The Mad Hatter: Turning heads since 1992

4 Nov

“It’s an addiction, it’s in my blood and I just can’t stop.”

The ability to create a piece of art using a combination of rare vintage trims and unique materials and colours keeps millinery designer, Marilena Romeo hooked.

Her design studio in Thornbury, Melbourne is bursting at the seams with hundreds of hand-made and exquisite hats, fascinators and other styles of millinery.

The sound of 1950s music plays in the background.

Marilena and her business partner Liza Georgia, who is dressed in a hat which she made by hand, hold needles in their hand, sewing new creations, as Marilena tells me her story.

As a child, Marilena dreamed of pursuing an artistic career.

After graduating with a degree in Public Relations and Media from Swinburne University of Technology, she worked in public relations for local councils, but her aspirations lay elsewhere.

“I loved working in Public Relations and worked for the council, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Melbourne. I would organise major Gala events, major fashion parades and raise money for different auxiliaries and causes,” she says.

Fashion had a large presence in her childhood. “My aunty was a dressmaker so I would always be surrounded by materials and trims.”

In 1992, while catching a tram to work on St. Kilda Road, she saw an immaculately dressed lady. This sparked the beginning of this long and very successful career in millinery for Marilena.

“She was wearing a hat, gloves, a coat and she was holding an umbrella, all done up. She just looked absolutely magnificent and I thought, that is amazing, look at her and look at me. I’m dressed okay but she turns heads and looks really classy. She looked like she had just stepped out of a movie.”

Marilena looked for a course to do, but there were not many around.

She completed a one year course, but her main lessons came from studying under another milliner for six years, who did an apprenticeship in the 1950s.

“I found a milliner and she had been designing millinery since before the 1950s and she taught me everything I needed to know. It was fantastic for me.”

She started dabbling in the industry to gain knowledge and experience. Back then:

“Hats weren’t important and it wasn’t about what accessories a lady would wear. It was more about the horse races, betting and the dress.”

“Today it’s the other way around. It’s all about the hat because not many people wear a hat every day, so when they do it has to be spectacular.”

“Ladies come in with up to five dresses, they lay them all out and we think about the occasion and find a hat design that really suits one of the dresses. Most importantly we design a hat that suits the person, as it’s all about facial structure, the neck line and the person’s skin tone.”

Marilena, referred to as the ‘The Mad Hatter’, experienced immediate success when she entered a contest called “Le Grand Prix of Hats” (the outstanding Millinery Design Award). It was established in order to recognise millinery design and the importance of millinery in Australia. Out of 200 entries, three of Marilena’s hats were placed in the top ten.

Many of her creations have been featured on catwalks across Australia. Having a great interest in theatrical millinery, she has designed theatrical hats for performances and also designs bridal hats and accessories.

Marilena gets her inspiration from the simple things that occur in her everyday life.

“I had my niece come over a while back and she was blowing bubbles and from watching her do this I made a hat that resembled the shape of bubbles and a while after that, we bought a telescope for my son and we were looking at the moon and from the moon I created a hat,” she says.

Marilena’s styles are infused with the glamour of the 1950s. “It’s just something a little bit different, it can be anything you see or any experience in your daily life that you can take something from.”

“It could even be like watching trees outside and the movement in their leaves which you might base a hat on.”

Marilena, who is also a busy mum, works every day.

Her boutique and studio in Thornbury which has been opened for just over a year, opens to the public on weekends and according to bookings during the week. Marilena also stocks her creations at selected boutiques in Melbourne.

Liza Georgia, who has also been a millinery designer for many years with her own label, has collaborated with Marilena for over ten years.

Liza grew up around her sister who was in the bridal industry which inspired her to pursue a career in fashion.

“I was always a bit of a fashion coup, buying magazines and clothes from overseas and my parents when I was younger would always make sure that we all looked immaculate for weddings or wherever we were going and so I was very fashion conscious all the time.”

Marilena and Liza who describe themselves as “sisters” met at a Melbourne Millinery Association meeting.

“Our work, as distinctive as it is, it works well together because we add a European edge to our designs, it’s different from other Milliners. We hear this from our clients around the world. They always say there’s something about our creations that are a little bit different,” Liza says.

“It’s art it’s not just a hat that you pop on your head. It does something different,” Marilena says.

On a typical day off, Marilena likes to spend time with her family however during this time the sewing and stitching continues and she doesn’t put her needle down. “That’s us, that’s what we do, we live and breathe millinery.”

When they are not working, Marilena and Liza like to go out and have a look at what other people are designing.

Each year Marilena and Liza are the only two Australian milliners invited to the International Millinery Exhibition in Dubai and Dubai World Cup for three weeks, which is one of the big events on many milliners’ calendars.

Marilena and Liza work long 12-13 hour days on their trip and their clientele ranges from the royal family to a model for the exhibition.

They could call us at an odd time in the middle of the night or early in the morning to create a hat,” Liza says.

“It’s really funny, we will be sitting and making a hat and people will just look and think it’s only a hat but they don’t know who the hat is for.”

Marilena won the best hat at the Dubai World Cup Millinery Award in 2007. “Last year out of 500 competitors we came in the top 10.”

Marilena and Liza have also been in the finals at competitions in Dubai and Melbourne for 2008, 2010 and 2011.

“Overseas is great for us, because we get to see what colours are in trend before they come to Australia and to use in our next collection.”

Marilena and Liza spend the first two days researching when they arrive in Dubai. They go into store after store, noting down what designers are doing and what materials are being used as they are expected to know their latest designs and collections.

Amongst some of Marilena and Liza’s clientele are some famous names who have been featured in the media wearing Marilena’s designs, such as Kate Ritchie, Anna Koran, Brodie Harper and Giaan Rooney, just to name a few.

“I’ve also made a hat for the cousin of Camilla Parker Bowles,” Marilena says.

“Today it’s the other way around. It’s all about the hat because not many people wear a hat every day, so when they do it has to be spectacular.”

There have been some tough moments over the years Marilena admits.  “A memory that sticks out for me is when I burnt a hat that I made for the Mayoress about ten years ago, the night before she was meant to wear it.”

“It took me about a week to do and I thought it looked fantastic and she was going to love it. I decided to steam it and iron it one more time just to make sure everything was okay at about 11pm and all of a sudden my iron over heated and I burnt the material. I had to stay up and redo it so that it was ready for the next morning. I got it done, it looked exactly the same and she had no idea.”

“Channel Nine comes in all the time and we work with their stylists. They trust us enough and they let us run with what we think because we’ve done it for so long. They show us who is wearing what on TV and ask us to design a hat around it and they are happy with what we do.”

Marilena Romeo & her model wearing Marilena Romeo hat at 2011 Oaks Day

Marilena Romeo & her model wearing a Marilena Romeo creation at 2011 Oaks Day

One of Marilena’s long-time customers, Therese Gardiner says she is “drawn to Marilena’s cutting edge style, originality and attention to the finer details of her creations.”

“When you put something on your head because you don’t do it often you want it to be stunning and amazing and you want people to stop and look at it.”

Therese attends at least two race days over the Spring Carnival and occasionally some other race meetings.

“Marilena’s designs have provided me with the opportunity to enjoy some very important aspects of the Spring Racing Carnival, fashion and fun.”

Marilena Romeo and Liza Georgia Millinery models at 2011 Oaks Day

Marilena Romeo & Liza Georgia Millinery models at 2011 Oaks Day

“I always have people ask who created my design and it is with pride that I say “Marilena Romeo Millinery”.”

Therese entered the ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition in 2007 and was in the final 20 wearing one of Marilena’s creations. “The attention her design generated was amazing,” Therese says.

“She pays particular attention to detail in incorporating the complete outfit and is not happy until the client is completely satisfied, and in my case, thrilled with the end result.”

“Her designs also stand out because of her use of amazing textiles that have been sourced from around the world.”

“This is why I think she is so successful and why she will continue to be at the forefront of the millinery industry,” Therese says.

“I feel privileged to be one of Marilena’s clients and to wear her designs.”

I asked Marilena about her opinion of Princess Beatrice’s famous hat that caused quite a lot of controversy and she responded by saying that. “I loved it and it was designed by Philip Treacy one of the greatest milliners ever, who we have met, however I thought it was the wrong colour for her and too big for her. It didn’t suit her complexion and I would’ve done a different colour, something a bit darker, it washed her out, like she came back from the dead. She needed to really think about that a little more.”

“Melbourne milliners have a different edge compared to milliners overseas. In the UK hats are not as modern and there is no pazzazz.”

“When you put something on your head because you don’t do it often you want it to be stunning and amazing and you want people to stop and look at it.”

Marilena also finds time to teach fashion students at the Gordon Institute of TAFE during the Spring Racing Season.

Marilena and Liza attend the Spring Racing Carnival each year making designs for themselves and also designs for Fashions on the Field Contestants, many of whom have come in the finals.

The busiest time for Marilena and Liza is during September and October, before the Racing Carnival.

“People come in, they look around, try to match their dresses or get an idea of colours and try things on, so it gets pretty busy.”

“We could make a hat in an hour or it might take four days or three weeks, so it just depends on what it is that we are working with and the structure of the hat.”

“Everything is hand-made and hand-stitched here in the studio and we don’t use sewing machines for anything,” Marilena says.

Despite the millinery design trade slowly dying, Marilena and Liza aim to keep it alive for as long as they can. It’s all about the HAT!

Check out Marilena Romeo here:


Or visit her studio in Melbourne and feast your eyes on her amazing designs and collection.

786 High St Thornbury, VIC 3071

Mob: 0438 269 359

Steph xx


2 Responses to “The Mad Hatter: Turning heads since 1992”

  1. Liza Georgia November 5, 2011 at 9:31 PM #

    Hi Stephanie, what a brilliant story, thank you, Liza Georgia X

    • Stephanie Yaghmoor November 7, 2011 at 5:58 PM #

      Hi Liza,
      I’m so glad you like it! Thank you both again for letting me write about your fascinating lives!
      Stephanie X

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