The Last "Real" Couture House

Atelier Pallas is one of the only couture houses still doing things the old way—completely in house and completely by hand. Daniel Pallas talks about the changes and designing for the Queen.

The way Daniel Pallas tells it, Atelier Pallas, the petite couture house with over fifty years of history, is the only company that still makes ready-to-wear the way all of the Parisian fashion houses, both large and small, used to do it as recently as the 1970s.

“Today everything is industrial,” he says. “In the 1970s, my father had 35 individual tailors working around Paris on our collection. Today we have seven of them, and no one else works like this. I even had a couture house phone me and ask me to make a jacket recently. I was shocked. I could not do it. To be a couture house, you have to make everything in house.”

In an elongated apartment once occupied by Jean Cocteau in the Palais Royal, Mr. Pallas presented the company’s third ready-to-wear collection on Saturday, in what was a re-imagining of his company’s designs for a younger clientele.

“The majority of our customers have been with us for a long time,” he says. “They would not understand these designs, but we wanted to do something new.”

On display in the showroom were elegant women in long black pants and finely lapelled jackets and trenches. Hannelore Knuts, the muse of the house, stood among them and posed for a photo in bright orange specs.

“All the 70s houses were working the way we are working. I did not change because of our customers. We are the only one left. Everything is cut inside,” Pallas explains.

Atelier Pallas has a particular way of working.

Patterns are created in house, and then the tailors take them home to complete. “These are all male tailors. We do not have all of the knowledge. When we create something, we create the pattern. The cutter does not need all the sizes because they can grade it without a pattern for each size. Sometimes they call us and tell us how to fix the pattern.”

To make one jacket, two people work for ten hours. “If something does not fit, the tailor knows how to change it,” Pallas says.

According to Pallas, it is becoming more difficult to find such craftsmen.

“Their knowledge is not useful anymore because no one cares,” he says. “No one wants that anymore. We have seven people left. People making only jackets, dresses, some making only pants.”

Like these men and his father before him, Mr. Pallas learned the craft as a child. “They learned to be menswear tailors,” he says. “You start at 13. My father began like that. When they were allowed to make the sleeve then you have made the grade.”

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He recalls other traditions in the business that have also disappeared.

“My father was a tailor and my mother worked in a couture house. In those days, they would come and look at the défilé and buy the pattern. They could perhaps buy the pattern and say this was a Dior dress,” he says.

As men’s fashion is so hard, his parents decided to focus on womenswear for the house. “Menswear meant making one suit at a time,” Pallas says.

And could he do anything else?

“I was born in fabrics. My mother told me the first cut was a tweed as a child. My world is in fabrics and suits. I saw my father make his own suits. To have his own moment at the end of the collection he would make a suit. I learnt like that. Even Courrèges began like that. Not Saint Laurent but plenty of little houses began like that. My father had 80 customers just in Paris.”

And as for deciding to revamp the brand’s own ready-to-wear line now?

“We worked for Balenciaga, Lagerfeld, Celine, Thierry Mugler making the prototypes, but we were also too high in price to produce for them,” he says. “They wanted to put money on the prototypes, but not in the production. So two years ago, I said to Veronique [his wife and partner], let’s make our own collection. It is like a revolt. Before we were continuing the collection of my parents. But the collection is getting old. This is completely different.”

This is the third new collection for Pallas, and it is selling in the Bon Marche. Corso Como also picked up the last collections, as well as 15 other stores worldwide.

Even Her Majesty the Queen has taken note. “We were delivering some pieces to Hardy Amies on Savile Row, and she happened to be in the store looking for something more ready-to-wear and asked for one of our designs [with a Hardy Amies label]. They quickly phoned us to get the right size. I have a photograph of the Queen smiling in the coat, but she probably does not know she is wearing a French piece.”