Perhaps you thought Marc Jacobs possessed exceptional penmanship, signing off those darling little thank-you notes with finesse. Or that Parisian PR agents just had the best handwriting you have ever seen. More often than not you'd be mistaken, with the credit due instead to Nicolas Ouchenir, Paris' premier calligrapher and the pen behind many of the leading French fashion houses. In an industry where luxurious personalization has become a paramount tool for brands, Ouchenir's rare craft is highly prized—and after nearly a decade in business, the 34-year-old counts everyone from Chloé to Lancôme, Givenchy, and Miu Miu as regular clients. Working alone from his atelier on the famous Rue St. Honoré, Ouchenir is known to churn out nearly 1,000 invitations daily in the heady lead-up to Paris Fashion Week, or on a quieter day to brainstorm grandiose typefaces and logos for the Louvre's special projects or the latest Dom Pérignon vintage label.
Calligraphy seems to have come naturally to Ouchenir, who has no formal training. "I always loved the 1940s, and the period of Art Nouveau," he says. "From an early age, I have always admired my father's handwriting, and later Christian Lacroix's." It wasn't until a stint working at JGM. Galerie (where he amused himself replicating artists' signatures, from Andy Warhol to Niki de Saint Phalle) that his talents were discovered and nurtured by Parisian PR maven Pia de Brantes. Installed in her office and charged with penning invites for Brantes' lavish receptions and dinners, it didn't take long for Ouchenir to fly the coop and establish his own business, groaning under the pressure of commissions that continued to flood in from all over Paris.
From writing invitations and press releases to creating logos and business cards, a calligrapher's work is never-ending, explains Ouchenir. "Every project is different—whether it is to create a document in a house's heritage or to match the season's print, or perhaps the theme for a special event."
In order to feed a diverse range of scripts and styles, his every waking moment is a search for inspiration. "I look to the naivety of children's handwriting, the beautiful mistakes that always produce something new," says Ouchenir. As tools of the trade, Montblanc fountain pens and J. Herbin inks are his favourites, as well as the traditional Egyptian "calame" pen in bamboo. He counts the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris' 4th district as a goldmine of graphic and fine arts from the 18th century until the present day. "Otherwise, I am constantly searching for inspirations from the street, on the internet. I have a million pictures."
Evidently, there is never a dull moment in the trade, nor limit to his clients' weird and wonderful requests. Ouchenir recalls a dinner for Lancôme in Cape Ferrat this month—he needed cotton gloves to handle high-gloss mirrored invites paired with Perspex place cards and dove-gray ink: "It was impossible to dry!" Other commissions inspire more lyrical anecdotes, such as a thank-you note delivered with a gift for Michael Fassbender at the Hotel Bristol, and an invitation to Grace Jones for a wedding in Bordeaux. His most unusual requests? "Definitely gravestones. Or anything for the Russians. And love letters—hyper-sexy love letters."