Feathers’ Fine Flourish

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Charles-Donatien paints and lacquers goose feathers in his studio. Photograph by Pari Dukovic for The New Yorker

The Style issue of the New Yorker is the least interesting of the year, from the perspective of these pages; and yet on occasion even in this one they deliver something we can mull over:

The Eternal, Seductive Beauty of Feathers

We’ve been dressing up as birds since the Stone Age. Eric Charles-Donatien has brought the craft of featherwork into the twenty-first century.

Not surprisingly Burkhard Bilger is the journalist who pulls this off. Our Bird Of The Day (365 times for seven years running) feature exposes us to feathers of such variety that we could not resist giving Mr. Bilger the benefit of the doubt on this one:

170925_r30592There is such a thing as too much beauty. So the stuffed bird on the counter seemed to be saying. It was a Himalayan monal, Lophophorus impejanus, Liberace of land fowl. Its head was emerald, its neck amber and gold, its back a phosphorescent violet that flared to a sunburst at the tail. A pouf of feathers jutted from its head like a tiny bouquet. Named for Lady Mary Impey, the wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal in the late seventeen-hundreds, it had a stout, ungainly body swaddled in bright plumes as if for an audience with the maharaja. It was a turkey that wanted to be a hummingbird.

Eric Charles-Donatien held it up to the light. “It’s almost too nice,” he said. “Do you have one that is just a little bit broken?” The shopkeeper frowned, then sent her assistant off with a nod. I trailed along, curious to see what she’d find. This was one of the finest taxidermy shops in Paris. Whenever some wild captive dropped dead within a thousand miles—a victim of sunstroke or virus, homesickness or honey-roasted peanuts—chances were that it would soon appear here, miraculously restored. A family of polar bears stood in one corner, a young giraffe in another; a flight of white pigeons hung from the ceiling, and baby owls peered from the shelves. “I could surround myself with these birds,” I heard Charles-Donatien say. “They’re a reminder that we’re all animals.”

Charles-Donatien is a plumassier. He designs feathered clothes and accessories for the fashion industry. Or, to put it another way, he takes the keratinous appendages of modern-day dinosaurs and crimps and cuts, glues and sews them to fit the bodies of undernourished mammals. All fashion is a kind of metamorphosis—a chance to try on a different skin. The great designers are like the capricious gods in Ovid, reaching down to turn this mortal into a spider, that one into a swan, that one into a constellation. A plumassier tries to make people as beautiful as birds.

“Feathers are about seduction,” Charles-Donatien told me. “They are meant to attract. And we are happy to know that the male birds are always the most beautiful.” Charles-Donatien’s parents are from Martinique, but he was born in France. He has an almost posh Parisian accent, but his English, like the Creole that he spoke on the streets as a boy, has kept its island lilt. He turned forty-five last week and frets about his weight, but to a less professional eye he still looks pretty lean. He exercises a few days a week, sometimes suspended from a hammock in an aerial-yoga class, and mitigates the occasional Nutella binge with abstemious greens and grains. His head is shaved, his features round and boyish, with half-moon brows—a merry mask of a face, as of some impish spirit. When I asked Robert Barnowske, a former vice-president of apparel design at Vera Wang, what he first thought when he met Charles-Donatien, he laughed: “Who is this hot guy showing me feathers?”

Charles-Donatien had come to the shop that morning, as he often does, to hunt for material. The world is full of birds, but the loveliest ones are off limits to plumassiers, protected by international conventions against the trade in exotics. Even antique feathers can be used only in the occasional, one-of-a-kind piece, and then only if the client agrees never to take it out of the country. All other feathers now come from farmed animals—goose, duck, chicken, turkey, pheasant, and ostrich. They’re by-products of the food industry, cut and dyed to resemble more colorful birds. A plumassier is like a goldsmith who can afford to work only in bronze, or a jeweller who makes do with rhinestones. No dye can match the in-lit glow of a scarlet ibis, from the carotenoid pigments in the shellfish it eats, or the refracted colors of a peacock’s tail. So Charles-Donatien haunts the flea markets and taxidermy shops of Paris, eyes peeled for a flash of feathers…

Read the whole article here.

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