Corsetmaker in Paris

Portrait of a tailor posing in his workshop

François Tamarin is a one-off. A corsetier (corsetmaker), he has a boutique in Paris, where he designs and tailor-makes corsets. Customers come from far and wide to be squeezed into his creations. Indeed he is not just any old corsetmaker. François has earned the title ‘Un des Meilleur Ouvrier de France‘, one of France’s great honours.

Title for life

I was commissioned last month to photograph a series of portraits of Meilleur Ouvrier de France artisans [Best Craftsmen of France] in Paris for the The New York Times. The Meilleur Ouvrier de France contest is extremely hard to win and preparation for the competition demands months, if not years, of dedication. If granted, this prestigious national stamp of recognition for exceptional craftsmanship is seen as the crème de la crème for a wide variety of professions, from pâtissiers, to florists – and corsetiers.

A portrait of corsetmaker François Tamarin in his workshop

François Tamarin poses in the middle of in his atelier

François Tamarin’s title is not brand new (he was named Un des Meilleur Ouvriers de France in 2004), but once you are granted the honour, you hold it for life.

Louis XIV in the neighbourhood

One doesn’t just drop into François’s shop to browse. Visits to ‘Aux Corsets de Montmartre‘ are by appointment only. Yet any preconceptions of an exclusive showroom in a tranquil, leafy corner of Montmartre would be misplaced.

Within spitting distance of the Porte de Clignancourt métro, the workshop-boutique is firmly situated in a quartier populaire, and jostles for space alongside shops loudly boasting hair straightening miracles and pavement-hungry, all-night grocery stores. Unpretentious, despite the luxury of its products and clientèle, François’s small, quirky atelier buzzes with creativity and craftsmanship.

Sketch of an extravagantly dressed woman with wings on the wall at 'Aux Corsets de Montmartre'

The extravagantly-clad female form is omnipresent

Mounds of satin, silk and lace are heaped everywhere and hang from every wall. From behind them peek 18th century prints, kitsch posters and François’s own design sketches, hastily pinned on top of each other. Tools of the trade spill out of drawers and uncompleted cut-outs of fabric and card sit precariously atop piles of antique books and scarves.

As I took in the scene, I held my photographer’s bag aloft. I simply couldn’t see where there was any floor space to put it down. François saw my dilemma and smoothly whisked it down some rickety wooden steps to la cave below, moving deftly through the jumble with elegance and precision.

Long hair cascading in ringlets around his face, his speech refined and melodic, he left a lingering sense of Louis XIV grandeur, like perfume in the air, as he showed me the corsets, corset dresses and other costumes he is at various stages of making.

Fit for a Venetian ball

The day of my visit coincided with a fitting session for Nicolas, one of François’s regular customers. Yes, that’s Nicolas, not Nicola, and he arrived shortly after I did.

Before I had the chance to wonder what role a corset could possibly have for a flat chest, a screen was placed in front of the shop door and Nicolas was stripped of his jacket and ushered to the mirror. François fluttered around him, in a cloud of pins, tape, ribbon and swathes of gold brocade, and Nicolas was quickly bedecked in the makings of a glorious gold tunic costume.

Nicolas, a caterer by day and enthusiastic 18th century ballroom dancer by night, had ordered the outfit (to be accessorised with long blond wig and tailored hat) to wear to a costumed ball in Venice. After some discussion about the structure of the piece, position of ribbons and snugness of the fit, he seemed very content with progress.

Corsetmaker François Tamarin adjusts a costume on customer Nicolas who has commissioned a tailor-made dancing outfit

Nicolas is fitted with a corset-inspired costume

Are corsets comfortable?

Watching Nicolas’s costume journey back to a glorious past, rich with ladies, lords, kings and queens, I felt lulled into the fairy tale glamour of the moment. I found myself gazing past ostrich feathers into a mirror, thinking how natural and wonderful it would be to be wearing a purple satin corset and gown, instead of a suddenly so-very-dull photographer’s basic T-shirt and jeans.

But I am sorry to say that due to the time of my next appointment, I was unable to take François up on his generous offer of trying on a corset. And now back in the South of France, my memories are fading and I am sure that corsets must be extremely uncomfortable – not to mention sweaty and itchy in warmer climes….

Read the NYT ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France’ article here

See the NYT ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France’ slideshow here

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