“I was immediately taken with Eleanor’s creative elegance and femininity, which was a perfect fit with our collections. Eleanor not only creates aesthetically beautiful pieces, they all hold a story, one that you connect with and this story is told through the form of the headwear and her accompanying poem.” — Nicole Williams, Director and Designer of nicolangëla on Eleanor Marguerite, the exquisite headwear designer.
‘Enchanting’, that’s the best way to describe Eleanor Marguerite’s captivating studio. It’s elegant and feminine, but certainly not in a prissy way. More Cinderella’s fairy godmother, than Tinkerbell. The space is so stylish and refined. The transition from a typical Traralgon street into her studio is certainly unique – it’s as though you enter the set of one of Audrey Hepburn’s famous films. Each item in the studio appears so thoughtfully placed. It is obviously the domain of a confident craftsperson. Each ‘hair embellisher’ seems to exude a story around it. It captivates you. In your initial glance, you pick up visual queues of classic Art Deco styling, flamboyant feathers, horns and pieces seemingly ready to woo the crowds at the next Melbourne Cup.
As your senses settle, you can cast your gaze further into workspace and spy a rainbow of different ribbons lined-up immaculately, pieces of impossibly delicate lace and containers of bits ‘n’ bobs that must be eagerly awaiting their inclusion into one of Eleanor’s future creations.
The variety and volume of headwear are impressive, especially when you learn that creating them isn’t Eleanor’s primarily occupation. It’s more her artistic ‘side hustle’, as the kids say these days. After savouring the scene of creativity laid out around you, it becomes startling when you view the photos of Eleanor’s studio taken by Gippslandia’s talented lensman, Andrew Northover. Andrew’s shots, captured not more than six weeks after Eleanor’s initial interview depicted a remarkably different presentation in the studio. Every item is still impeccably placed, but it seems to be in an entirely new location. Such care in presentation and continual evolution is surely another indication of Eleanor’s passion for her craft.
Not that Eleanor believes she even possesses a talent in fabricating exotic headwear. She’s never undertaken formal training in millinery. Surprisingly, she humbly believes it’s not her at all. Rather, she insists that when she’s in the frame of mind to create, something acts through her, saying, “I believe there are times when my pieces are already born before I come along. I’m just the person that delivers them. The vessel that they come through. They just evolve and I put all my trust in that. Sometimes, I’ve even felt, ‘My goodness, how did I even think to do that?’. So I keep telling my hands, just go to work. Just create. I let my hands do their thing”.
Eleanor is one of Alice and Jim Ayres 11 children – many of whom have pursued creative pursuits. When pressed a little further on the source of her creativity, Eleanor kindly explains, “I just don’t know how I’ve come to make them. I think it’s like a gift from God. When I was younger I was with my Mum a lot. I wanted to spend time with her. We lived in a little Housing Commission home by the Traralgon Racecourse. There was always creativity in the house. Always things being made. Sometimes it was a way of bringing money into the house, as my Mum stayed at home. Mum was an artist, painting china and dolls”. Eleanor continues, “I’ve always loved satin ribbon, even as a child I was constantly playing with ribbon. If I had a doll it always had to have a satin bow”.
Our gazes turn to the designs. There’s a newspaper article featuring another of Eleanor’s creations. It’s made completely out of paper. In fact, it’s made from the Sale classifieds for the Sale Cup – a highlight of the Spring Carnival in Gippsland. Another item of headwear is made from a nautilus shell that was washed up on the beach at Lakes Entrance. Eleanor explains that the nautilus shells used to get swept onto the surf beach at Lakes in their hundreds, but that now they’re a much more rare and valuable discovery.
Eleanor’s fine headwear has only really been a reality since 2007, thanks to a fateful introduction to Nicole Williams of nicolangëla. As Nicole enlightens, “I asked Eleanor if she would like to create a collection of spring racing headwear to accompany our spring collection. Her creations were in complete synergy with my design aesthetic and complemented each gown perfectly”. The two talented women have been
regularly collaborating ever since, frequently on projects that assist community causes.
Contributing to charities is something that clearly brings a lot of joy to Eleanor, and her involvement
has been considerable over the years. There was the high tea at Traralgon’s Monfort Manor for Life Skills, assisting to raise funds to restore the Sale Cathedral, being involved with fundraising for Centenary House in Traralgon and the much enjoyed annual events Eleanor previously organised for Barrier Breakers, a mental health advocacy organisation. When chatting about her charity work, Eleanor humbly states, “I’m
older. I’m not looking to make a name for myself. The people I care about know me and appreciate my work. I feel I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to achieve. I was just making pieces for myself and it just leads to this – being able to contribute to charities. That’s what I’ll continue to do. I want that to be my legacy. To keep supporting these great causes”.
With that, our attention is lured into a piece of headwear featuring flowers, which proves to be a pertinent demonstration of the depth at which Eleanor operates when immersed in her embellishments. “When I create, I see something more. Take these wooden roses. I picked these up from an aunt. The wooden roses look quite rustic. Imagine a girl with blonde hair – she’s got all the beauty in the world. She’s an expression of the earth. To me, that’s what tethers us, being well-rooted, it makes us stand tall like a tree. This piece signifies that. A very strong girl would wear this hat, but there’s something very deep and mysterious about her. I started with looking at the roses and before I know it, a whole story has formed”.
Eleanor is clear to point out that she doesn’t believe that the term ‘fascinator’ applies to her work. As
more typically, fascinators are bought directly off shop shelves. They can be sold in the dozens, may even be mass-produced overseas, and the term is used more liberally. Eleanor believes the dictionary definition for ‘fascinator’ is apt – that they are true to their meaning. But that doesn’t fit her headwear. Instead, she prefers to call her creations, ‘hair embellishments’ or ‘head embellishment’ because that’s more true to their meaning.
“When I decide that I’m going to make a hat, even if it’s a custom order, people very rarely dictate to me or tell me what they want. It’s like they come in here and just feel, ‘I trust you’, and I even trust myself. I don’t over think it. When I’ve over-thought the design it has always failed me. So I say to my hands, ‘Go to work’ and things just evolve. That’s the absolute truth. I really don’t plan things. I have ideas.”
Who are Eleanor’s typical customers? “I think they’re people that really love fashion. People that appreciate the fact that they’re going beyond the concept of, ‘I’m going to the races and I need to put something on my head’. They come to me because they love the experience and the story behind it. That’s not a huge clientele. There are not hundreds of those people. But the people that do come here, I value them very much”. Eleanor points me to a piece featuring deer antlers and continues, “They’re Chital Deer antlers. There’s this girl from Melbourne, a real fashionista, and she came down and bought three pieces from me. She insisted on trying the piece with the antlers on. Now, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s quite heavy. She insisted on buying one with the antlers”. Pausing, Eleanor reflects, “You have to be brave to wear pieces like this”.
As with all the materials she uses, Eleanor knows the tale behind the antlers, “I have an aunt up on the Tambo River and they have lots of deer. She has a professional hunter that needs to come in, as the deer can cause a lot of trouble. He’s very respectful when processing them”. Many of Eleanor’s feathers are vintage finds or purchases from Tambo Fine Feather farm.
Returning to the commercial aspects of the business, it’s again clear that craft and the stories come first, and that commerce comes a little further behind, “I have a beautiful website and people ask if they can buy my hats online, but I just don’t really think that I could do that. Maybe a simple, stylish bow. But otherwise, I need the person to come to my studio, to sit with me, try it on and then go from there”. In a world more fixated on making money at seemingly any cost, Eleanor’s attitude is a refreshing contrast, “I see my studio as the hats little house and I don’t care if I have a piece for a long time. It’s amazing, someone will come along and that hat will be perfect for them. It’s like it’s sitting there waiting for them”.
After spending time to appreciate the intricacies of Eleanor’s designs, you cannot help, but wonder the time involved in crafting such beauty. “I can do a simple piece in a few hours. For a bridal headpiece, I like a good month’s notice beforehand, as I work on inspiration. I don’t like the pressure of having to rush something. It needs to fit in with my other work. If someone rang me up and requested a specific type
of piece in a week, I would bust myself to deliver that. I do have pieces here that can be modified, so if they bring in their dress, we can work it in.”
In spending time in Eleanor’s charming studio you’ll also become aware of the importance her family has
for her. From those formative years, as she began exploring her creativity to the numerous loving family members who continue to find materials for her to fashion into headwear now, it’s clear their support means the world to Eleanor. Loving family stories bubble up into conversation with ease.
As the chill of a Gippsland winter’s evening begins to encroach on the warm cocoon of the studio, you feel that you may well be sitting in a space about as similar to one of Santa’s workshops as you’ll find. That if snow was to begin to float down, it wouldn’t be odd, but fitting. With a hint of melancholy, knowing that the visit is drawing to a close, conversation turns towards Eleanor’s future plans.
“If I’ve done anything with my headwear it’s that I’ve been able to have the opportunity to raise awareness for charities and causes that are important. I’ve had my hats in prominent places, though that wasn’t essential to me. I’ve kind of been there and done that. I’m just happy for people to come to me and I’ll create a hat for them. I don’t think too much about the future, rather just appreciate that tomorrow is a new day and I never know what it’s going to bring.”
At complete ease in her studio, you imagine that Eleanor will just let those hands go to work.