Report: Behind the scenes at the Etam Tech Center in the run-up to this year's Live Show
Between twenty and twenty-five: that's the average number of pieces of fabric needed to assemble a bra. It's an intricate task that the Etam group has been experimenting with and formalising at its Tech Center, a brand new R&D facility in Marcq-en-Barœul in Northern France, since 2017. The brand, which was founded in 1916, has, without doubt, embraced the accelerated rhythm of fast fashion but has nonetheless decided to maintain this design workshop on its home turf. And FashionNetwork.com had the exclusive privilege to visit the facility, gaining a sneak peek behind the scenes a few weeks before the lingerie company's big annual event, the Etam Live Show, which will take place on 25th September 2018 at Paris' Ecole des beaux-arts. The show, which will be broadcast live, has managed to snatch a slot on Paris Fashion Week's opening day, despite not appearing on the event's official calendar.
Last year, the employees of Etam's design office left the company's historic site in Mouvaux, founded in the 1930s by Martin Milchior, grandfather of Etam's current co-CEO Laurent Milchior. The old facility was a run-down and ill-adapted brick building with a production unit that had ceased operations in 2001. Now Etam's Tech Center – a clean, glass-sided rectangle measuring 1,700 square metres – sits atop a little island of greenery complete with pond in the midst of an industrial estate some 2 km away from the former site.
61 employees and some 100 sewing machines (including flatbeds, sergers and coverstitch machines, among others) have now moved into the new space where they put their expertise in corsetry and prototyping to work every day. The machines aren't there for mass production, but for working out the final technical details of each product before the instructions are passed on to the company's manufacturers, who are based mainly in Asia and Northern Africa.
The buzzing energy at the site is palpable as the brand approaches the date of its 12th annual show. Models taking to the runway will be wearing a mix of pieces from the classic collection, which will be available in stores, and a selection of one-off exclusives. "We really push what we do here on a daily basis, amplifying certain products with pearls, feathers... and by accessorising them," says Stéphane Laporte, head of Etam Lingerie's technical division, whose work on the show began in spring. "We end up receiving so many requests from clients for these customised pieces that we're even thinking about launching a made-to-measure service at Etam!"
This year some pieces in the show will be made from leather and even PVC. It is this material – somewhat unusual for underwear – that has been making life difficult for the textile buyers stationed on the facility's ground floor this season. They had to find an iridescent plastic material that was sufficiently flexible for lingerie, as one of the five themes for this year's show requires a futuristic aesthetic. Seeing what the show's other inspirations might be will be a waiting game, however, as it's all a tightly guarded secret at the Tech Center, just as it would be at a couture house.
"The creation of the pieces wouldn't be possible without a constant dialogue with the Etam designers who are based at the company's HQ in Clichy, close to Paris, and that starts with the search for the right fabric, where there are really no limits," continues Stéphane Laporte. "We organise a lot of trips between the two sites and we also talk through a screen on wheels which allows us to do video-conferences from a fitting room, even from behind a sewing machine."
A single piece for the show can require up to 30 hours of embroidery work, quite the task when one considers that around 100 silhouettes will be presented on the runway. Indeed, Etam has to show everything that it has to offer in just a quarter of an hour: lingerie and swimwear, of course, but also homewear and sportswear. "When we receive designs from a designer, we often think 'how ever are we going to make that?'" laughs Marie-Claire, who has worked as a pattern cutter at Etam for 15 years and is currently trying to bring a voluminous sleeve to life, as she sits across from her computer in a bright and airy workspace surrounded by vegetation. It's not her first attempt: it's important to test different solutions in order to obtain the desired volume – sewing, unpicking, reassembling, before finally trying it out on a live model.
"I started with a toile to get the folds right in this sleeve," she explains as she deftly manoeuvres her tape measure, glasses perched on the end of her nose. "When we're working on the pieces for the show, we can really let go and we have a great time. We're lucky. I came from the ready-to-wear sector and I can tell you that not many companies working in our industry still develop their products in France." For the show, which will once again take place in Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts, some of the employees will travel to the French capital, along with five machines, in order to carry out any last-minute retouching. Behind the scenes, it's not uncommon to have to sew a few sequins back onto a piece seconds before it hits the runway.
The space put aside for pattern cutting is occupied by some 20 employees and looks a bit like a busy hive, with computers vying for space on desks covered with files, bolts of fabric and patterns, while dressmaker's dummies stand to attention in the aisles. On one of them, the draft of a plastic skirt is materialising, made for this first attempt with strips of bin liner. These specialists in transforming sketches into 3D models receive between 1,000 and 1,200 designs a year, requiring the production of around 5,000 to 6,000 prototypes for Etam, but also for the group's other labels, Undiz and Livy.
In the prototyping area, where the products are assembled, the space's organisation puts one more in mind of an office than a technical facility: sewing machines are grouped in sixes and each employee has their own, which they decorate with photos, good luck charms or even a radio on which to listen to the latest hits. "We needed to create as little visual pollution as possible, that's why the electricity and compressed air supply is under the floor and not overhead like in traditional industrial workshops," points out Stéphane Laporte.
At her work station, a young woman named France puts the finishing touches to a frilly silver bathing suit. "We just told her, Justine and Mélissa, three young women [aged between 23 and 28] working as apprentices, that they will be staying on with us with a permanent contract," says Alexiane, the team's technical director, who has 34 years of experience at Etam. Just like her, a number of employees stay with the company for a long time, with one machine operator who retired last year leaving after 43 years at Etam. "Sometimes, our retired employees come back to lend a hand when things get really busy," explains Stéphane Laporte.
Everyone describes the team as a big family. However, not everything is so positive: "Corsetry skills are very rare, these are professions which are dying out," says Laporte, who launched an internal training programme to combat the problem five years ago. "Two experienced machine operators had to learn how to carry out training," he adds. The measure could not have come a moment too soon as the average age of the workshop's employees – currently 50 years old – was constantly rising.
In the entrance hall of the Tech Center, quite by chance, we cross paths with Sébastien Bento Soarès, Noyon Dentelle's new deputy CEO. Also situated in Northern France, the company collaborates closely with Etam, especially since the lingerie group acquired minority shares in the struggling lace maker last year. Noyon has put together an exclusive pattern called "dentelle 102" (lace 102) for the company's show this year and the two companies also now cooperate in other matters in a much closer manner than before. "If we don't pool our expertise, it's going to get complicated in the future," states Soarès.
In order to keep up with the frenzied pace of certain retailers, the rhythm of collection launches has accelerated over the last few years at Etam, which reported around 1.3 billion euros in revenue in 2017. "Traditional lingerie companies work between six months and a year ahead of the season, here we are constantly coming up with new products and can react within a few weeks," says Stéphane Laporte, before insisting on showing FashionNetwork.com two of the company's more historical machines, which are usually carefully guarded behind closed doors. One is a rare smock machine with 45 needles, which only two Etam employees – twins, incidentally – know how to use; the other is for making spaghetti straps. Ultimately, it is these final exchanges at the Tech Center which sum up the key to the group's success: bringing together traditional know-how and mass production, lavish runway shows and low prices, Etam seeks to maintain a delicate balance, skilfully positioning itself among apparent oppositions.
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