France has long been famous for its fashion and especially its hats, just think Coco Chanel, one of the most famous milliners and designers of all time. In the 21st Century France is still famous for its haute couture and style and we talk to a British expat milliner about what lured her to live and work in the south of France…
Award winning British milliner Tracy Chaplin loves living and working in France, designing and creating in her studio in the Haute-Garonne, Midi-Pyrénées and taking inspiration from every day life…
Tracy trained with Rose Cory, a Royal Warrant Holder and Milliner to the late Queen Mother. London born Tracy worked with couturiers in uber smart Belgravia designing hats for the famous and the wealthy. She has made collections for the UK’s leading department store House of Fraser as well as small, bespoke boutiques and private commissions – her creations being much sought after by those in the acting and music business.
In 2008 Tracy was inspired to move to France. She was invited to take part in an international Festival of Hats in Caussade and was bowled over by the beauty of the area, it made her and husband Chris, a chartered surveyor, think about moving to France sooner rather than later. “It was something that we had talked about as a retirement project, we just bought it forward by 15 years. It was a lifestyle change for us, we have always loved France, the food and the French people. We dreamed of having a beautiful house in the countryside with a large garden in France, this dream became a reality sooner than we expected”.
The couple moved to Alan, a small village, 45 minutes south west of Toulouse in Spring 2008. Their house is a Maison de Maitre which literally means master’s house. It generally refers to a smart village house or a mansion house, usually with high ceilings and typically four main rooms on each floor.
“It is light and airy with a welcoming feel that our guests love”. There is a stunning covered carriageway leading to an internal courtyard and the garden beyond with fruit trees and a swimming pool. Like many houses in France, there is a “grange” (barn) attached and the house itself has impressively decorated high ceilings and other original features including a cottage with an original bread oven.
The house has an eclectic mix of influences with Indian and other antiques picked up on the couples travels, French armoires and other artefacts from around the world.
“We recently commissioned renowned lighting designer, Georgia Scott, to design a fibre optic chandelier which takes pride of place in our dining room” says Tracy.
It’s clear that Tracy’s artistic talents are nurtured in the house and in France. “My inspiration comes from everyday life, art and architecture. We live in such a beautiful place that it is easy to find inspiration from my natural surroundings.”
Tracy wasn’t always a milliner, she trained at the Royal Ballet School and appeared with Nureyev at the Royal Opera House, but her dancing aspirations came to an abrupt end after a serious dance related injury. She decided to take a degree in Fine Art at City and Guilds Art College and then studied Fashion Illustration and Screen Printing at St Martins, London. She began making screen printing clothing and with the “off-cuts I began making small hats and I realised that I had found a niche for myself as the hats were proving to be very popular”.
As her designs evolved, Tracy started using more traditional hat-making materials and experimenting. She teamed up with an accessory designer and launched her own business. Inspired by contemporary fashion designers such as the great French master, Jean Paul Gaultier, Tracey pushed her design process and became a sought after milliner in London.
Tracy’s aristocratic clients, many of whom are still with her, love her beautiful heirloom piece hats and they are particularly popular for Ascot and weddings.
In 2014, Tracey set up millinery workshops from her French home with great success. Students come from as far as the US and Brasil as well as from Europe.
“I enjoy teaching and sharing my skills. It’s a rewarding and nourishing exchange. Everyone has such a different creative process and it is a pleasure to help them along their creative journey” says Tracy, and indeed it is astonishing to discover how beautiful the hats are when students have had no experience at all prior to the 5 day workshop.
Setting up a hat making business in France did not present any particular challenges but Tracey finds that it is a very different world to work in to the UK.
“The demands from an internationally based London clientele who attend the world’s most glamorous events are completely different to designing for a rural community in France where cost and functionality are more important. This is certainly reflected in the designs that I create for my local clients”.
Though she may tailor her creations to suit a less wealthy clientele it has not in any way infringed on her fabulous design process and Tracy has won major prizes and the internationally renowned Estivales du Chapeau on two separate occasions and was a major prize winner in the Mad Hatters Society Contest in April 2014. Indeed her work has been described as “breath-taking Works of Art”.
“Life is like a new hat. You don’t know if it suits you if you keep trying it on in front of your own mirror” said Shirley McLaine and for Tracy Chaplin that’s certainly true as she has found her forte in France…
Website: www.tracychaplin.co.uk for details of hats and workshops.