Master of millinery, Louis Mariette invites hat habitué, Carly Florentine to his spectacular studio to share his wisdom on the whimsical and talk about opulence, optimism and the meaning of life.
I had always thought there something eminently exciting about the grandeur of a hat. Louis, as a bespoke couture hat designer who has become renowned for fabricating the ‘Chapeau d'Amour’ which translates charmingly as the ‘Hat of Love’ but is perhaps better known as the world's most expensive hat, means that things very rarely get grander than this.
Before the interview commences we are already performing parts in a Carrollian adventure as I arrive at his abode, figure the only way is up and start ascending a staircase while he beckons me from below. Greeting me at the doorway carrying an antique candlestick holder was a fitting introduction to a man who has garnered much coverage for his fairytalesque creations.
Louis's designs have such delectable detail that you could get happily get lost in them and indeed his headquarters are a veritable wonderland of treats and enchantment. He tells me a delightful tale of how it came to be his kingdom "When I was actually looking for a place, this seemed destined as it belonged to the Headmistress of the little girls’ school round the corner, I told the agent "I'll buy it" and they responded "why? You haven't even seen it yet!" I said, “I know that school, it has the most gorgeous girls who always walk in a single line and they all have these little hats. I thought no, it’s definitely a sign, its hats, its hats! When I bought the place, the decor was very chintzy and Chelsea so I ripped the whole place out and started from scratch."
His boyhood environs were vastly disparate to the surroundings of Sloane Square as he spent his childhood in Malawi, Botswana and Swaziland. "My father as a young man came over to Africa as a legal crocodile hunter; my how it was a different world in those days before I was born. My father passed away and my mother remarried my stepfather Howard, who's English. He is a lovely gentleman who’s been a father to me my whole life, and worked for British Government so it was through him that I had my connection to London and it was lovely because he really was the person who instilled everything I believe in, in me as well as really believed in everything I did.”
Louis is exceedingly eloquent and so enthused when engaged in speech that words emanate from him effortlessly as his face assumes a look of moon-eyed elation. Especially when he remembers fondly his early years abroad “I've seen the most amazing things in Africa; Howard took me on Safari to amongst many other places, the Delta and Kalahari and I was always inspired by these incredible visions around me all the time. It was absolutely extraordinary. It was a magical time to be honest in Africa. As a child I didn't really relate to most of the other children, I suppose most people go about kicking a football and everything else like that but for me it was more of a case of I just wanted to go into my own little world. My mother had recognised that in me and was a good sport as she just thought, just let him do what he does. I had this fascination with the insect world and submerging myself. There is so much inspiration from nature and that incorporates into my designs. Because I'm very much an environmentalist and believe very much in protecting the planet and doing what we can do, this has got me helping out as I believe when times are good for yourself, you should absolutely make an effort and help others. I think charity is really important and am honoured to be a Vice President of the Children's Trust; for me it's a great privilege to be given that duty of helping and supporting. I'm also a patron of the St Thomas Lupus Trust and it's really important to me that people are made aware that apart from beauty there is more to life. You've got to help other people.”
When I ask whether he received any classical training in traditional design, Louis again makes reference to it arose more out of a desire to encourage people to make an effort. "Millinery came totally by accident. One of my passions was party planning and I was always organising events and occasions and it was always thrilling, that excitement, that build up of putting it all together, theming it and everything else but when I was running that business, I always used to say to the hostesses, you know 'My Darlings, you've got to look fabulous, you've got to make everyone look fabulous, you need to theme the invitations so that everyone makes an effort to dress up", it was sort of like a domino effect.” He elaborates “I think that's what it's all about, everything in life, dressing up, the presentation around you, the environment that you work in, everything that you can make as creatively stylish as possible you absolutely should. I think it’s a really great ambiance to have around you because we all have very busy hectic lifestyles. My routine is I jump out of bed at 5.30 in the morning, I run to the gym, then I come back to sketching and writing. I love that feeling when the world is still sleeping. Everyday is precious to me”
Despite his exotic upbringing being an initial inspiration he doesn’t find it lacking in urban terrains and pays many a compliment to our nation’s capital “London is the one city where I'm grounded in heart and soul. I've travelled around the world to the most extreme places, I've been very privileged and very honoured to go to places like the Himalayas and see rare festivals where I've been invited by the Buddhist monks. Everytime I came back here, it's like I am back home. However there is a part of my soul that is Thai, I've also lived in Sydney and San Francisco but I've always come back to London. There's so much to explore here and there's always new areas in development and that's why I never get bored of London, it's just so wonderful and the creative side is just so fantastic. People are just becoming more and more exciting as well, they like making things look more sensational and I think it's great that we live in a city that's got that energy and we are at the centre of the world, it’s fabulous!”
A natural raconteur and bon vivant, there was never a tedious moment with Louis; however I did become rather sidetracked at one point when something came into view in the corner of my eye, the thing that could quite possibly be the only thing that could excite me more than hats.That thing was of course cats. As a self-confessed lover of beauty, it made perfect sense that he should care for them also. Monty and Felicity he insists “are spoiled rotten" and clever enough to not get jealous of or make war with the hats.
I asked him to describe how he comes up with the ideology to his designs “Every time a collection comes to me it is inspired by something that is really touching my heart. Recently I've been making a couture collection of 'Encapsulated'; it's a feeling of a lady being engulfed in her own domain and she's so beautiful that people want to see her but she's surrounded by netting and it creates a bit of mystery to her. It's very surreal and elegant”
Of all his many glittering moments his favourite was “the photo-shoot we did when I made the Princess Neptune hat. Everyone looks on the website and thinks the image was photoshopped but it wasn't. It was actually real life; the hat was submerged into the tank where they filmed James Bond in Pinewood Studios. It was shot by an amazing Photographer called Zena Holloway who was a diver and the model was submerged while safety divers were all underneath. She had to swim around in the outfit with the fabric billowing all beautifully away and it was one of those visions that I thought was just like a dream. The actual piece was encrusted with scallop shells, starfish, pearls, fresh coral and Swarovski crystals and it had to be waterproofed and it took forever. It was pure fantasy.”
Speaking of fantasy, I get given an all encompassing tour of the splendour of his studio taking in hats that go beyond merely turning heads to potentially breaking necks even finding a chance to dance. He admits to having an obsession with antique mirrors "It’s bizarre, if it’s oval I've got to buy it." He has a similar fondness for birdcages even though "I'd never put a bird in a cage as I believe everything should be free." I think perhaps they serve as a clever foil for birds of prey, especially considering the magpie-lust inducing sparkle of his bejewelled headpiece collection. In another parallel of life imitating fairytale, I profited from the fairy godmother treatment when he styled me with them and gave me a few tips "You have an incredible neck and you are losing your beautiful silhouette with your hair down, the neck is such a sensuous area, you should accentuate it'
Louis reminds me of myself in that he has too many interests "The word bored should be removed from the dictionary. There is no such thing. There are so many things to do. It's an exciting world; the problem is more not finding the time to do things.” He says with a touch of theatre and romance to his words. “I like to encourage people to think more creatively, always be imaginative in your mind, dream the unthinkable and go for it, know no boundaries, at the end of the day, if you don't knock on the door, you won't get an answer.”
Regardless of his high profile client list which includes, Jerry Hall and Sophie Dahl he says “I don't have any preferred clients. I love people's individuality and that is the joy and fun of my job, is meeting people and creating and designing something that is about them. I love to design pieces that are avant-garde, theatrical, thought-provoking, as long as it’s done in a very stylish and elegant way.” Certainly there are hats made entirely of hair that look like the height of luxury. Another one is of a meteorite, which Louis suggests is representative of himself. “At some points I still think I'm from a different planet, I’m sure that’s what my mother thought. She seemed to look at me a few times thinking how come you’re so different from all my other children?” (He has four brothers and a sister). This would be a good place to include a witticism of how this merely substantiates the old phrase mad as a hatter. As a matter of interest in the history of this profession this phrase harks back to when mercury used to be used in the making of hats. This caused mercury poisoning which terribly affected the nervous systems of hatters, causing them to tremble and appear insane.
So while Louis may not be mad he is definitely an eccentric and effervescent character to the extent that he has found as much favour in the spotlight as he has behind the scenes. He lent his creative credentials to the judging panel of Britain’s Next Top Model and enjoyed the opportunity. He admits of his own personal style “I like anything that's exotic or unusual but I love good tailoring as well. I love well cut suits and OTT flamboyancy every once in a while.”
I confided to Louis that if I were ever to be involved with fashion design, it would have to be as a Milliner. I muse about my own personal experiences of noting how merely fashioning them not only enhances the quality of my day but perhaps even more distinctly cheers up everyone who crosses my path, even the fleeting strangers, in fact especially them.
He entirely agrees “It make’s life interesting. You find that the wearer of a hat has a bit more personality and character to them, they want to express themselves. They draw attention, it gets people talking to them, it’s amazing, and it’s something fascinating, a talking point. I think more people should wear hats. We should start a national hat day in England!”
To see Louis’s collection or to make an appointment, please visit www.louismariette.com. To make a donation or find out more about the valuable charities he is involved with please see www.thechildrenstrust.org.uk and www.lupus.org.uk. If you would like to lend support to the cause of making National Hat Day happen please email us at Side View Magazine and perhaps we can start a campaign.