As the Bastille Day Festival kicks off its season at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Markets, we excitedly enter a long-winded path, where a view of a wintry French village square slowly comes to life. Flanked on either side of us? Are delicious crêpes, fondue, and brioche stalls. Booksellers displaying old livres covered in mid-century illustrations. A mime artist enchanting the kids. Can-Can girls chatting to the swarms of onlookers. Jewellery makers offering visitors their dainty trinkets. And our favourite? Whimsical artworks: highlighting peony-pink fleurs and other Parisian landmarks. Adding to this mélange of French finery? Is a live band, Noria and the Parisians, playing delightful Edith Piaf songs on the mainstage. As like-minded spectators stand, cameras-in-hand, eager to capture a deep sense of joie.
As we say ‘au revoir’ to the hustle-and-bustle of this delightful scène, we head to our destination. Notably, a live event housed at the Multicultural Hub. Where a community of women gather, eager to be fashionably inspired. On today’s agenda? A live Q & A, ‘The Secrets Of French Style’, an endearing tête-a-tête hosted by our Blue Illusion creative director Donna Guest and good friend and collaborateuse, globe-trotting TV host, Catriona Rowntree. An event painted by the light of two girlfriends, who just happen to be trailblazers in their own right.
Donna: Welcome ladies. To kick off a morning of all-things-French, I thought I’d share a preview of what’s ahead, including the secrets behind my annual Bastille Day collection, and how the simplicity of French style is always included in that. Not to mention the exciting things that are happening this season at Blue Illusion, between Catriona and myself.
Catriona: Where do we start? Oh, I know … let’s start by talking about your famous Bengajean! Tell us how it all came together. As I remember you saying at the time, ‘this is what got us through Covid’. When people couldn’t shop in-store and when they were going online …
Donna: Good idea! Our Bengajean has been a staple for Blue Illusion for 10 years now. It started when customers were giving us a lot of feedback about elastic-waisted pants. I was really determined to have a front-fly denim jean. And one of the new designers came into the business and said, ‘you know what, I’m an expert in denim. I’ve done a lot of denim in the past, and I think I can find you a soft denim that will make a wonderful elastic-waisted jean.’ I was skeptical, but I thought, ok, let’s make a small amount of these jeans. Then she said, ‘what could we call them?’ At the time, we had another pant, a very popular pant, a #1 seller, called ‘Bengaline’. And I said, you know what? I think I’ll call it a ‘Bengajean’. And it was a bit of a laughing point in the office, but I thought it’s a great name to be famous for.
When you come across global brands you recognize, like Ralph Lauren for instance, he came up with the ‘Polo shirt’. And that’s what they’re famous for. Even though they do the most amazing collections at all levels, everyone can afford the Polo shirt. That’s his fashion staple. So, we produced a very small amount of these elastic-waisted Bengajeans. Then, we sold out immediately. It was so fast. After 5 years of this traction, it got to the point where we didn’t have enough colours, denim options or lengths. It just grew and expanded in so many ways. Especially in Covid.
Catriona: Yes! That’s when you called me. It was your first foray into presenting yourself on social media, remember?
Donna: Yes, that’s when I started my 5@5 videos. I remember ringing up Catriona and saying, ‘Catriona, I think I’m going to have to get onto social media and present my collections …’
Catriona: I said, ‘Yeah, you're gonna … it’s time … !’
Donna: And I said, “I’m not a salesperson, can you help me?”
Catriona: Your videos are so funny, they are so you Donna, but at least they’re authentic!’
Donna: Ha. Between Catriona and Trinny from Trinny London, I just had to try and self-train on that very quickly. But Catriona was so wonderful when I rang her and I said, ‘Do you think you could come to Melbourne during Covid and come into one of the stores and help me present?’ And Catriona said, no problem … and it was really wonderful. So, thank you.
Catriona: And it was such an extraordinary time. It was so difficult for people in business across the board. We just sat in this beautiful store, and I remember you said that your #1 priority was to look after your staff, to make sure people remained employed and kept busy, and that a huge thing for you was to make sure that you also could still support your charity with World Vision as well.
Donna: Yes, to continue to support those children as they are obviously so dependent on people like us.
Catriona: Anyhow, we digressed. Now back to the Bengajean …
Catriona: Yeah, and I really like the way that they’ve got them in every length, and every style as well …
Catriona: What’s your favourite, Donna?
Donna: the 7/8 skinny.
Catriona: Which one’s the 7/8?
Donna: It’s what I’m wearing.
Catriona: Why’s it your favourite?
Donna: Because it’s full length on me. (they both laugh) Because most of our customers are around my height. So, it works really well. And today I’m wearing another favourite look of mine, the classic trench. We decided this season that we would turn it into more of a windbreaker raincoat because last year we noticed that it rained quite a bit up until November. So, I thought, if only we had a raincoat or something to protect the downpour!
Catriona: Like La Nina …
Donna: Exactly. And trenches are always a very classic French staple. If you’ve ever read any of the styling books that we’ve had in-store, they always say that a classic trench coat should always be a part of your wardrobe. And so, this year, we’ve got one. It’s got some details here …
Catriona: You see that cuff on the sleeve, I noticed that straight away. That’s what I love, the detail in a cuff. That’s so French …
Donna: It’s the same with this classic white shirt, with some details around the neck on the collar and on the cuff, as well as a little panel here.
Catriona: I noticed that too. I love how at Blue Illusion, you not only implement French style into every one of your pieces, but I know you look at body shapes when you’re designing something too.
Donna: Yes, I include a classic pear shape, an hourglass shape, and an apple shape. Those are the shapes that we, in particular, cater for.
Catriona: That was something that was really challenging for me when we did this collaboration together. Because I know how I like to dress, but then, Donna knowing her customer so well was like, ‘Ok, well how can we have alternatives?’ That’s what we really found with the Magenta coat we did. As in working out how many different ways can we wear it, so normal people will buy it.
Donna: Yep. That’s why with this raincoat, I added the addition of a removable hood, in case it poured after my hair was newly blow-dried! Ha. In all seriousness, with Bastille, we always design with the red, white, and blue colour palette in mind. This year we took a twist on that, turning the red striped t-shirt into a dusty rose. We’ve got lots of blue, and even incorporated an 18th century French print into the collection as well as a little denim jacket.
Catriona: Oh, right! I love the little trim on that! It’s so beautiful!
Donna: Yep, it’s a great staple. Here, I’ve got the Brenton striped t-shirt too because that’s traditional. It’s in the softest cotton.
Catriona: So, can you tell us a little bit about this concept of Bastille Day for Blue Illusion?
Donna: It’s about celebrating all-things-French, but also about changing seasons too. Of winding up winter and start going into spring. So, we start this transformation with Bastille Day. For us, it’s a date that starts that change. But also, it’s a celebration in-store. It’s a way to bring our communities together. Normally we do a fundraiser at the same time, so it really just kicks-off our season of growth and new beginnings.
Catriona: Speaking of fundraisers, are your stores doing styling events in honour of Bastille Day?
Donna: Yes, we are. In fact, we’re doing a fundraiser for the BaliLife Foundation. It’s an amazing charity. It’s a children’s home. I met the owner about 10 years ago. A young couple, Brad and Siska Little, a husband-and-wife team in their 30’s, were expecting their first child. At that time Siska was introduced to a little boy who was a street child. And he said to both her and her husband Brad, ‘I really want you both to be my parents.’ And at the time, Siska thought, I’m having my baby, what’s going on, I don’t know if I can do this? But not long after she had her first child, she felt she was drawn to that. So, she opened up a children’s home. When I originally met her, she had 20 children living in this home. 6 girls and 14 boys. I was so blown away at the thought that someone would do that. To dedicating their lives to saving these children that were brought to this home. So, I thought, If I could help them in any way, I would.
Catriona: Wow, that’s amazing.
Donna: So, I sat down with Siska, and asked how much it cost to run a home with 20 children, plus her own 4. And knowing the cost of living being what it is, with medical, schooling and food, in Bali, its actually not that expensive compared to the costs in Australia. I thought, I could easily have a few fundraisers at least once a year to really kick-start it. And it’s been a passion of mine ever since.
I’ve gone back a few times to Bali and some of the ladies in the business have also gone to visit and it’s just mind-blowing what they do. They’ve got a home now through our support and a few other businesses that support them too. A facility that houses up to 60 children, with at least 45 children now in their care. And these children stay with them. This is their home, right through to university. Even if they’re still in contact with their parents, they just love coming back to ravage the fridge or pop in and see their siblings. So, it’s a really beautiful environment she’s cultivated. Another thing they do? Is offer opportunities for women to learn the skills to produce and sell fashion jewellery - so they don’t have to beg on the streets. They also educate them for ‘stranger danger’ as they are susceptible to be taken advantage of. So, it’s a fabulous cause.
Catriona: Isn’t that lovely? And the fact that you still do fashion parades, not a lot of people do in-store fashion parades anymore …
Donna: Yes! We held back for a little while during Covid, but now we’re back and having fashion parades again.
Catriona: Speaking of Bastille Day, what other details have you included in your latest collection?
Donna: Let’s see. I’ve got a fabulous faux fur houndstooth cardigan with a Chanel-feel right here. See? It’s ultra-soft and has a lot of warmth. It also comes with a cute pearl detail. And this blue sweater? Is a 100% woollen piece with a tone-on-tone cornflower blue colour, very on-trend at the moment. And this French print you see here? In every collection, we do a print. We create a long-sleeved printed t-shirt so it can be layered with everything. So, if you don’t want to purchase a dress, you can opt for a beautiful cotton print instead.
The hero piece of this collection? Is our velvet top. Something to elevate your armoire with. If you still wanted to have the casual bottom, and you just wanted to elevate your denim together with your trench – then you choose this top. A little bit of velvet during this time of the year is really beautiful to have in your wardrobe.
Catriona: And what about those sailor-style pants with the three buttoned detail? I love these.
Donna: So, this is a Ponte, a beautiful jersey fabric, well-wearing and warm. But it can also translate into a dressier pant or a more casual pant. It’s got a soft structure to it, and its hard-wearing. We’ve done it with the classic sailor buttons and in a wide leg cut.
Catriona: Speaking of sailors, here’s some interesting trivia about the number of stripes on a sailor’s shirt. I heard that historically speaking, they represented the number of victories of Napoleon’s battles. In fact, when Coco Chanel was holidaying on the coast, she apparently saw all the sailors wearing Ponte pants and the Breton striped shirts. This is what fuelled her to take this style mainstream in all her stores.
Donna: It’s funny you say that; a few years ago, I reached out to this nautical apparel company called ‘Saint James’, who was initially famous for the Breton top. They took me through the whole process of why the Breton was made, its history, and how it was connected to the sailors, and I think they actually produced Coco Chanel’s first striped top!
Catriona: Wow. You see, this is why it’s so lovely having something like today’s event! So, everyone can understand the thought that goes into every single piece.
Donna: A lot of love and a lot of thought goes into our pieces. We actually create great pieces of clothing that you can wear again and again.
Catriona: Totally. And what’s even better, is our common passion for sustainability. For example, I wanted to make sure that I honoured my husband, but also Australian wool. And then, it turns out that Indiana, your daughter, is adamant about supporting sustainability too. You’ll also notice that on a lot of the labels at Blue Illusion, you’ll see messages about saving and planting trees, and all those tiny details. That whether it’s on the charitable side or not I think when you go into a Blue Illusion store, and you buy something and you feel good - it’s almost like an act of service. I also love the way you can just buy your little gifts from there. It’s always beloved, knowing that there’s a lot of care that goes into it.
Donna: And then of course, we do a lot of collaborations, so we have a lot of other people coming into the mix as well …
Catriona: Which brings me to ask … what you love about collaborations?
Donna: I think collabs give me and my team an opportunity to have fresh eyes, fresh looks, and different perspectives. Everybody has their own taste and style, and I think that that’s what’s wonderful. It keeps us evolving as a design house.
Catriona: Too true. I remember Donna organised a special lunch for some of the brand ambassadors she collaborates with. And I remember hearing someone comment to Chyka about a dress that she had worn, saying they absolutely loved that colour, and Chyka goes, ‘Oh, that was actually twelve dollars from the markets.’ And that’s her style, completely her ‘fresh eyes’, as you say. And then for me, I’m coming in and going, ‘Can I shove that in the overhead locker on an airplane?’ Ha. You’re so right!
Donna: Everyone we collaborate with just gives us a new perspective on what they love, and we try to translate those ideas into something that our customers will love too. I guess that’s the secret to our success …