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The Creative Class | Nicolas Ouchenir, Calligrapher

Nicolas Ouchenir set up his calligraphy practise eleven years ago in a former Parisian butchery. Today, the charming man of letters creates some of the most coveted invitations in the world for leading fashion and luxury brands.
Nicolas Ouchenir | Photo: Noel Manalili
By
  • Suleman Anaya

PARIS, France — How many invitations does Anna Wintour receive each day? Guesses are welcome, but it's safe to assume that we are talking about a high, double-digit figure — a number that single-handedly explains Nicolas Ouchenir's job.

Ouchenir is the go-to calligrapher for a list of clients that reads like a who's who of the fashion industry: Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Christian Dior, Gucci, Miu Miu, Chloé and Cartier are among the brands that regularly commission Ouchenir to create invitations, logotypes, original signatures and other customised designs that involve beautiful letters.

You have to be in touch with who you are and what moves you — what makes you angry, sad or happy —  in order to create work that stands out.

Etymologically, calligraphy is derived from the Greek words for ‘beauty’ and ‘writing.’ In one of its most exalted forms, the discipline flourished as an autonomous art in the Islamic world between the 13th and 18th centuries. But anyone who assumes that its courtly pedigree means the profession is antiquated or obsolete would be gravely mistaken.

In fact, Ouchenir’s services are in such high demand that he regularly turns would-be clients down. The reason he is so sought-after? That pile of invitations on Anna Wintour’s desk.

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Ouchenir is tasked not just with writing invitations but with writing them in a way that will make them stand out from the crop and nudge some of the busiest people in the industry to take time from their over-scheduled calendars to attend an opening, show or dinner. His job is not just to relay the important information for the event — venue, time and requested attire — but to make the invited party feel personally and instinctively moved to attend.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the ancient art of artistic handwriting a thoroughly modern form of communication. When everyone has access to software that can produce hundreds of sleek, perfectly identical mailings in mere seconds, in order to appear exclusive, brands must turn elsewhere: to the hand-made imperfection of a personalised, hand-written note or text.

Miss Wintour's mailbox isn't incidental to this story: the day BoF visits Ouchenir in his studio — a large space replete with boxes full of ink bottles —  there are several invitations with the iconic Vogue editor's name on them, written in black ink in a grand cursive script on pristine, thick white stock, sharing desk space with Ouchenir's tools: French, German and Japanese calligraphy pens; brushes; and, particularly prized, a Qualam, a traditional pen made out of dried reed, from India.

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Nicolas Ouchenir's calligraphy tools | Photo: Abdelwaheb Didi

It was a rush job he was asked to do for a Balenciaga fragrance launch in New York , agreed to on the condition that he could deliver something “huge and beautiful.” Even though they look perfectly executed to the untrained eye, Ouchenir reveals that the Wintour invites before us are, in fact, the stationery equivalents of bloopers, trials discarded because he made a mistake or simply wasn’t a hundred percent satisfied.

Ouchenir has to be satisfied, even if it takes dozens or hundreds of takes. For this reason, he spends up to 11 hours a day penning invitations and letters. Just physically, this is a feat for his wrist, eyes and attention span. Yet, there is a lightness to his person, as well as a charming gregariousness, that belies the intensity and solitary nature of his work. In person, the 36-year-old is almost effervescent, the proverbial life of the party, one would think. But it wasn’t always this way.

In fact, Ouchenir used to be deeply shy. "I was alone, a very timid child." Ouchenir grew up in the bustling Paris district of Belleville, a working-class melting pot of ethnicities, flavours and life philosophies. The son of an Algerian locksmith and a French mother, his neighbours were as much of an influence on the future calligrapher as his formal education: "I grew up between a Rabbi and an Imam. And I went to a [private] Catholic school. So early on I was in touch with the three monotheist religions."

How did this exposure to the world's great faiths mark him? In purely aesthetic terms, he says. "Not because of the beliefs. It was more related to the soul and the books. Before I could even understand the content of these books, I was attracted to their high aestheticism and to the rhythm of the words." Ouchenir didn't care so much what the Torah or the Holy Quran said, but how they said it. Similarly, at his paediatrician, it was the smell of the ink that sent the young Ouchenir dreaming. “It was the smell of old books, and even though I didn’t know why, it was a world that was calling me."

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Ironically, in books, the timid boy found a way of belonging. "I was afraid of playing football with the other kids. I had to build my own world to represent myself. Books and letters did that for me." Even though Ouchenir first found expression in writing around the age of six, he went on to study economics, which he found fascinating in theory but less compelling when applied in the real world.

A series of gallery jobs led to his discovery and acceptance of his vocation as a calligrapher. Namely, it was when Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, the gallery owner (and son of former French president François Mitterrand), put his assistant in charge of the opening dinner for an exhibition, around 2001, that Ouchenir turned to his hidden talent for help.

"[Yves] Saint Laurent was a guest, among other very important people from France's art and culture elite. I was afraid, worried. I decided to write. It was the first time in my life that I used handwriting to communicate, except for when I had exchanged letters with lovers."

The experience taught Ouchenir that a handwritten note could set the stage for an event and make its ephemerality memorable, and that an individualised gesture could help make an occasion special and entice people to want to come. The approximately 100 invitations he made for the occasion were a success, as he later found out that many guests had kept their copy.

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Invitation to Singapore Haute Couture Week by Nicolas Ouchenir | Photo: Noel Manalili

Ouchenir had discovered his dream occupation. “I realised it came natural. To me, it wasn't work; it was easy.” Yet it wasn’t until after returning from an eye-opening trip to Brazil in 2002, triggered by the loss of a close friend, that Ouchenir dedicated himself fully to the art of writing and made a business out of it. “Leaving Paris and losing myself a little bit in Brazil was ultra-important for me. It is there that I learnt the importance of touching things — all my senses were developed.”

Ouchenir had been in Brazil for 8 months when the well-known publicist Pia de Brantes, who knew Ouchenir from his years in the gallery world, called him urging him to come back to Paris. "You have to come back and develop this talent you have," she said. As Ouchenir tells it, he packed his bags and returned to Paris that same day. This was 11 years ago and the beginning of his career as Paris’ premier calligrapher. He still shares an office with de Brantes.

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Ouchenir's first client was the Chateau de Versailles, Louis XIV's supersized palace outside of Paris, today used for lavish private and state functions. From there, things snowballed.

Ouchenir affirms that creativity is a two-step process. “First you’re looking for an idea, but then when you have it, it’s not enough to have the idea of the writing you want to create. Then you have to know how to put it out. And to know how to do that only comes with practise. You have to train yourself. it’s only through practise that you’re able to get the result you are looking for. That is why as a calligrapher, you have to train everyday, similar to a dancer or athlete.”

Specifically, Ouchenir tends to start with one letter. One letter in the name of a brand or person will catch his attention and set his imagination flowing. The rest — sometimes an entire original alphabet — is built around that initial spark.

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Variations on 'liberté' by Nicolas Ouchenir | Photo: Noel Manalili

Ouchenir illustrates his creative process describing how he arrived at an invitation for Ulyana Sergeenko. "When I work for Ulyana Sergeenko, it has to be like poetry. I see her as a novelist; she loves princesses. And in fairy tales you have all these exaggerated representations of characters. But at the same time it's really thin, it's didactic, it's how to 'teach' this beautiful haute couture dress, the fabric, the romance of it. How to convey that in an invitation. So, one season I made what looks like an old envelope, with a special stamp and all. She loves this kind of thing, she loves the little intentions."

When describing how he reads a brand and reinterprets its essence (he insists he never just copies or reproduces it literally), sometimes Ouchenir seems to be speaking in riddles. To capture the writing he has to come up with for Prada each season, Ouchenir makes a sound that can best be described as that of an ultra-high-speed train zooming past, three times, adding: “It’s already old — not vintage — but with a huge patrimony. A certain futurism that is linked to the old. No temporality. It needs to be a wholly new writing, but new forever.” About the signature font Ouchenir created for Louis Vuitton’s Writing Universe, of which he is an ambassador, he says “It’s so classic, it becomes uuultra-modern.”

For every project, he likes to immerse himself completely in the world of his client, and Ouchenir's research is nothing if not dedicated. As the 'calligrapher of champagne' (he creates labels and other elements that involve writing for several sparkling wine houses), for instance, Ouchenir travelled down to the region of Champagne and met every chef de cave. "It's really important for me to feel, taste and know the colour of the product first-hand," he says.

On getting to where he is, Ouchenir readily admits it hasn’t always been without challenges, particularly in the beginning. “It was very difficult,” he says about establishing his business and retaining his independence, adding, “It’s hard to have the humility to say no,” regarding the jobs he has had to turn down because of the strings that were attached to them. “If you aren't a little bit in your own way, you say yes to every offer, which isn’t such a good thing."

Speaking to Ouchenir, it is clear that honouring the tradition of his profession and enjoying what he does is as important to him as growing his client list. "Traditionally, a calligrapher is a public writer. I need to respect that, because there is something special about this term, so if I want to use it I have to be mindful of what it means, of the lineage I am upholding and the codes attached to it."

For this reason, Ouchenir likes to showcase his art at events and has held calligraphy ateliers for Hermès and Louis Vuitton, where customers can ask Ouchenir to write their letters. The unique, traditional status of a calligrapher also informs Ouchenir's decision to remain a free agent and agree only to non-exclusivity contracts. "A calligrapher needs to be free," he says, unequivocally.

Ouchenir insists that even though he works for so many luxury names, some with overlapping products and similar DNAs, they all have their own distinct signature, which he intuits and keeps apart in his head, as well as in an immaculately organised back-room cabinet where he catalogues and regularly consults samples. During Paris fashion week alone, Ouchenir estimates he creates 20,000 invitations, each handwritten, for approximately 60 clients.

The strangest invitation he has ever created? "For a Russian oligarch I had to make an invitation using only real blood for ink." The coolest? One printed on a thin iron plate, for Paco Rabanne. Capturing Rick Owens' idiosyncratic aesthetic requires a certain consistency season after season, and an invitation he created for the designer, a longtime client, is among Ouchenir's favourite all-time commissions, even though it presented a particular technical challenge to engrave the writing he envisioned on black leather.

And what is it like to work with some of the most talented and well-known designers in the world? "In my first meeting with Madame Prada, around ten years ago, she saw what I came up with, loved it, and said 'Ok, these are going to be my letters, this is going to be the calligraphy we use.' It's similar with Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière," says Ouchenir, referring to designers who decide on a signature type of writing once and then use it for many seasons. "But then someone like Alber Elbaz wants something different every time." Luckily, Ouchenir knows how to satisfy both types of clients.

“You have to be in touch with who you are and what moves you — what makes you angry, sad or happy —  in order to create work that stands out. It’s not the results that count, but how you get there. Cherish the journey.”

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