Serkan Cura was first tickled by the possibility of feathers when he was just 13.
“I found a bird of paradise feather in a street market in Brussels,” he told AFP. “It was love at first sight.”
The thrill has never quite left him.
“I made my first wedding dress that year out of feathers and plastic,” he recalled.
Two decades later Cura is one of the world’s top plumassiers — a leading exponent of an art that goes back to before Cleopatra, who loved to make dramatic entrances from behind fantails of ostrich feathers.
His creations have been worn by stars from Madonna and Karlie Kloss to Heidi Klum and the burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who he says has “the most perfect, beautiful, graceful body I have ever seen”.
In fact, Serkan was so taken with her that he had a tailor’s dummy made with her “dimensions” for his workshop.
Having cut his teeth working with the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who tried to poach him from Antwerp’s famed Royal Academy of Fine Arts — “I stayed on and finished my diploma and then joined him” — he also spent a decade learning corset making at the feet of the legendary Mr Pearl.
– ‘Showstopping’ –
Now 35, Cura finds himself invited to show his creations on the elite Paris haute couture catwalk, with his apprentices snapped up by leading houses like Chanel.
His showstopping numbers have also featured in US lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret spectacular annual $20 million show.
Some of his creations go for six-figure sums, he says, while others — including one dress made entirely from bird of paradise feathers — are destined for museum collections.
“I would not sell it for three million euros ($3.3 million),” he told AFP.
“It will still look amazing long after I am gone.”
“Feathers are hugely strong,” he explained, crushing a delicate piece of feathered lace in his hand before opening his fist again.
“Look,” Cura said. “Perfect! What other material can take that kind of abuse and still look so delicate and glamorous?”
Many of the rare plumes he works with date from the 19th century, and come from the collection of a historic Parisian plumassier whose stock he bought when it was taken over by the Moulin Rouge.
– Rare plumes –
“You could never get them now, mercifully for the poor birds. Now all those feathers have to have authentication papers,” he said.
To get the feathers he needs, Cura, who describes himself as “Belgian by birth but made in Turkey”, has a farm in the south of France where he breeds partridges, pheasants and other birds.
Still more come from a bird lover in Spain who has dedicated her life to rescuing and caring for exotic species.
“Sometimes it takes years to get the feathers you need for a piece,” he said.
“You have to wait for the feathers to fall from the bird. They only fall twice a year and it depends very much on the quality you get. If the birds are stressed the feathers are not so good and if they fight among themselves they could be damaged, too.”
Which is why his creations can cost so much. But Cura, who sees his studio more as a laboratory, said he was obsessed with exploring the “endless possibilities that feathers present”, particularly with cheaper goose, chicken and even pigeon feathers.
One of his most spectacular skirts is made from the stems of goose feathers. “Wearing it, it is a multi-sensorial experience. Really you can do anything with them,” he said.
Jean-Philippe Lautraite, who heads the French wedding dress label Cymbeline, which is working alongside Cura on a new experimental range, called him “a true master. You are in another dimension with him.”
“Serkan, like us, is the exact opposite of fast-fashion. It is tradition and quality that excites us both. You cannot imagine the hundreds of hours of work that goes into these pieces,” he added.