entrance hall cardboard boxes and wooden cases are piled on top of each other, each bearing Post-its with handwritten labels such as "Phyton bordeaux" or "Snake hazelnut brown". Water leaks down from the roof, just next to the finished wares. At the back of the workshop, a cupboard is overbrimming with yarn bobbins. Judging by the dust on them, some have been sitting there for some time. Jean-Marc Fabre who is in charge of production explains, "Often we only need small quantities, and almost nobody delivers like that nowadays. So we save everything."
A mild autumn sun streams through the high window, and the faint smell of leather fills the air. Except for the monotonous clacking of two sewing machines, it is completely quiet. Crafting gloves requires a high level of concentration despite the fact that the employees are well-versed professionals who – aside from one trainee – have worked for the company for decades. Most of them are approaching retirement age, and some, like Solange, have carried on beyond that. Voluntarily, because of their deep-rooted affection for their employer and out of loyalty to the trade.
The family fortunes started with Etienne, who was specialized in making gloves from white kid leather of which there was a steady supply from the goats that grazed on the high plateaus surrounding Millau. Etienne's business was well on its way when World War II broke out and one of his sons, Louis, was killed during the war. After the war, Louis's twin brother Denis married Rose, who started helping along in the business in 1947 and then went on to take charge of the entire company. Her grandsons start rhapsodizing when the topic of their energy-laden grandmother comes up, saying she acts like she's flying on Red Bull. “Grandma was the only businesswoman running a company in the region. She didn't have the right to vote, but she did have 350 employees working for her.”
Under the wings of this determined woman who, with no formal training, took on the business, the company flourished. Rose brought back ideas for new models from her travels, started working with Hermès, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, and placed the Fabre's own line with Harrods in London and Saks in New York. In its glory days, the company offered a selection of 2,000 different glove models, and as many as 1,200 animal hides were processed every week. "Our gloves were delivered throughout Europe back then," the 93-year-old remembers with pleasure.
Madame Pompidou, the president's wife, would arrive with her friend Madame Funès in a Rolls Royce and fill the trunk with gloves.
Freshly coiffed and with a touch of makeup, Rose sits on a little stool next to Solange and chats with their longtime employee. Her walking stick is nonchalantly leaned on a punching machine. The old lady enjoys looking in on the workshop, and her word still carries weight. She gave her blessing when her son Louis decided to convert parts of the former workshop into rented property and switch to manufacturing safety gloves. Along with an additional military contract, this was how Louis Fabre was able to navigate the company through the glove crisis during which most of the competition was forced to close down.
But Louis' fight for the company's survival took its toll. When his son Olivier decided to quit his dream of becoming a political journalist in 1997, Louis was glad to hand over the reins immediately. Jean-Marc and Olivier took over the company in an extremely difficult economic phase. The military contract fell by the wayside and new entrepreneurial vision was required. By coincidence, Oliver became acquainted with a designer at Yves Saint Laurent. "I learned everything about colors from him. He led us in a new direction – to the fashion and luxury segment." However, gearing themselves towards prêt-à-porter came at a price. "We had to change a lot of things, and we have been investing money for years to slowly create a new image." In the end, visiting trade fairs, managing joint projects with young up-and-coming designers, launching a bestseller by the name of "Auto", and designing exclusive gloves for Lady Gaga and Beth Ditto all combined with a huge amount of personal commitment finally led to the turnaround. In 2010, Fabre saw its first profit in decades with a turnover of 2 million euros. Two company stores in Paris act as a showcase for their newest creations. Renowned fashion designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck, Carven and the celebrated haute couture styliste Stéphane Rolland have meanwhile started to rely on the know-how of the small company from Millau. Yet despite their success, the Fabres have only achieved the first stage of their road map. Ahead of them lies a lot of work and ambitious plans. “We have to further the brand with new materials and introduce new processing methods.“
Our clients must never have the slightest reason to complain.
After conquering the national market Fabre would like to become international again. They plan to open boutiques in all the cold regions of the world. "In the coming years we are planning to open stores in locations such as Moscow, Beijing and New York," Oliver Fabre informs us enthusiastically. The 39-year-old obviously inherited his grandmother's zest, and in his role as the PR, sales and marketing manager he acts as a catalyst by continually coming up with new suggestions. He refers to Jean-Marc – the elder by six years – as "Mister No, the wet blanket." But Jean-Marc, in charge of resource purchases and accounting, has an extremely challenging job. Due to the European economic crisis, less meat is being eaten in countries such as Spain and Portugal. As a result the price of leather, especially lamb's leather, has risen threefold. Furthermore, gloves only have one season, which means every mild winter results in a cash flow problem.
"Many people find it impossible to resist when a company like Chanel or Louis Vuitton knocks on your door and waves a check. They sell their business and all the know-how flows into the luxury company," Jean-Marc grumbles." Louis Vuitton came knocking on the Fabre's door, too – with a large order. The Fabres are proud that they refused it. "We were not ready yet, and are not ready now either." Between 24,000 and 26,000 pairs of gloves leave the workshop annually. And Fabre could easily sell yet another third again.
All our gloves are made by hand just as they were one hundred years ago. Everything we produce is sold directly, we do not have stock.
So why not simply increase the production? "Because there are no glovers anymore. There are no training facilities. Just learning one production step takes up to six months. And besides that, hardly anybody wants to move to Millau." It was only after a long search that the Fabres were able to find a replacement for their trusted cutter. Olivier Fabre continues, "We will have to bridge the next years with workers we train ourselves. But my dream is to establish a glover's school." There Solange could pass along the secrets of the English stitch: three minute stitches, pause, push the leather forward a few millimeters, three minute stitches, pause ... and so on, and so on.
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