ENCINITAS — Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Princess Mary of Denmark and Donatella Versace are among devotees of milliner Jill Courtemanche. Word among coastal fashionistas has been spreading since Courtemanche moved to Encinitas from New York a year ago after husband, Morelle Marean, accepted an executive position with Champagne Bakery.
Courtemanche has been working in tight quarters from her home since then and is looking forward to Nov. 8 when Jill Courtemanche Millinery debuts at 410 South Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach.
“I am so excited to be opening my first store here in San Diego and having the opportunity to share my vision of fashion and design with a community that already had such rich ties to millinery in the Del Mar Race Track and San Diego Polo Club,” she said.
Courtemanche will carry a complete line of men’s hats, bow ties and pocket squares along with women’s hats, bridal headpieces and veils.
“I have always wanted to open a hat shop with a voyeuristic feel to it, where clients could not only see the hats being made but be a part of the process, starting with a shape and then choosing their own colors, fabrics, ribbons and trims,” she said. “Clients will have the luxury of getting exactly what they want, made to order at an accessible price point and shaking the hand of the milliner who made it.”
Courtemanche says she’s drawn to “the best of the best” fabric, trims and embellishments whether new or vintage.
“I spend a lot of time in dusty basements,” she quipped, adding that one expedition yielded 300 shades of felt made in the 1950s for Saks Fifth Avenue.
Each hat is shaped using a wooden block. Courtemanche has scores of them lined up neatly on shelving in her garage, some almost 100 years old. If she can’t find a new block for a design, she shops eBay. If that doesn’t work, she gets her woodworking tools out and makes it herself.
“My husband can cook a great soufflé, but I can build you something,” she said, smiling. “I love a hands-on project, especially the physical part like blocking, steaming and sculpting hats.”
If a client purchases a hat that, for example, blows away and lands in the surf, Courtemanche can bring it back to life by reblocking it. She can also reincarnate a hat for a wedding purchased earlier for opening day at the racetrack.
Growing up in Maine, Courtemanche remembers wearing hats as a girl and playing dress up in her grandmother’s closet. She earned a degree in fashion journalism at Boston University, then took a detour and moved to New York City where she graduated from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. She had an “ah-ha” moment her last semester when she enrolled in a millinery course.
“From that first day when I made a simple beret, and finished it by hand, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said.
Courtemanche had worked alongside master artisans in Europe and New York City, including eight years as an apprentice at Suzanne Newman Couture Millinery on Madison Avenue.
“You never knew who would walk into the shop,” she said. “There was Aretha Franklin and Madonna — one day Bill Cosby was there and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me on one knee.”
Today, Courtemanche has developed a loyal following.
“Jill Courtemanche’s hats are ladylike confections created at the highest standard of millinery techniques,” said Linda Pagan, owner of The Hat Shop in New York City.
“I used to have more of her hats but one was stolen by a 6-foot-7 Italian man at a burlesque club,” added Miranda Childs. “Her hats have true universal appeal.”
In addition to Jill Courtemanche originals, the new store will carry hats from The House of MacGregor (Dallas, Texas), Cigmond (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Eggcup Designs (Dover, Del.), Heather Huey (New York City) and Romer Millinery (Summit, N.J.) as well as scarves and accessories from Untold Imprint.
Hat lovers from around the world are expected to converge on San Diego this fall to take hat-making courses from Courtemanche at The Bravo School of Art Sept. 23, Oct. 17, Nov. 13 and Dec. 8.
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