Ellen Christine herself safely secured on my head the beautiful and famous fascinator piece that was featured on Sarah Jessica Parker for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar photographed by Terry Richardson and styled by Andrew Richardson.
“I should start a photo album of all the customers who come by and get excited when they see it next to the magazine cover,” Christine told TheBlot Magazine. “Pretty much everybody wants a photo doing the SJP with it on while holding that Bazaar.” That include me also — I just had to do it.
But such glamour is everywhere as I walk around Ellen Christine’s bright atelier peacefully located at 99 Vandam St. between Hudson and Greenwich Streets in New York’s West Village. Cocktail hats, bridal hats, fedoras for men and women, feather- and fur-trimmed hats, fur cloches, veils … each carefully made and awaiting to be part of a perfect story.
“I’m originally from just outside of Philadelphia, in Upper Darby. My father was Puerto Rican, and my mom was English, Irish, Scottish and French, or so the story went. I went to parochial school through high school, living the life of a good Catholic girl, and then all hell broke loose in college. My father decided that I should go to university in Puerto Rico, where he had opened a medical gyn/ob clinic. It changed my life,” Christine explained as she worked on a piece for an important order from a ballet company.
In her studio, one can’t escape the vision of what it means to have a beautiful career and life walking side by side.
“My career must have begun way back, when we all made clothing for our dolls and then costumes for every school play,” she said. “After that, I dressed summer stock, all of my boyfriend’s (of the moment) bands, and in Puerto Rico, I had my first store, where I made all the clothing. The hats didn’t start until the 1980s, and it’s been millinery ever since. So career? It’s not a career. It’s my life!”
And what a life, I wonder, as I look at some of the magazine covers featuring her work captured by some of the best photographers in the world, such as the Vogue Italia cover photo by Steven Meisel that was styled by Karl Templer. “Harper’s gave me the Sarah Jessica Parker cover in Sept. 2013; it’s always a thrill, always bowls you over, and it never gets old,” Christine shared. “Brilliant work by everyone at Condé Nast, Hearst and Fairchild that, over the years, has put my pieces on the heads of some of the most glamorous women on our planet, since I opened the last retail store in Chelsea in 1995. That year, Nicoletta Santoro discovered me, and that’s really where it all started.”
Ellen Christine is a quiet and discreet woman. As we spoke, I notice that peeking over her pompadour you could see a small black lace fontange — it’s her label’s version of one — and such styling details are part of this very elegant woman who has been dressing the chicest heads in New York and around the world. As such, Ellen Christine is our choice for the October Style Master.
Gazelle Paulo: Ellen, please describe your style with your own words.
Ellen Christine: My style has to do with my early days in the ’80s, when all I wore was vintage from the 1940s and ’50s. Now it’s a mix of Edwardian, Victorian and contemporary pieces that mix well with a sense of that. I’m a throwback, in a way.
Do you have any peculiar fashion habits?
My fashion habits have to do with wearing hats and headpieces. Some people say that’s strange.
How important has fashion and style been to you?
My mom was a model in the 1950s, so I got shoved onto a runway at age 4. Fashion and style have been a part of my life all along the way, from behind the scenes, where I thrive. Without style, the world has one less form of communication. Style is a way of conveying to those around you what you feel, see, know, love, enjoy, in a painless manner. No long-winded monologues about philosophy, psychology or physics needed — just get dressed and show them.
What was the defining fashion moment in your life?
My “Eureka” moment was the day I woke up and decided what I wanted to do with my life. I was 29 years old, and I had just broken up with a rather serious boyfriend when I suddenly realized that I didn’t miss him so much. What I missed was backstage, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint, as it were. I’ve always been with musicians, so it was the costume drama that surrounded the shows that I missed — the music, the rehearsals, the deadlines, the smoke and the mirrors. As my ex said: the circus. And so, after getting my BA, I enrolled in the School of Fashion Design in Boston. Costume was my love, and I would continue to study costume even as I worked on my master’s and doctorate at NYU, as I began to make hats.
Who are the most elegant man and woman of all time?
Gosh, elegance is such a subjective word. I’d start with Cecil Beaton and Elsa Schiaparelli. Oh, Lordy, that woman! And then I’d work backwards to the Empress Eugénie and Beau Brummell, two fashion icons who created and defined what fashion means today.
Fashionably speaking, if you could have a second chance to give another first impression, when and why?
I wish I had taken my bra off sooner at Woodstock. I was already wet to the bone, people were running around naked, but I had promised my grandmother that I’d wear a bra. It made it to Saturday night.
What is your favorite store in the world and your favorite in New York City?
My favorite store in the world might be Harrods. They sold black silk stockings with seams in the ’60s and ’70s when you couldn’t really find them anywhere else. In NYC, it would be the old Henri Bendel, with the Avenue of Shops. (Owner) Gerry Stutz was a client of mine, and she defined that entire era with her marketing vision. Bendel’s was as hip as Biba’s had been in London, except it was here, it was ours, and we loved it!
What was the most spectacular party you attended?
Jeez. Any night at Studio 54 or perhaps at that massive ball at the Waldorf, or was it the Plaza where I lost my grandmother’s pearls. Or the 1989 Centennial in Paris, with everyone parading down the Champs–Élysées, and Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise” perched a mile high on a float. All the floats were designed by Jean-Paul Goude, a master of design nuance. The American contingent was open to anyone who wanted to join, so I jumped right in, dressed in a tri-color tutu and white patent leather cowgirl boots. It was like the early days of the Halloween parade in NYC, but it was PARIS!
If you could style one person, who would be the lucky one?
My dream client would be someone dead, sadly. Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo. Ah, to have been wallowing in difficult Hollywood stars. But today? My favorite client is always the next one I meet. People are so fascinating, and hats seem to draw them out.
What is the perfect attire for the eternal sleep?
If I go in a casket, it better be with a leopard hat, swathed in monkey fur (or the now more PC long-haired goat) and yards of black Chantilly lace. Jungle Red lipstick and nails, eyelashes and please tape the tits. Fishnets and Prada shoes. Just a simple little afternoon ensemble.
SEPTEMBER STYLE MASTER: Patrick McDonald
Gazelle Paulo is a contributing writer for TheBlot Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and FreakChic.