“When I was little, there was a room with a big lock on the door in my house — my mother’s studio. The lock came off when I finished elementary school,” says embroiderer Satoshi Sekimoto over coffee at a Parisian cafe in the 13th arrondissement. “I understand why she kept the room locked,” he adds, “not only were there needles everywhere but some of the garments she worked on were very precious, including obi belts entirely weaved in gold threads.”
The Hiroshima-born couturier and the winner of a 2015 Meilleur Ouvrier de France for haute couture embroidery, grew up under a mother who was a high-end kimono maker. As a youth, though, he was more interested in moving to America than fashion and aspired to be a New Yorker one day. While he never apprenticed under his mother, his parents suggested that he acquire vocational skills from the comfort of his home city before going abroad, which led him to attend a local fashion college after high school.
At Ishida Asaki Total Fashion College, Sekimoto learned various hands-on skills from designing and pattern making to tailoring. One of the summer courses, however, ended up persuading Sekimoto to move to Paris, instead of New York.
The haute couture embroidery course was taught by a Japanese instructor who trained at Ecole Lesage Paris, founded in 1992 by Maison Lesage, an haute couture embroidery supplier dating back to the Second French Empire (1852-70). Initially an embroidery workshop of Napoleon III, then called Michonet, the atelier was acquired by Albert Lesage in 1924. Today, the firm belongs to Paraffection S.A., Chanel’s collection of fashion workshops established in the late 1990s to preserve the heritage.
“Even after graduating (in Japan), the embroidery class lingered in my head,” says Sekimoto who worked at a Japanese fashion company, Itokin, as a saleperson for six months before moving to Paris to attend Ecole Lesage. “I wasn’t sure if embroidery was something I really wanted to do, but finding a designer position within Japan was very competitive and I was sure that sales was not a long-term goal for me.”
From 2004, Sekimoto spent over a year at Ecole Lesage, and his dedication, perhaps mixed with genetic talent, impressed the instructors. Toward the end of his program, he was offered internships after internship at various workshops in Paris, including Maison Lesage and Maison Montex.
“Lesage and Montex both belong to Chanel, but they also work with other brands like Christian Dior and Givenchy. What sets them apart is that Lesage produces more feminine and traditional works, while Montex is more abstract or experimental, which I like, though it has been changing direction since Karl’s passing” says Sekimoto.
Today he works at Maison Montex, but he has been working between maisons for almost 15 years nonstop. From preparing for haute couture presentation weeks every January and July, where a single garment takes up to 700 or 800 hours to complete, to ready-to-wear collections in between and private haute couture orders, he’s kept busy.
“French labor law states that artisans are not able to stay at work after 10 p.m.,” says Sekimoto, describing the intensity of embroidery work. “That’s when freelance artisans come in to do nightshifts and we take over again the next morning at 9 a.m.”
In 2013, the rigid work schedule caught up with Sekimoto and he began contemplating taking a break from atelier life. But then he heard that the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition was calling for entries and he couldn’t help but consider trying for a best artisan title. Organized by the French Ministry of Labour every four years, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition recognizes and awards the best artisans of various trades in France. The embroidery category involved participants completing three rounds stretched over two years.
“I thought I would be able to submit my best work, but each round was severely controlled,” he says. “We were given specific number of working hours as well as the type of patterns, techniques or colors that had to go into the piece.”
For the 2015 competition, the theme was India, and Sekimoto combined inspirations from Indian spices and the Taj Mahal’s architectural symmetry to complete a golden jacket. Other details included floral appliques with India’s iconic paisley patterns.
“The competition process is also quite secretive, I had no idea how many people were competing against me,” he recalls. “I also had my full-time job, so I worked almost all day, all week at times.”
In November 2015, he became the first Japanese in his category to be awarded a Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, a lifetime title.
“I am happy I won,” he says gratefully. “But I don’t think I could go through that process ever again.”
When asked if reaching the best artisan of France position has affected how he deals with work, or himself, Sekimoto confesses that now he treats himself to a something special after Paris fashion week.
“I like bold and energetic designs like Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy. I mean, the brands I work with are often too expensive for me,” he says. “I’d sometimes buy casual items, though, like jeans or sneakers as a reward.”
Becoming a modern-day couturier in Paris, by Sekimoto’s experience, requires extraordinary mental and physical stamina. But, he says it’s worth it, advising that anyone who wants to learn haute couture embroidery should approach it as an art form and “try to develop an identity and business model.”
His last visit to Japan, in 2019, was on behalf of Maison Montex for Chanel, which had invited its clients to learn about the craftsmanship behind its products.
“That was a great experience, to share what really goes into haute couture,” he recalls, “because it is an endangered heritage of France.”