From the traditional craft of feather work to Madonna‘s Superbowl outfit- the term „accessory designer“ is too narrow to describe Erik Halley‘s profession. The Parisian designs „anything crazy that people would like to wear on their face“ as he puts it. Before the Second World War feather works were highly popular beyond the French borders. Women of that time used the delicate designs to hide any imperfections of their hair. Feather makers like the Maison Février were busy supplying the local Haute Couture brands as well as the infamous cabaret shows at Moulin Rouge or Lido.
Erik began designing his first feather necklace during his internship at a PR agency. Quickly his creations started to spread all around the fashion circuit. Naomi Campbell wore one of his pieces on the cover of French Elle, which kick-started the career of this charming French man who nowadays leads a not-so-secret second life as a DJ.
Maybe you could start by introducing yourself for the people who don’t know you…
I’m Erik Halley, I’m an accessory designer in a very large way. I’m not only doing bags and jewellery, I’m also doing pieces for performances and anything crazy that people would like to wear on their face or anywhere else (laughs). It’s always unusual – my work as well as the requests. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now.
Let’s start at the beginnings, how did you end up doing what you are doing today?
Well I went to a fashion school and after that I worked at a trend office for some time. During this time, I designed some sports clothing collections for different companies in Europe and Japan too. At one point I just started doing little things with feathers and I came up with my first feather necklace. Within a few months I made a few more pieces and started selling them in shops. As I was an intern at a press office at that time I showed them what I was doing and they said, “Oh yeah, well leave your creations here and we’ll see if we can do something with it”. Four months later I got on the cover of French Elle with Naomi Campbell.
That was in 1994 and that’s how it all really started. I made a little collection after that and I started to sell it. I got a call to go to London to meet some people and for a few jobs. Within a day I was hired to work with Berardi, McQueen, Chalayan and Julien McDonald. I also met one of the fashion directors of British Vogue, who liked my work and used it for editorials. As you can see it all happened really, really fast.
Wow, it seems like it! What did you do before all that, what’s your family background?
I am French, I was born in Normandy but my name is British. Actually the man who discovered the Halley’s Comet is my great uncle, one of the most talented scientists of his time.
At a very young age I moved to South of France and I grew up at the French Riviera. After some time my parents decided to move back to Normandy. After finishing my high school there – I eventually moved to Paris to go to a fashion school.
Growing up in the countryside, what made you realise that you have a special talent?
I don’t know, I guess it has always been a part of me. I’ve always seen the world in my own way; I usually have a different point of view than most people. I constantly try to change the way things are in my mind and make them more playful, positive, happy, mad or even crazy.
What inspires you?
Looking back I realize that I was inspired a lot by Pop and Rock’n’Roll. I was born in the 70’s and I grew up in the 80’s with Bowie, Cindy Lauper and Madonna. Those were my first influences.
When I moved to Paris I discovered art, I particularly love surrealism; it’s one of my biggest inspirations. I love how artists like Dali or Schiaparelli just seem to twist the world with their own eyes.
Music obviously plays a big part in your life. You’re a DJ as well.
Yes, I’ve been DJing at Club Sandwich for 6 years which is a monthly party in Paris. We started this party because we were bored with what was happening in Paris nightclubs. In the beginning I did a set for a very good friend of mine, DJing in a small club with maybe up to150 people attending. It quite quickly became successful, so we ended up partying in bigger spaces like theatres or the Espace Pierre Cardin where between 1500 and 2000 people would come.
I stopped DJing there now because I recently had a lot of work especially for Paco Rabanne with Manish Arora, who has just been nominated the artistic director. He called me to do all the clothing chains, like Paco Rabanne used to do. I’m basically making pieces of clothing out of metal parts and chains. It’s a lot of work, it’s not just cutting fabric and sewing it together – it is much more about architecture and volume. The chains need to stay supple; it’s a matter of many different ring sizes so that the pieces perfectly fit the mannequin.
How did you find the atelier that you’re currently working in?
I used to live in a huge 200 sqm apartment with two friends of mine. I had my atelier on one side of the apartment and we were sharing the rest of the space. When everyone started changing directions in their professional lives, we knew we couldn’t live together anymore. A friend of mine informed me his accountant is taking care of these two apartments that are next to each other, so I took both of them. By doing so, I was sure to separate my work and my personal life from each other.
It was a nice coincidence because this street in particular was full of feather makers before the Second World War. Before the war, there were about 120 000 workers in the feather business. It was a big thing at the time, since Paris was making the hats for the rest of the world.
There are not many feather makers left today, are there?
Now there are very few feather makers left, because it takes a lot of time to work on feathers. Before the Second World War, when there was no social security or salary system, people were just paid monthly or weekly. So you would get a lot of people to work for you to make the proper piece in the time you wanted to, which made things much easier.
After the war the Americans created hair salons, which didn’t really exist before. Before that women were doing their own hair and they used feather pieces or hats to hide any imperfections. After that the feather making business declined just as quickly as hair salons started to spread.
How did you learn feather making since there are not so many people working in that business today?
There used to be a school to learn feather work, I don’t know if it still exists but I mostly learned it by myself. I went to different feather places that were still open at the time, they showed me some tricks and then I worked alone, always keeping in mind what they had taught me. I happened to learn very quickly because I was really into it. The feather makers were somewhat surprised that someone was interested in their work so they were really nice to me. The Maison Février, who used to do feathers for Haute-Couture and for cabarets like the Lido or the Moulin Rouge closed a few years ago. Unfortunately no one wanted to take over the business and the women working there were retiring. There are still the Maison Lemarié that is owned by Chanel now and Legeron who are working with feathers. That’s about it; there are only three of us left.
You did the first ever runway show for accessories in Paris.
Yes the first and the only one! I wanted to do this show just to show my work and to push the boundaries of accessories. At that time accessories were not that big. Now it’s everywhere of course, almost every brand has a bag and jewellery collection. It also was one of my fantasies to have my own fashion show when I was a student. So I used it as an experimental territory to try out different things and also for promotion. However it does cost a lot of money to produce a show and I wasn’t really showing a collection to sell, for me it was more of an art piece than a real fashion show.
Would you like to do more shows like this one in the future?
I would like to do another show but in a more artistic way. Of course I’m also working on a bag collection and on a commercial collection of jewellery. Yet if you want to move on you have to create and think differently. All those masks I make are more pieces of art than anything else. I only create them once, I never repeat anything. When someone says “I want something like that”, it will never be the same; I don’t want to do the same thing twice. I’m working on an exhibition right now because I have gotten some requests. I don’t know how to describe it though, it is fashion but not fashion, it’s art but it’s not art. It will be something in between.
What is your favourite piece?
You know, when you’re working on a piece you are really into it for a while, then you just can’t see it anymore and usually after a while you start liking it again (laughs).
Many of my works are based on animals like rabbits, rhinos and spiders. My logo and favourite animal is the lobster, the symbol of surrealism, which also became my trademark. I use real lobsters and cover them with rhinestones. Another variation is the one entirely made out of crystal. The guy who shaped it for me also designed the Thierry Mugler Angel perfume bottle. I made it for my first fashion show and it has followed me ever since. I would like to make a new one but it takes a lot of time to make it.
Where do you find all the materials you work with?
Mainly antique markets and of course all the Parisian suppliers that have existed for decades, almost for a century for some. In 15 years I have collected a lot of things. One of my suppliers has about 35,000 references, so you can say I have a lot of options. I collect feathers and sometimes people call me to sell me their old stock.
Everywhere I go I try to find things. I travel a lot, so when I go to New York or Beirut I look for new suppliers. I also bring back a lot of things when I travel to countries like Brazil or South Africa.
Let’s talk about Paris. What do you love about this city and what makes you stay here?
First of all I have all these suppliers here and you need to build up trust to work together, it takes time. I’m also deeply French about the food and the quality of life. I love living in Paris. It is just incredible, I’m still discovering places I’ve never been to and I’ve lived here for 20 years!
Since you like good food so much, would you mind telling us about some places you like in Paris?
What is important to me is not only the quality of the food but also the quality of the people. I go to Les Vitelloni for Italian Food, to Café de Paris at Rive Gauche for delicious French Food and for Japanese food I go to Yamamoto, whose owner always puts surprising creations on the table that are not on the menu. Some of the new places I like are, Nanashi for Bento’s and Bob’s Juice Bar for their perfect smoothies and delicious muffins. There are many more great places I like to go to, but I don’t want to give all of them away, I prefer to keep some spots for myself (laughs).
Thanks a lot for this nice interview, Erik!
Interview: Mascha Kaessner
Text: Sarah Weinknecht
Photos: Ailine Liefeld