Behind a tall carved door on the Rue de Faubourg Saint Denis, the only clues to what happened up the 17th century staircase were a few stray black feathers on the doormat. On the second floor was Lemarié, home of some of the most highly skilled and specialised craftspeople in fashion: the plumassiers, or feather specialists. In 1900, there were more than 300 plumassiers in Paris; today, the last few in existence were based in a few rooms of this atelier, that rumor goes has moved from when I visited a few years ago. Every single feather that graces a haute couture catwalk - the maribou feathers of a Dior boa, the ostrich plumes needed for a Chanel corsage - came from the tissue-lined brown-paper boxes that were stacked from floor to ceiling. By the atelier window was a shop dummy wearing a coat of shaved black fur. Workers used fine tweezers to attach glossy black feathers to a hem. Ever since Marie Antoinette added exotic plumes to her headdress feathers have come to represent the ultimate in fantasy and chic. But this old craft dwindled over the years to a handful and now only Maison Lemarié survives. Formed in 1880 as purveyors of ‘plumes-for-garments’ to department stores, the atelier started working with some of the most prestigious names in haute couture such as Balenciaga, Givenchy, Christian Dior and bien sur Coco Chanel when André Lemarié, still the owner, joined the family business in 1946.
In 2002, Chanel, under Karl Lagerfeld, purchased Lemarié, in addition to six other struggling, highly specialised ateliers - boot makers, goldsmiths, embroiderers, costume jewellery makers, milliners and floral fabric artisans - to preserve the unique skills of these ateliers and ensure a future for haute couture. Haute couture takes an industry. And while Chanel has ensured Lemarié’s continued existence which is central to the haute couture image, if not the bank balance, Chanel needs the skills perpetuated in the ateliers. Although Chanel owns Lemarié, the atelier continues to work, as they had done before, for all the couturiers, and increasingly for ready-to-wear brands. Lemarié also crafts silk and feather flowers for hats and clothing. Chanel is their major client - they have made 40,000 camellias, the house's signature corsage - but while some of the skilled crafters - all women - make camellias, or bonnets made of swan feathers, for the Chanel haute couture show, others sculpt blooms from golden emu feathers for Christian Dior or black silken rosebuds for Dolce and Gabbana. Stacked neatly in shelves from floor to ceiling were bags upon bags of feathers - often dyed in iridescent new colours. Engrossed in the painstaking task of selecting and individually attaching feathers to dresses and handbags are a surprisingly young team of artisans who are individually picked and trained in the craft from ages as young as 15. In another part of the atelier, workers created Chanel’s famous camellias, 30, 000 are produced each year by Lemarié) out of silk, leather, velvet and chiffon.
In 1975, laws were passed to protect endangered species, allowing plumassierers to work only with feathers from farmed birds, Lemaire keeps prized possession in the archive – feathers from the virtually extinct ‘Birds of Paradise’. But the stories of how an apricot tuft of feathers creation stole the runway in Chanel’s fall show and took hundreds of hours to craft competes with the the powder pink tulle and feather concoction worn by Nicole Kidman in the iconic Chanel No. 5 ad that took Lemaire over six weeks to craft with 50 metres of tulle and 200 ostrich feathers.
At the turn of the last century, Paris was the center of the luxury feather trade. Ships would regularly dock at Marseille to The ambience in Lemarié is also quite unlike almost any other: although haute couture recently relaxed its stringent rules forbidding machine sewing on garments, the work done in Lemarié and the other couture ateliers can be done using only hands and brains, so there are no machines or computers to be seen. Some of the implements used are more than 100 years old, as are some of the feathers. Increasingly, the exotic birds of paradise whose feathers are the most sought-after are protected species, so the existing stock of plumes is precious.