Éric Charles-Donatien is a feather crafter who spread his wings among the greatest talents of Parisian fashion. For many years, he worked alongside Mr Lemarié, who trained, guided and entrusted him with the creation and innovation of collections within the prestigious Maison Lemarié which specializes in the art of feather craft. François Lesage, master embroiderer in Haute Couture, Raymond Massaro, “Maître d’Art” and bootmaker, and Pierre Debard, renowned hatter for Maison Michel, also guided him on his journey to give prominence to this respectful trade, to share his passion and to perpetuate a unique Parisian fashion.
Eric Charles-Donatien defends those values through his creations, his work, his ethics, his passion for detail and his will to constantly offer emotion. With great humility and talent, he turned to the world of decorating and created, among other pieces, a feather adornment for the alcove of the Hôtel de Crillon’s Spa. This heir to remarkable craftsmanship brings us down memory lane on the path of history, but also on the path of a promising future.
Maison Sensey : How did it begin?
Éric Charles-Donatien : It depends on what you mean: my life, 46 years ago? my career, 30 years ago? or working with feathers more than 20 years ago? Each beginning is interesting. The most unusual one is probably how I started working with feathers. But it really all started when I decided to study fashion rather than psychology or music, as I was also attending the conservatoire of music. When your parents give you the opportunity to do so many different things to open your mind, it gets very difficult when you need to choose one path but back then, fashion won.
I turned to fashion studies. I tried to learn about the technical side of it as much as possible. I didn’t want to become someone who would be known for their ideas. I was obsessed with skills, and I felt like ideas couldn’t exist without skills. Later, I realized that many people – even during my studies – thought it would be quite enough to come up with ideas, as they knew others would have the skills to bring them to life. I said to myself, “If I can do it myself, it’s better, right?”
That’s how it all started and that’s what brought me one day to Mr Lemarié. I was working on a project sponsored by Annick Huet, who owned an ostrich farm in South Africa. She was promoting her high-quality ostrich feathers on the Parisian fashion scene and more specifically in Haute Couture. She was very surprised when I showed her what I had created with her feathers and decided to introduce me to Mr Lemarié.
When I met Mr Lemarié, I also discovered a fashion house. Maison Lemarié was an old workshop, everything in it was ancient! I looked around, and I couldn’t quite believe what I saw.
I had been inside Maison Lesage before although here I found myself in the quintessence of a place frozen in time; a Haussmann building on Faubourg Saint-Denis, an old apartment, a worn-out wooden floor with dark patches, kraft paper everywhere, feathers, antique furniture, a creaky old floor and a majority of older people with just a few young ones. I discovered that one can work for the same fashion house for 30 or 40 years, I had never seen that!
Monsieur Lemarié then had an interesting idea. He asked me to create samples that I would have to sell to him. It’s funny because at the time, I did not know about samples and what they were used for in this line of work. Sample creation is a tradition passed on for dozens of years; each season, samples are renewed and presented to all the fashion houses that I used to dream about when I was a kid.
I was not aware that I had just got a foot in the door of the craft that was fashion at the time. To honor his proposal, I decided to buy “Indian feathers” with terrible colors, low-quality feathers that I found at an arts and crafts’ retailer. I tried a few things, I decided not to focus on the colors because they were rather harsh, but I focused on the technical side. And that’s when I started combining materials!
I combined the feathers with metal and other materials. Before joining Maison Lemarié, it was already obvious to me that feathers were meant to be combined with other materials. I had this in me from the very beginning because I love weaving, knitting, and sewing. And as I had no technical skills in feathercraft at the time, I decided to weave, knit and sew… in one word, combine!
When I presented my work to Mr. Lemarié, he found it interesting and suggested that I come work for him for a few months, to look at the archives, update them, create new effects, new samples … He was looking for a fresh look and new ideas.
Back then, I was working on a regular basis for Maison Hermès’ men collection with Véronique Nichanian and I decided to go and work for Maison Lemarié for a few months, thinking I would go back to Hermès afterwards. After three months, Mr Lemarié offered me to stay for one year, then two years, and it ended up lasting more than ten years…
I did not realize at the time that it would be one of the greatest gifts of my life: working alongside one of the last people representing this exceptional craft. I learned the meaning of a trade of art, a trade of excellence. I had already caught a glimpse of that at Hermès but it was more about leather.
I also learned about the four musketeers: Mr Massaro, Mr Lesage, Mr Pierre Debard from Maison Michel and Mr Lemarié. They became my “dads”. They guided me, trained me. I was with Mr. Lemarié every day, but the other three were like very kind godparents who always welcomed me with great kindness, guiding me in all my projects.
That’s what made this amazingly educated fashion world so magical. Even though we were competitors, we were above all colleagues and collaborators with manners. We could even become allies in the face of adversity.
Things are much more complex today. We are currently in a state of frenzied individualism with an unprecedented level of self-awareness. Self-image, self-centeredness, show-business society, pretentiousness… People know that they are not very skilled, they know that they just have a few ideas, but they’re good at communication and smoke and mirrors, so they go for it anyway. And the worst part is that it might work better for them than for someone who is actually skilled!
This is not what I was taught, I was very lucky to get an amazingly thorough, complete and deeply human training as I had the privilege to learn from the best Parisian fashion players. It took some time before I understood how important this legacy was.
Because it was my life, I would never go by rue Royale without visiting Mr Massaro. Having a laugh with François Lesage on the Grands Boulevards, finding open doors at renowned fashion houses thanks to those four musketeers… I didn’t realize how lucky I was.
I met Gianfranco Ferré, Mr. Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Fashion houses almost operated like families. We knew the creator but also the workshop manager, the women and men who were part of the creators’ daily lives and who made sure everything ran smoothly, inside and outside the house, including in their relationships with the suppliers and collaborators. And we did everything to make our relations as smooth as possible on every level. Every season, it only felt natural for each house to receive all the fashion artisans and choose those they would feature in their show.
Today at best they have specific requests. Sometimes, they are a bit more open and ask us to provide a few ideas, but that’s only when they have already decided to use feathers, flowers, fur, etc. If it’s not on their agenda, they don’t even want to see what you created this season. Before, they would have asked to see. Above all, the houses tried to provide a bit of work to everyone every season. Because each house was aware that they were part of an ecosystem that needed protecting; we did not just use people. So that’s how it all started, under royal and bright auspices.
I am a rather happy person, but all those characters got it into my head that all this was a great and amazingly beautiful party. I was lucky to spend years working with great fashion talents, developing my ideas, getting guidance. We managed to anchor Maison Lemarié and feathers in modernity, they did not get outdated, we managed to adapt to new names like Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano…
After a few years, I asked Mr Lemarié if we could get out of this Parisian Haute Couture world, which was dear to our hearts, to work with the Italians like Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Roberto Cavalli and explore the American market.
Mr Lemarié had been to the United States 30 years earlier. I discovered a brand new land compared to the one he had described to me. I tried to understand which fashion houses would work with us. I literally went door to door with my samples. I crisscrossed New York, North to South and East to West. That’s how I met Diane von Fürstenberg, Vera Wang, Herve Pierre, Ralph Rucci, Pamela Golbin, Donna Karan… It was such a special era!
I quickly understood that they were all very enthusiastic about our work. In the early 2000s, the New York fashion scene was not yet what it is today. It was surprisingly accessible, while things in Paris were more formal. Paris was really a luxury fashion scene at the time.
Everyone loved our work, but they didn’t really know what to do with it! I had to guide them, show them how to use everything we had to offer. We tailored our work to the New York market, using techniques that allowed me to sell our work; I managed to go beyond the artistic, aesthetic and technical development. We created pieces sold by the meter, pieces of clothes, we were using our samples at best. And indeed, when I came back, the impact had been very positive and that’s how we got started. From then on, I would go to New York every season to present our work.
Following the departure of Mr Lemarié, Maison Chanel took over Maison Lemarié and with them came change. They had already bought other art houses with whom I worked. I witnessed the switch from a family business to a company with a full corporate system.
As I had the opportunity to compare the two systems, I realized that this was not the path I wanted to go down. I wanted to find something closer to what I knew with Mr. Lemarié. That’s how I decided to work for myself. I was also getting tired of working with feathers, so I wanted to do something else.
Several houses kept asking me to work with them, and I eventually agreed. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t tired of working with feathers, I was just tired of the way we worked. I had lost my way. I had to find myself again to design my own company model.
I decided to modernize a few things that were important to me, things that I had learned from Mr Lemarié, from my parents, from my friends, from the creators I enjoyed working with so much and who shared values and principles that were similar to mine. I wanted something small and deeply emotional, i.e. the exact opposite of what people learn in our line of work today. That’s how I started my own business. My life is all about beginnings. I created my workshop 7 years ago.
What’s your take on today’s fashion context?
Today, fashion has become an industry. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the “new soldiers”, the small fashion houses that are starting to arise, and I’m happy to see this! Some of them say that we should create a different type of fashion, that we should do things another way. And they’re not necessarily talking about the shape of clothes, they’re talking about our processes, the way we do things. Many people are starting to think about all this, they’re bringing some meaning back into what they are presenting, in their actions in fashion; they’re not just using their skills, they’re also turning fashion into a message, an ethical point, a line of thought and a way of sharing.
These words are important because in the past they were obvious, they were at the core of fashion 30 years ago, and it’s not the case anymore. This new consciousness is a good thing, we’re starting to deconstruct this focus on image and excess effects due to an ever-stronger race for more wealth, but it’s even more interesting to wonder why we’re doing this… Are we sharing things ? Are we doing it with the right people ? Are we creating balance, happiness ?
Those questions have become crucial today. Some people understood that they could just play with image-related mechanisms and they wouldn’t need to provide high-quality work or to be very good at what they do to get by. Nowadays, we’re so eager for abundance that we’re giving space to low-quality things, as long as they’re drummed into our heads, it seems to be enough to give importance to something.
That’s not where we should be at! We’re clever enough as a species to do better! That’s why many small groups are coming together to think differently about fashion, and it’s a good thing. I am a humanist. I believe in mankind. As long as there are beautiful souls, there is hope. Sometimes, the strength of one individual can turn over thousands of others and open their eyes to way greater things. In any case when you have this perception, you need to act. One of the first precepts of Hinduism is not to dwell in inertia but always take action.
It is important for me to approach fashion with a rather personal position and not to make it only my workspace. It implies being vigilant about the way we do things, the people we surround ourselves with, and the way we keep all this alive. Having a choice means you can always open new doors.
It also means reconnecting with your emotional side and letting it guide you. Yes, you will make mistakes, but I am a strong believer in the right to make mistakes, especially at work, we need to make amends with the idea that we can get it wrong; we are different personalities working with one another, we’re not just empty shells in which we put interchangeable chips or profiles. Enough of this…
You took part in the exhibition “AD matière d’art 2018”, does it mean decoration is a field that you feel attracted to?
We do have a will to integrate the crafts of the art of decoration, as I have ventured in this field several times, but to be fair we were like fashion defectors who would only step next door once in a while. After the work we created for Tristan Auer at Hotel le Crillon, I felt like it was important to position ourselves and officially present ourselves in the world of decoration.
We presented a material library and a “great artistic gesture”; a 7 per 4.5 feet panel. It allowed us to spend 10 days meeting the major players in the field of decoration. It was such a positive experience to meet our fellow craftsmen and talk about potential collaborations, to carry on feeding our own materials, our own worlds, to make them grow, and meeting the audience was a beautiful experience.
The legacy I got from Monsieur Lemarié must keep on living through quality, educational communication filled with guidance, and that’s a role we must fulfill. Decoration is a field that I really enjoy. First because it’s new and it sparks my curiosity. What I know for sure is that we do have a will to be as serious about decoration as we’ve been about fashion for all these years.
I feel that decoration offers a greater opportunity to convey our values, our ethics, to preserve and grow our skills, to stay mindful in preserving our knowledge. The field of decoration opens new perspectives that seem wider than fashion’s, with demands and needs that are going in this direction, and a pleasure of sharing knowledge.
Players in the field of decoration seem to have this taste for reference, they respect what has been done so far and they are aware, even within their own uniqueness, that they are building on something that existed and that was done before. We are just reorganizing, rethinking, redistributing, and that’s where novelty lies. I really enjoy their humility and their level of culture. It is reassuring, because it makes you realize that you need to be nurtured, you can’t grow on your own.
We are all some sort of musketeer at some point when we’re in this situation. Maybe there is an urgent need to slow down.