Nicolas Ouchenir comes often enough to Les Fines Gueules, a cozy neo-bistro stationed near the Banque de France, that the servers notice when he’s been too overloaded with fashion week to take lunch. As the industry’s go-to calligrapher, he handwrites hundreds upon hundreds of invitations every season, each with a distinctive flair. For Giambattista Valli, his script dances like a modern baroque; for Hermès, it turns geometric yet refined.
With the spring 2015 runway season now behind him, the affable 36-year-old has already received traditional Chinese cupping treatment to relieve his sore neck and back. (Imagine telling your practitioner the repetitive strain was caused by writing “Anna Wintour” too many times!) Once we’ve ordered—a crab and avocado appetizer to share, followed by osso buco for him, tuna tartare for me—I excuse myself to wash my hands, when he shows me his: they’re covered with ink smudges. For the past eight years, Ouchenir—who also enhances love letters, designs names for yachts and crafts entire alphabets and “visual identities” for brands, like Moët et Chandon—has had them insured.
He grew up with a pen in his hand. “My mother has photos of me from when I was a child; I was always writing,” he recalls, also mentioning ancient religious texts as an early aesthetic inspiration. In his face, I see Old World distinction with a mischievous streak, a cross between a Dutch portrait and a Guy Fawkes mask.
Nearly 13 years have passed since Ouchenir, who grew up in Paris, traded his economics degree for a future in calligraphy; his career officially began when publicist Pia de Brantes sought him out to help with materials for the American Friends of Versailles gala.
Midway through lunch, I realize that Ouchenir’s skill for breathing life into lettering emanates from his core; he expresses enthusiasm through gesture and enthralls with eye contact. His laugh is especially round. “The idea is not just to look for something pleasing,” he says of his craft, “but to seek how best to convey the lines and rhythms that exist inside you.”
Once we’ve ordered a molten chocolate dessert, I mention that I read an article in which he said people are more inclined to come to a party when their names have been handwritten. He offers a threefold explanation: “First, people are flattered, especially in an age when we mainly receive bills in the mail.” Next, there is the “desired” socio-psychological aspect, as if “they exist and are part of a community.” Lastly, he says, “They are reminded of the hand of a calligrapher. And especially, people now recognize my handwriting. ‘Oh, Nicolas invited me,’ they say. ‘I have to go.’”