In True Form

Claire Shaeffer demystifies couture — fortified by 1,100 authentic designer fashions

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Claire Shaeffer calls out the details that identify an authentic Chanel jacket:

“The linings are put in by hand. The sleeve vent has working buttonholes. Topstitching does not go through; it’s only on the outside fabric. Chanel trims are not continual strips, but built as they are applied. Sometimes fabric will be cut out and sewn back on as trim. If the chain [that weights the hem] is too bright, beware. The original chain was brass and will be slightly tarnished.”

This expertise comes from someone who ran away to join the circus at the age of 17. Today Shaeffer’s clothes racks are filled not with circus costumes, but rather with some 1,100 designer garments — mostly Chanel, some Yves Saint Laurent, and a smattering of other couture labels such as Balenciaga and Ungaro.

An acrobat in her youth, she enrolled in the circus curriculum at Florida State University but graduated with an art history degree and a passion for fashion. Though quite thin, she had developed strong shoulders through acrobatics — a factor that ultimately steered her life in another direction. Finding it difficult to find clothes that fit, she turned to sewing her own wardrobe, but wanted more than commercial patterns offered. “I went back to school to learn how to make my own patterns,” she says. She studied couture techniques and ultimately amassed an impressive collection of designer clothes.

After she married Charlie Shaeffer in 1959, the only ready-to-wear that would fit her was Pucci. “But Charlie was in medical school, and we couldn’t afford it,” she says with a slight Southern accent from her native Georgia. She graduated summa cum laude in 1974 from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “I never planned to work,” she says. “The luxury my husband has given me is to go out and do a lot of research.” Charlie Schaeffer is now a cardiologist at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, and the couple has lived in Palm Springs since 1974.

Claire recalls that in the late 1970s there was an Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. The shop “didn’t do very well,” she says, so she was able to buy a gray-hued plaid jacket for 75 percent off. It still hangs on one of her rolling racks. But her first designer acquisition was a Hardy Amies suit she bought at a thrift shop in London in the 1960s. “It was a blue/black tweed with a linen collar,” she says, “badly worn — at least three owners.” She still has the suit, helpful in her study of couture for its highly detailed construction.

Her special interests — Yves Saint Laurent and his idol, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel — were two of the most influential fashion designers of the last century. “There’s no question that [Christian] Dior revived the Parisian haute couture in 1947, but he only lived 10 more years so is overshadowed by Chanel and Saint Laurent,” Claire says.

In May, she taught Chanel couture techniques in one of her biannual Sewfaris. Her upcoming Jan. 9-14 sessions at Palm Mountain Resort in Palm Springs — “Traditional Tailoring a la St. Laurent” — have taken on a sense of poignancy since the couturier’s death on June 1. “It’s a tribute to him,” she says. “We want to recognize that he was one of those who enjoyed creating beautiful things. And because of the tailoring and construction, these garments will last as long as you want to wear them.

Students, limited to 10, come to the workshops from as far away as Japan and the Netherlands. An authority in her field, Claire has written more than 15 sewing books. She also contributes to Threads magazine, for which she interviewed her Old Las Palmas neighbor James Galanos. “His ready-to-wear is the best; that’s all there is to it,” she says. Also for Threads, she recently wrote about the younger designer Galanos most admires: Chado Ralph Rucci.

“I demystify couture,” is Claire’s motto. In fact, she confides almost proudly that she is not allowed to visit Chanel’s Paris workrooms to observe the petite mains (little hands) at their tasks. “I’m on their bad list,” she says. “I have written them twice, but they have made it very clear that they did not want me to write about the way their garments are made.” She has, however, gained entry into every other haute couture house in Paris. Forever secretive about its methods, Chanel even denies ever having granted authorized copies. But Claire owns Chanel-designated duplicates by Davidow and Jablow to prove that they did. “Davidow archives at [Fashion Institute of Technology] have Chanel sketches with info about fabrics and notions,” she says. She also refers to Vogue editorial pages showing a Chanel suit with a caption indicating that copies by Davidow and Jablow are available at a prestigious store.

Claire concurs with Pierre Bergé, partner of YSL, saying, “Chanel gave women freedom. Saint Laurent gave them power.” But their approaches couldn’t be more different. Saint Laurent went for crisp tailoring with a firm, square shoulder; Chanel cut a softer, rounder silhouette. Both favored pants for women, but Chanel had leisure in mind; YSL meant business. Claire smiles as she mentions seeing a late-’30s Chanel black sequin pantsuit at Victoria and Albert Museum in London and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “It’s like something Saint Laurent would have done later,” she says.

Claire calls the House of Chanel period following the founder’s death in 1971 “the dullsville years” with nothing really new — until 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld reignited the line. “He has a knack for taking a Chanel detail and translating it for today,” she says. He uses the interlocking Cs, the camellia, and the characteristically short jacket, noted for either a jeweled neckline or stand-up collar, open down the front or, alternatively, buttoned, plus multiple pockets and distinctive trims. Yves Saint Laurent hasn’t benefited from such a revamping. But the brand doesn’t have the same kind of signature touches with which to play. And, Claire intones, “They don’t have a Lagerfeld.”

The coveted midcentury Chanel jackets stand the test of time design-wise, but not necessarily in construction. Opening a cream-colored, loosely woven bouclé jacket [“It was photographed for the March 1, 1964, issue of Vogue”], Claire reveals that the channel-quilted, silk gauze lining is severely frayed. “They were only meant to be worn a season or two,” she explains. “Luxury doesn’t mean durability.”

Saint Laurent survivors are sturdier. It’s still possible to spot YSL ready-to-wear — Rive Gauche, launched in 1966 — at secondhand stores. Claire calls the pants in this prêt-à-porter line “very little different from couture.” However, she says, some of the 1980s tops, with large shoulder pads extending the line up and outward, “are just too ’80s to wear.”

In May, Claire scored a coup when she found a taupe YSL suit owned by the late prima fashionista Nan Kempner at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering thrift shop in New York for $100. And she owns a YSL suit from the 1962-63 season that combines olive green and beige hound’s-tooth check and Prince of Wales plaid. It was displayed by Vogue editor-turned-curator Diana Vreeland for the 1983-84 Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I bought it in the late ’80s at Michael’s, a resale shop on Madison Avenue, for $450,” Claire says. “That was a lot of money at the time, but it was my first really important piece.”

Last fall, the Met asked Claire to address docents and identify vintage finds. One way, she says, is simply to look for a date on the back of a Chanel label. She also is on call to identify vintage finds for the Met, as well for the Phoenix Art Museum. And she is on the Costume Council for Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Claire continues to make her own clothes and has designed about a dozen patterns for Vogue, often with a nod to Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. From her intensive studies of their work, she says, “So much of what I’ve learned is not new techniques, but how to apply techniques I already knew — taking one application and adapting it to a new case. Most things are not difficult, but they are time-consuming.”

Through her Sewfari classes, Claire passes along the knowledge she has gained through her personal studies, “It’s very rewarding to see people improve their skills and expand their knowledge,” she says. “There is no place else to go to learn these things.”

For information on Claire Shaeffer’s Sewfari workshops, e-mail [email protected].