Christelle Clara was born in Lebanon in March 1988, to a Lebanese mother and an Italian father. Theater and dancing were the center of her world as a child while being always surrounded and inspired by the angelic voice of her own mother (Marie Antoinette El Helou “La Momme de l’orient”) that never ceased to discipline her soul and spirit all the way to adulthood. Christelle’s childhood passion developed into a keen interest in theater costumes especially hats. And after spending a year in Paris studying political science she finally decided to go back to her true passions becoming a couture milliner. She named her brand Margherita Chiaramonte in memory of her late grandmother.
1- Knowing that you never majored in fashion design, how did you decide to start this journey in such a precise craft, becoming a couture milliner?
I always used to wear hats in Lebanon; I was one of the few who considered wearing them at the time, they weren’t a trend. When I moved to Paris to complete my studies I started experimenting with different types of hats “I wasn’t the odd one out” hats in Paris are always on trend, so I wore berets, cloches and many other vintage styles… I let it all out! I was really inspired and I decided to come back to Lebanon and design hats, at that point that was all I wanted to do.
2- Why did you decide to name your brand “Margherita Chiaramonte”?
When I was starting out I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it, when the time came to name what I was doing and give it an identity, it was fate that spoke. I was looking through an old family album one day, it suddenly made sense, my grandmother’s name & her image.
Margherita Chiaramonte, my grandmother lived in Egypt and had never met her parents for political reasons, she was the last princess and heir of the Chiaramonte family, she lived among the Egyptian middle class & used her nobility and heritage to serve the Sicilian community among others around her. She only reached her 40’s leaving everything she owns to the Sicilian community and not her direct family; since she believed that in life everyone makes his or her own luck and living. She taught that to my father who was a pilot, an engineer and expert accountant who taught that to me.
This is the nobleness, the elegance and authenticity that I wish for my brand to carry. Along with the mix of oriental & occidental styles, bringing back the glory and uniqueness of past centuries, which were the height of the millinery couture.
3- When you first dipped your toes into this craft, how did you form your first collection?
Obviously to design my first collection I needed “funds” to get the materials and minimal equipment. So I worked in a summer camp for the money. I made my first collection with 900$. 12 pieces of summer straw hats with lace, feathers and pearls all hand made from a corner in my family home! Only 12 that was my shot in the dark! I started with sketches but while crafting I always ended up somewhere else, which still happens fortunately.
That was in 2012 when the hat trend was not in vogue yet, and people in Lebanon never wore hats, but I got great feedback! The hats sold and I formed a small clientele who ordered customized pieces for different events! This led to the second collection far winter.
4- By the third collection did notice any self-progress with your crafting and designs?
In my second collection I started making turbans! A few weeks after, turbans were used on many fashion runways! That gave me great confidence for my third collection! I steered away from straw hats and started seriously designing headdresses, all shapes, colors and styles. I had more confidence in what I was doing so I experimented more; I was using better fabrics and instead of regular pearls I used cultured pearls, I got tools to get right head measurements to be able to customize the pieces better. That being said I don’t even own a sewing machine, all I make is made with a needle and thread, which I believe adds to its uniqueness.
5- It’s safe to say that you didn’t have an easy start, did you ever considered giving up when you were first launching?
Giving up was never an option or a consideration, yes it wasn’t easy but Margherita was now my baby and I never think of stopping even when my morals are down, which happens quite a few times when you’re on your own. What kept me going was mostly the feeling I got from my few sold pieces. Now that I have the means I always work with sustainable fabric, I like to think of each piece as being a heritage someone would pass down or gift for a loved one…that in the back of my mind keeps my passion alive for Margueritta Chiaramonte.
6- Do you look at other brands or trends for inspiration?
I always design within the image of my brand. I always work on injecting into every piece the vintage flair with the elegance of old time and the authenticity of Margherita Chiaramonte. That being said yes I do look for color trends but not design, you can see the image of my brand or its essence in a dress or a piece of furniture even not necessarily in a hat, and that inspires me. And I always make sure whatever I am designing, not matter how big or out there the piece is, it’s always the woman wearing the headdress and not the other way around, not the piece wearing down the woman.
7- Does the Lebanese market “accept” headdresses?
In Lebanon there are a lot of individuals who love headpieces but don’t always have the guts to wear them! But now that all the big fashion designers are reintroducing this trend and making them part of everyday outfits, people seem to have more enthusiasm for what I do. In Lebanon there are a lot of fashionable women, so the market isn’t narrow, especially in summer. This also made it a reason for me to challenge the daring side in every woman, creating turbans, hats, and headpieces for weddings (and it’s working!)
8- How did you make yourself & the brand so visible in such a short time?
The simplest of ways, I started with a Facebook page naturally but for content I shot my hats being worn by my friends simply, showing that everyone can pull of a hat with style. Shortly after I was surprised and fortunate to be getting calls from the media, I was getting contacted by multiple TV stations for talks saying they all got my contact from my Facebook page… that gave me reassurance that my brand left an impact and that people wanted to know more, and maybe that comes from the authenticity and the true story behind Margherita Chiaramonte!
Like TV stations, many fashion exhibits in Beirut and Dubai contacted me to take part in their shows and participating added to my experience and my knowledge about customers also!
9- Who inspired you most to start this “journey”?
I grew up with a mother that is an artist, she never doubted me, she never questioned me, or told me to choose the safe route. She’s the one that introduced me to this culture, and imprinted it in my thinking and soul. Sometimes I am copied in mass production but that doesn’t scare me, because I never plan how my next collection is going to turn out. My creations come from within me; from the mix of images and information I inherited from my culture and my love for history and story telling. This is why I never question if I will never have ideas because I don’t know what’s coming next, and I count on that.
10- What will become of Margherita Chiaramonte?
My brand’s identity will always remain the same. Even if I do go into mass production, I will split the same collection into two parts, but the hand made milliner couture will remain. Maybe one day I will teach this passion to people, the milliner couture. I care about keeping this knowledge in Lebanon. When I close my eyes all I can see and say about the future is “ Le Futur est Beau“ no time limit. I am confident about the future whatever it maybe whatever I may do.
11- Do you ever think of handling Margherita Chiaramonte from Italy since it’s your original homeland?
Even though I love Italy I would work from Lebanon and ship there, but never leave Lebanon. Just like I have Italian heritage my Lebanese one left a big impact on me, and marks me most.
Hats off to you 🙂