NEW YORK — Plu-mas-sier. Plu-mas-sier. No matter how hard it is to pronounce, the term for someone who sells feathers has a certain elegance that’s quintessentially French. Mention the trade and references are made to the crème de la crème of Parisian haute couture: Dior, Chanel, Givenchy. Even Lemarie, one of the last specialized firms bought by Chanel, sold feathers to the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga.
But another feather maven can be found 3,635 miles away, in the heart of New York’s Garment District. One note of warning, though: Leave the word plumassier in Paris.
“Plumassier? What’s that?” asks Jon Coles, vice president of American Plume and Fancy Feather Co., which sells feathers of every size, shape and color, as well as boas, headdresses and the occasional garment or two. After being told the word refers to his vocation, Coles hollers to his workshop cohorts, “Did you hear that? We’re plu-mah-seeee-ays!” He pauses, then quips, “But don’t expect a raise now that you are one.”
With his Brooklyn accent, boyish mug and phone headset perennially at his side, Coles, 59, represents a different breed of feather dealers. His client list ranges from designer Bob Mackie, who has worked with the company for 30 years, to the tuft-haired puppets of “Fraggle Rock.” Office walls are decorated with decades worth of Broadway posters, such as those for “Cats,” “Chicago,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Sugar Babes” — all American Plume clients. Several of the posters are autographed by costume designer William Ivey Long, like the one from “The Producers,” for which he won the Tony for Best Costume Designer. It reads “I could not do it without you.”
Not bad for a man with no formal training in the plumage craft. Coles, who was once a school teacher at PS 161, got his start in the trade by helping his friend, Anthony Trento, sell quill pens door to door for Amcan Feathers, a company Trento started in 1972. Today, Amcan is American Plume, and Coles is the face of the New York factory while Trento mans the headquarters in Clark Summit, Pa.
Yet even with 27 years of this business now under his belt, Coles still considers himself the baby of the Stateside dealers. Others, like his 37th Street neighbor Jay Dersh of Dersh Feathers, go back three generations. But as Coles wanders through American Plume’s 4,500-square-foot space, describing how different chemical burns can make ostrich feathers look like those of a vulture, there’s no hint of his salesman beginnings.
In many ways, Coles is the Willy Wonka of plumage, and his studio, the factory of feathered delights. Candy-colored boas, headdresses and mammoth fans hang from the ceiling in tight rows. “Those are for ‘The Lion King,’” he says, pointing at a bundle of pheasant feathers. “They break easily and we keep having to replace them.” No doubt Simba and company are having a busy season on stage. “And these are for Patricia Field,” he adds, referring to the pink boas and feathered jackets that hang nearby. Next, Coles pulls out several fuchsia ostrich quills. “You can have these,” he gestures. “They’re left over from ‘La Cage.’”
All this work cannot be done alone, of course. A six-person team helps Coles churn out boa after boa, one feathered frill at a time. There’s Ursula Fabre, who sifts through sacks of quills, hand-splitting the fluff from the bone. Meanwhile, Bibie Gocool sits at her desk in a floral-print smock, curling a batch of blue and purple feathers that must be sent to Walt Disney Japan by the end of the week. (Forget elaborate apparatuses; each curl is made by hand with a pair of scissors.) Other workers are sitting beneath a “Miss Congeniality 2” poster — Sandra Bullock’s feathered bum looms large — piecing together several Vegas-bound accoutrements.
As crafty as Coles’ trade may appear, he says he rarely sees it as an art. It’s no surprise, then, that he prefers to be called a feather dealer or merchant rather than a plumassier. So let the others have their couturiers and Paris catwalks; American Plume has its claim on “Cats.”