Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wondrous World of Nelly Saunier: Gaultier’s Plumassière Extraordinaire

Nelly Saunier’s first piece for Jean Paul Gaultier was a parakeet bolero that debuted at the designer’s first couture collection during the Spring 1997 season.

In January 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier made his somewhat unconventional entry into the world of Haute Couture. Amongst his most memorable offerings for Spring ’97, was a striking parakeet bolero of multi-hued plumage. The aforementioned creation was the handiwork of master plumassière Nelly Saunier, who has collaborated with the designer on each one of his couture collections.

It takes a special kind of artisan to work with Gaultier, who is known for demanding the impossible (and improbable) from the heads of his ateliers (many of whom come to him with decades of experience at Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent and Givenchy). For although Gaultier may have an appreciation for the finer points of couture workmanship, his interest lies in taking it to another level; one that often borders on the absurd.

In Nelly Saunier, Gaultier found a worthy accomplice. Over the years she has created trompe-l'œil effects that mimic animal furs, argyle prints and even the texture of a wooly sweater. It is only upon close inspection that one realizes they are made entirely of feathers. More than anyone, Saunier “gets” Gaultier’s desire to turn fashion convention on its head, by reinterpreting traditional notions of dress in unexpected ways. Thus a bulky sweater can appear as light as a feather (and be worn to the opera no less).

“The only draw back to working in fashion, is that everything moves at a fast pace. My work with feathers is a very slow process,” explained Saunier at her light-filled studio/home in Paris’ 14th Arrondissement.

Trish Goff in an iconic feathered piece by Saunier for Gaultier’s Fall 1998 collection; Gaultier with model Crystelle at his Fall 1998 couture presentation; Model in Saunier’s parakeet bolero for Gaultier, Spring 1997; Nadja Auermann in a feather coat by Saunier for Gaultier’s Fall 1998 collection; Nelly Saunier in her studio; A pair of custom shoes by Saunier.
“It takes time to find the right kind of feathers to complete a piece. When I select plumes, I’m not only looking at color and texture, but also where it came from on the bird,” she continued. “My dream would be to have my own ostrich farm right outside my front door, so I can pick exactly which feather I want from a bird.”

Saunier’s passion for feathers began at age 14 when she realized she wanted to spend her life working with her hands. Not long after, she enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués et des Métiers d’Art, (a school for the applied arts in Paris) followed by three years apprenticing in an atelier.

Yet despite her decades of experience, Saunier readily admits that she is still learning and growing with each new challenge thrown her way by Gaultier. “My job is to bring a designer’s dream to life with the use of centuries-old techniques,” said Saunier.

Much of that knowledge is shared with students at Octave Feuillet, where she has taught for the last couple of years. Unlike many couture workshops scattered throughout Paris, Nelly isn’t shy about sharing trade secrets if it means keeping the craft of feather making alive. In her studio, she shows an apprentice how to carefully steam feathers individually, in order to restore their texture and color. “I can usually tell in the first few hours if a student has the hand and talent to do this kind of work. It requires a lot of patience,” explained Saunier, whose bolero for Gaultier in 1997, took over 1000 hours of handwork to complete.

Nelly Saunier’s thigh-high pheasant boots for Gaultier’s Fall 2004 collection; A pink flamingo dinner jacket at Gaultier’s Spring 2002 show.
At the turn of the last century, Paris was the center of the luxury feather trade, with some 800 workshops devoted to the craft. Ships would regularly dock at Marseille to unload exotic specimens from South America, Africa and China that would eventually make their way to the French capital’s fabled couture workshops. Today Maison Lemarié and Maison Février are two of the few remaining feather workshops in Paris. Most no longer trade in the plumage of extinct or endangered species. Instead much of their stock comes from farm-raised birds in South Africa and America. Despite this, Saunier is always on the look out for a rare specimen belonging to an egret or bird of paradise, which she meticulously labels and stores between the pages of a special notebook.

In addition to her work with couture houses, jewelers and interior designer, Saunier is also sought out by private clients, who commission custom pieces such as unusual wedding bouquets and shoes entirely covered in feathers.

More recently Nelly has been pushing her craft in new directions. “I’m interested in broadening people’s perception of the craft, by using feathers to create sculptural objects that border on art,” explained Saunier, who is currently looking for a gallery to display her latest creations.

Saunier’s orange-plumed evening coat for Gautier Paris, Fall 2008; Gaultier’s house model Julia Schonberg in an iconic look from the designer’s Spring 1999 collection.
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