In Paris’ 1st arrondissement, just across the road from the Chanel flagship store lies the storied atelier of Alice Cadolle, the last of the custom corsetières. Custom made lingerie may be the ultimate hidden luxury and for the finest, women go to Cadolle. A family-run business now into its sixth generation, their story started in 1889 when Herminie Cadolle displayed her revolutionary brassiere at the Great Exposition beneath the Eiffel Tower and opened a shop in Paris selling two-piece underwear, the upper part of which was the soutiens gorge. Since then, Maison Alice Cadolle has outfitted a diverse clientele that includes monarchs, socialites, movie stars, dancers at the Crazy Horse cabaret and once, even fashioned a metal bra for Mata Hari. Now in the hands of 34-year-old Patricia Cadolle, while she grew up “in the workshop after school, playing with the seamstresses, hiding among fabrics rolls or designing lingerie for my dolls”, she only became aware of her family’s rich history when they celebrated their 120th anniversary three years ago: “I had heard the story of Herminie since I was born, it was normal and nothing special for me. But for the anniversary of the company, we pulled out the photographs of the Cadolle women before me: Poupie (her mother), Alice, Marguerite, Marie and Herminie. I then realised I had Cadolle blood in my personality. What strikes me the most now is the determination of each Cadolle woman, none of them have given up – they faced many crises, many changes in the habits of society. They were strong and devoted to their customers. It gives you strength, as if they would all look at you: you better do well!”
"Lingerie will always be about romantic extravagance and seduction"
Patricia dispels any notion of globalisation when it comes to lingerie, “Different cultures lead to different behaviours and ways of seduction. French women wear beautiful lingerie not just for special occasions but as an everyday piece.” And while she tends to the ready-to-wear side of the business, Poupie continues to look after their bespoke service, receiving her international coterie of clients in their salmon-coloured salon, adorned with Napoleon III sofas and lush velvet drapes. There is a conspicuous richness to the experience of having a bra made at Cadolle: using exquisite materials and beautiful craftsmanship and old fashion personal attention, the process takes three fittings over a six-week period resulting in undergarments cut to a customer’s exact measurements and needs. In fact, working in such intimate circumstances with their clients sees Poupie acting equal parts psychiatrist and couturier. Patricia agrees, “You enter in your customer‘s world: the perception she has of herself. You realise then every woman is different from one to another, and there are no general answers. But attention, time and expertise will lead to satisfaction. When I attend her appointments, I realise she knows not only her customer by heart, but she really takes wonderful care of them. My mother is a really amazing woman, full of love.” No order, it would seem, is too exacting for Cadolle; Patricia recounting with awe one particular occasion when her mother dyed a nightdress eight different shades of red, only to see it worn by Monica Bellucci on a movie poster some months later.
Testament to Cadolle’s recession-proof status is the fact that lingerie will always be about romantic extravagance and seduction. Says Patricia, “That’s the special thing about our business: lingerie is linked to women and love. Women will always want to seduce, men will always want to offer proof of love. Custom made lingerie is like jewellery or a wedding dress: a special moment in one’s life, that will stay forever.”
Text by Kin Woo