The setting: Le Jeu de Paume, one of the most revered locations during Paris Fashion Week. The scene: Lights go down, music goes up, and a lanky model hits the runway wearing one of your creations. The crowd is enamored. It’s what a designer’s dreams are made of, non?
For Gwenaël Petiot of Papacho Creations, this scenario was a reality. The macramé artist and jewelry maker went from selling his wares at handmade markets to debuting his designs on the catwalk as part of a spring 2012 haute couture collection. But Petiot came to a surprising conclusion: staying indie was more important to him than any success the world of high-end style could bring him, and he chose to keep his business with Etsy.
The 29-year-old Petiot, who grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France, makes beautifully intricate jewelry using colorful thread, semi-precious gemstones, and macramé techniques. His “discovery” reads like a fashion fairytale, sans wicked witch and starring an incredibly talented protagonist. In 2007, Petiot decided to quit his job in the television industry and travel around South America for three months. It was there he discovered the craft that would become his passion. “The first time I saw someone doing macramé was in Caracas, Venezuela,” he says. “The man made me a small, simple bracelet, but I was really impressed that he did it only by making knots.”
Rather than return home when the three months were over, Petiot decided to keep traveling. But with only “a few pesos left in [his] pockets,” he needed a way to fund his wanderlust. He asked some local Peruvian and Argentine friends to teach him the art of macramé and began selling his creations on the streets, which allowed him to travel to 10 countries — including Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Uruguay — over the next four years.
He returned to Paris to shop his wares at the summer street market. It’s there that the partner of Anne Valérie Hash, a French haute couture designer, bought several of Petiot’s creations. Hash loved them and, with three weeks until her runway show, asked Petiot to collaborate on a number of pieces. The collection debuted at Le Jeu de Paume, in front of the Champs-Elysées, “the fashion street of the world’s fashion capital,” Petiot says. “Six months prior I was selling my bracelets for a few dollars a piece in a little village in the mountains of Cuzco, Peru, in order to pay for my next train ticket!”
The response was overwhelming and a whirlwind of press followed. The collection appeared in magazines all over the world, from Glamour (Spain) to Marie Claire (France). It was even featured on the most-watched news program in France. “One week after the fashion show, I was watching the news while packing to catch a train, ready to travel again,” Petiot says. “I put my bag on my back and reached for the remote to turn the TV off, when one of the newscasters began talking about a Paris Fashion Week designer: Anne Valérie Hash. The first clip they showed was of a model wearing my biggest creation! Millions of people were watching. But I turned it off, I didn’t want to miss my train.”
It’s not that Petiot didn’t enjoy the exposure, or the challenge of creating such high-profile pieces. But it’s his independence that he values most, something the intense pressure of the haute couture fashion world doesn’t necessarily allow. Within two months of the fashion show, Petiot was in Buenos Aires, enjoying the food and watching tango dancers on a daily basis. And though he was selling his wares for a considerable amount less than he would make in Paris, he was doing it, he says, “with the best feeling: freedom.”
He’s definitely open to working again in high fashion, and might even collaborate on another collection with Anne Valérie Hash. But when Petiot turned the TV off in order to catch his train, the small action spoke volumes about his priorities. Being able to explore the world while working on his craft is what makes keeping his business small and handmade imperative. “Thanks to Etsy, I can be free, because I can work from every place I travel to. I just need a few stones, threads, a camera, and a portable computer,” he says. “Of course, life might be easier, money-wise, if I worked in the fashion world, but I really think that liberty has no cost.”
All photos courtesy of Papacho Creations.