Paris Fashion: The First Couture Café

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Sweat Shop is run by Martena Duss and Sissi Holleis

Photo: Esther Michel/Courtesy Sweat Shop.

When Swiss makeup artist Martena Duss came to town, she found Paris fashion just a bit intimidating. “Fashion is my world, but one thing surprised me. French women and the look they cultivate are just so classic. Here, the whole craft and artisan culture is almost underground.” It was one of the reasons Duss made friends with Sissi Holleis, an Austrian designer who has spent 20 years in Paris.

“We had some very specific things in common,” says Duss. “Both of us come from cultures where it’s normal to sew, where you’ll find a sewing machine in absolutely every home. In Paris, it’s the opposite. Most women can’t hem a dress.”

While comparing notes on Paris fashion, Duss told Holleis how often friends asked to borrow her sewing machine. The pair toyed with setting up a sewing circle. But, during a stroll around the 10th Arrondissement, they found themselves peering into the storefront of a former printworks. It gave them a different idea: a fashion business modelled on the cyber café.

Sweat Shop, the first couture café in Paris, is in the 10th Arrondissement

Photo: Cynthia Rose.

“Instead of renting out time on computers,” says Duss, “we realized we could rent out time on a Singer.” A few calls—and a lot of paperwork—later, Duss and Holleis had launched Paris’s first couture café.

Being designers, they wanted a well-appointed space. So, to decorate, they called in the Belgian company Tanker. This trio of designers gave the shop a retro feel, with what Duss calls “a low-key, living room ambience.” To enhance its many found and recycled items, Tanker even made its own imitation of weathered wallpaper. Duss and Holleis dubbed the finished premises Sweat Shop: a tribute to their female clientele and their rows of shiny machines.

Opened in March 2010, it was meant as a sideline to their lives in Paris fashion. However, the pair soon found they had a winning formula. Their standard offer of coffee, cake and coaching (or time alone with a Singer) was enough to keep Sweat Shop busy day and night. Enthusiastically, they took Polaroids of customers’ projects, helping clients learn to bake as well as to tailor. Parisians, they discovered, were thrilled to customize their jeans, make fluorescent baby clothes and knit wacky wigs.

Aided by its location near the canal St.-Martin, Sweat Shop soon created a vibrant new community. The fact that both proprietors are multilingual was also a boost. Says Duss, “We’re used to working in English, French, Dutch or German. So we can make women with less French feel comfortable. That’s what we want. After all, my own French isn’t perfect!”

Martena Duss, co-owner of Sweat Shop

Martena at work during London Fashion Week. Photo: Cynthia Rose.

From the start, the shop has attracted fashion professionals. Sometimes they are student designers, shut out of school by a holiday. Others may be designers or stylists working on private projects. Friends from the business also drop by, to teach or hang out.

In addition to renting out time on its machines, Sweat Shop offers a wide range of courses and workshops. These range from the basics (how to use a sewing machine) to master classes run by Paris fashion personalities. You can learn to drive nails through a “rock-and-roll” leather jacket; alternatively, you can master classic French tailoring.

Operating like a mini fashion academy, Sweat Shop can take you from pattern cutting to final finishes. The best news (besides the easygoing atmosphere) is that everything offered through the shop is very affordable. There are student discounts, too, as well as gift certificates and special courses aimed at adolescents or children.

What started out as a lark is now an institution; Holleis and Duss have just published a Sweat Shop book. Written in English, it is aimed at all those who love Paris and craft. Its debut took place during London Fashion Week, where its authors ran a special replica of their shop. In it, Duss and Holleis supervised 10 days of classes—all packed with enthusiasts. Friends like Sonia Rykiel and Vava Dudu (Lady Gaga’s stylist) were on hand to help. But, says Duss, “it was exhausting, kind of like doing performance art.”

 Design firm Tanker gave Sweat Shop a retro feel, with found and recycled items

Photo: Cynthia Rose.

Nevertheless, the pair is delighted with their book. It features their favorite patterns, sewing tips from friends and stars, the shop’s favorite recipes and a guide to their arrondissement. At its back is a carnet of special addresses—an equal plus for both Paris tourists and full-time residents.

Says Duss, “It took each of us years to discover where we should shop. To learn who has the best vintage, the rarest buttons, the finest ribbons. We saw the book as a way to make that easier. That way it represents what we try to do with the shop!”

• In 1863, Isaac M. Singer—inventor of the sewing machine—married a French woman, Isabella Eugenie Boyer. Boyer, who was 30 years younger than her spouse, was one of the inspirations for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. Among the pair’s six children was flamboyant millionaire Paris Singer. He later lived with dancer Isadora Duncan in the Place des Vosges.

Related Links

Tanker

Sweat Shop

Canal St.-Martin

Buy the book

Sweat Shop news 

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