Take it to the Cleaners

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Threads Magazine

By Kenneth D. King | December 2009/January 2010

When you have a $70,000 couture gown to dry-clean, you don’t just drop it off at the corner cleaners. Take it to a place that satisfies customers like Barbara Walters, Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour, and Melania Trump. They put their textiles in the skilled hands of Madame Paulette, a custom couture cleaner who this year, celebrates 50 years of care and cleaning for their famous and discerning clients. Couture houses such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Hermes, and Vera Wang are included on their prestigious client list because they are known to maintain and preserve the integrity of the finest garments in the world.

In the fashion world, reputation is everything; Madame Paulette is known as the dry-cleaner of choice among designers, celebrities, museums, and auction houses, as well as the authority on fabric restoration. John Mahdessian, its third-generation owner, thinks nothing of responding to clients and garments in distress, be it around the corner or around the globe.

To discover how meticulously crafted garments are healed, I paid a visit to Madame Paulette on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In these workrooms spots and snags disappear and lost beads miraculously reappear. Gowns in distress are returned to their owners in pristine condition.

Here, follow a canary yellow silk crepe Lanvin dress through the steps of its special care cleaning to learn how this fascinating process is done. Handling of this sort is given to exquisitely designed and executed couture garments, vintage ones with personal or sentimental value, or something associated with everlasting memories such as a christening gown or wedding dress.

We’ll also watch an Oscar de la Renta beaded cocktail dress get restored to its original elegance after stains and tarnished beads threaten to ruin it. Not every cleaner has the equipment, the experienced team, or the courage to take on items of this quality. When a local dry cleaner tells you to remove the feathers from your gown before they’ll clean it, you’ll know your options. You don’t have to live in New York City to take advantage of an establishment like Madame Paulette–they work with clients from around the world, so when the cherished garments you’ve made run into trouble the situation is not hopeless.

F.I.T. professor, and designer extraordinaire, Kenneth D. King knows all the best places.

Follow a special-care garment
Designer garments—both couture and vintage—deserve the care that keeps them beautiful for many decades. Every step in their care and cleaning is important; it starts with meticulous preparation and ends with perfectly executed finishing.

When a special-care garment arrives at Madame Paulette, it’s inspected for spots and stains. If any are found, each spot is marked with a color-coded arrow for pretreatment. A detailed inspection occurs after every step in the cleaning process.

The pretreatment process includes analyzing the stain on a spotting board, which resembles an ironing board that has a porous narrow end attached to a high-powered vacuum. The vacuum has a nozzle with different heads that emit either steam, water, or air, depending on the nature of a specific stain. A vacuum foot control enables the operator to keep his or her hands-on the garment from start to finish.

There was only one arrow found on our Lanvin beauty, located near the hem and next to a ruffle. The technician applies the appropriate spotting agent to the fabric with a cotton swab.

Then, using the nozzle, spotting board, and a combination of steam and air, the spot is removed without leaving a telltale ring.

Since our gown doesn’t have any fragile detailing, it’s put into a mesh bag to prevent abrasion and fabric bleeding. It then goes into a cleaning machine that resembles an oversize washer or dryer.

Spiros Pouhronakis, a Madame Paulette presser, refers to a photo of the gown and learns it has soft molded pleats. Natural fibers resist permanent pleating, so they get re-pleated every time the garment is cleaned. He starts slowly, building the soft pleats back into the gown with his fingers as he presses.

Spiros also demonstrates a pressing machine favored for tailored clothing that can press shoulders, sleeves, and assure a perfect finish across the back of a tailored jacket.

Spiros achieves a flawless finish. His lightweight iron operates on compressed steam and is easy to maneuver, so it rarely touches the garment.

The gown is finished and looks exactly as it did on the Paris runway.

Finally, the gown is packaged in special bagging so the work that went into its restoration is preserved.

Observe a restoration rescue
Here, a damaged Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress is restored. Every detail gets strict attention to return the dress to its original glamour.

The dress arrives for restoration. Perspiration has reacted with the coating on the beads and caused staining under the arms and on the neckline. The tailor’s shop firsts removes the damaged beads.

With water, steam, compressed air, and chemicals, technician, J.R. Riley gradually lightens the spot. With more than fifty years of experience, he knows how to identify stains and fabrics, and what chemicals will remove them safely.

Some muscle power is needed. This stain proves to be a stubborn one, so he decides to soak the dress overnight in a bath of water and chemicals.

The next day, the dress is removed from the bath and hung on a hanger. J.R. then spray-rinses it and allows it to drip dry, so the excess water runs out.

The dress then goes into a cabinet where warm air is blown at it from all directions, gently and safely drying it.

After the dress is dry, J.R. sprays on a fabric conditioner to give the silk back its original luster. Another trip to the drying cabinet follows.

Sadly, all of the silver bugle beads are tarnished and have darkened. So the gown was sent to the tailor’s shop, where the beads were painstakingly replaced by hand. This two-week-long process involves opening the dress lining and duplicating the pattern and look of the original beading without distorting the hang of the dress.

Back for a final pressing. Once the beading is completed, the master presser finishes the job with a combination of ironing and steaming. The gown is then placed on a padded hanger, steamed one more time, inspected, and then returned to its owner for another evening out!

Cleaning Chemistry
During the time I spent at Madame Paulette, I was told repeatedly that many garments are ruined by people trying to treat stains or mitigate damage before getting it to a cleaner. It’s best to get the garment to the cleaner promptly and tell them (if possible) what the stain is; you’ll stand the best chances of being able to reverse any damages.

That said, Madame Paulette does make a professional stain-removal kit for on-the-spot emergencies. Each kit contains blot cloths, rinse cloths, and special formula cloths for each of the following three specific stain groups. Some stains are a combination of these types and require multiple formulas with rinses between. The rinse cloths are made with distilled water to prevent water spotting–a good tip to remember.

Earth based stains:
Alcoholic beverage/liquor, fruit juices, black coffee and tea, jelly, jam, honey, syrup, soft drinks, soda, toothpaste, vegetable juices, and white wine.

Protein based stains:
Blood, dairy/milk products, perspiration, and vomit.

Oil based stains:
All cooking oils, bacon grease, lotions, creams, mayonnaise, mineral oil, motor oil, grease, salad dressings, skin and hair oils and gels.