PLAILLY, France — Dressed in a white lab coat with blue piping and sporting a trimmed goatee, Nicolas Guignaud stood in front of an industrial gas hob. He took a plastic bottle of green liquid, squirted some of its contents into an aluminum pot of boiling water and began stirring the concoction with a hard white plastic spatula.
Taking a thick teardrop-shaped piece of clear resin about three inches long, Mr. Guignaud — a tinting technician with Maison Desrues, which manufactures high-end buttons, jewelry and accessories — dropped it carefully into the pot. After a few minutes of constant stirring, he used a colander to retrieve the resin, now a dull green. He dipped it in room-temperature water, put it back in the boiling liquid, added some yellow tint and repeated the same procedure all over again before pulling out the now deep-emerald piece of resin and setting it on a side table to dry.
“The more colors I put in, the more intense the color comes out,” said Mr. Guignaud, who joined Desrues nine years ago after three years of technical tinting training. “I just feel how much I need to add for the color I want. It is intuitive, not scientific.”
Desrues, with its more than 230 employees, researches and helps design all the buttons for Chanel clothing, although it outsources some of the production for capacity reasons. It also is an integral part of Chanel’s annual métiers d’art show, which this year was scheduled for Dec. 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The great majority of Desrues’ output — it says 95 percent to 99 percent — is for Chanel but it also has a small division focused on market development and recently has done work for brands like Marc Jacobs. “We try to work for other houses,” Amandine Pâris, Desrues’ archivist, said, “to bring in something different, to stay innovative.”
Fashion houses like Vionnet, Lanvin, Dior and Balenciaga all came to Desrues over the years, not only because of its quality work but also the company’s ability to produce pieces quickly.
Legend has it that the couturier Pierre Balmain came to Mr. Desrues the night before a collection premiere (the date is unknown), asking for buttons shaped like chocolates.
Mr. Desrues then “rushed out and found a chocolate shop that was nearby but it was about to close, with the register switched off, but the woman gave him the chocolates anyway,” Ms. Pâris said. “He worked all night to replicate the chocolates, delivered them on time to Pierre Balmain and we still have the drawings.”
It was in the 1960s that Chanel began working closely with Desrues on the buttons for its iconic bouclé jackets. By the early 1990s, after it had become a satellite of the fashion house, Desrues found it had outgrown its Paris atelier and moved to a nondescript industrial park in Plailly, about an hour’s drive from the French capital. Much innovation and development has been going on in button making since then.
For each collection, the process begins when Desrues’s collection director, Sylvain Peters, meets with Mr. Lagerfeld and his team to review ideas and themes. “One collection requires three or four weeks,” said Mr. Peters, who has worked for Desrues for 30 years. “That is from absolutely nothing to its presentation.”
He works with his team to interpret sketches and to determine the best ways to create the designs.
And if something seems impossible to make? “I can absolutely not say ‘no’; I just have to make it happen,” Mr. Peters said. “I don’t bother them with the technical side or the difficulty either. That is my problem, not theirs — and if, in the unlikely case that there is something we cannot do, I propose something that is within the realm of what they are looking for.”
According to Laure Courtel, the company’s director of business development, one of the techniques — handmade molds or 3-D printing — is chosen, depending on the design’s complexity, the amount of available time and the cost.
“Three-D is practical because, in terms of cost, usually we do several samples for the studio to approve the style,” Ms. Courtel said. “So making an entire sample by hand takes time and when you have to make it again, it’s going to be from scratch. In our context, there are a lot of steps of approval so it is more logical to use this technology.”
After Chanel approves an initial button design, a master sample is created: Either cut from metal (usually tin or brass) or cast (from metal or resin), it is used to program the metal cutting machine to make button bases. The button tops are lacquered or tinted and the finished product is put together by hand in the assembling workshop, where final touches are added.
Those can include anything from gluing — often using broken cotton swabs — the interlocking gold-plated CC logo onto a button top to using a needle with warm resin to add tiny sparkling crystals.
“Each model is going to be represented in eight different sizes and each model is going to exist in many colors,” Mr. Peters said. “And then I will deliver about 10,000 to 12,000 buttons for the show. That is one month of work.”
Innovation is constant, Mr. Peters said, like using Chanel cloth in resin buttons to modifying 3-D technology. “My job is to always find something new, the goal is to present something that makes people think, ‘Wow,’” he said. “For Chanel, the button is a little piece of jewelry.”