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Hats in Paris

The 2020 Covid year had a lot going on, and amongst all of it a local, driven and ferociously talented woman was posting two of her incredible hats… to Paris!

by Rebecca Mugridge

“When I was asked to send two hats to Paris for the Karl Fabergé 175 year anniversary it was in the middle of the pandemic,” shared Caren Stevenson, who runs Caren Lee Milliner based in Nambour.

“I remember posting my big box at Palmwoods Post Office in April 2020 and it didn't arrive until July! Then we had to wait for two more years for the exhibition to go ahead in Paris. I'm forever grateful for the international recognition and exposure by the International Millinery Association, a huge compliment to my work!” 

Caren Stevenson is a Certified Master Personal Stylist, who trained on the Gold Coast and Melbourne at Chadstone with the Professional Styling Academy, and she is the fashion designer behind Caren Lee Milliner.

“One of my two headpieces called "Golden Crown" is made from gold leather, but has a swirl made from good old gutter guard from Bunnings! When I first started using it people laughed at me,” Caren said with a smile.

“Not only do I have a hat in a Paris Museum with gutter guard on it, one of my clients, SheryL-lea Beaton, won the Fashions on the Field at Ipswich Cup 2019 wearing my Burgundy leather headpiece featuring gutter guard in gold to represent Queensland's colours!” 

It is this level of genius and creative talent that has seen Caren already do 13 runway shows and make some major waves in Australian fashion.

“I collaborated with Moreno Marcos for the Brisbane Fashion Festival and being in this event was the highlight of my career! I was thrilled to be asked by Sophia to create ten headpieces to compliment her gowns. Seeing them parade down the runway in front of our Lady Mayoress Nina Schrinner and Gina Reinhardt is something I will never forget!” A career in fashion takes more than talent, however, it takes hard work and grit.

“Fashion is a tough industry which is why I'm studying and hoping to teach part time later on. I do custom orders for clothes and my millinery, plus alterations, but it is a very spasmodic way to live.

“I completed my Cert III in Applied Fashion and Technology at Tafe Qld in 2023 and this year I begin my Diploma of Fashion Design and Technology journey! I love the teaching style at Tafe, it's wonderful being so hands on every day doing what I love.

“I will say that with me being unemployed, doing a Diploma at Tafe is expensive, $17,000, which is why I need work and to get to New York Fashion Week. I will need to apply for a grant and hopefully get it. This is my dream.”

Following a personal passion is no easy feat for anybody, it takes work and drive and talent, something which seems to have run in Caren’s genes.

“My Nana taught oil painting and pottery when I was growing up. I remember using her knee-press Singer sewing machine when I was eight; then mum bought me a little metal toy machine and I started making dolls’ clothes. 

“My father Gary did his apprenticeship at Anthony Squires Suit Makers in his teenage years. Afterwards he worked at Lane Walker Rudkin in Christchurch, which is where the Canterbury Clothing Company CCC originated, and of course they make the footy jerseys and uniforms for all our NRL and AFL teams. Mum and Dad met at the factory and later married,” Caren remembers. 

“When I was growing up, my mum Kathy made one-off garments for clients and she taught me suit-making and coat-making techniques. Invaluable one-on-one, hands-on learning at home. I was very lucky to be brought up in a creative household.

“My biggest influence growing up would have to be Princess Diana with her elegance and simplicity and, of course, her beautiful hats! Diana was everywhere and her influence stuck with me. 

“For me she was as elegant as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, who my mother adored. I love classic fashion and I believe it is timeless and never dates.

“It was at Maleny Girl Guides, in fact, where I found out about hat making and Elaine Mergard, who is the founder of Hat Academy, a worldwide online millinery school.”

Caren says she was also very impressed with the fashion and styling in the recent box office smash hit, the Barbie movie. Reliving the nostalgia of her own daughters growing up with Barbie dolls.

Fancy yourself a fashion designer in the making? Caren says the courses she has done have been invaluable and a great doorway into the industry. She worked and studied her way to her fashion success from a school cleaner with four kids at school in Maleny, to an Australian fashion designer and stylist with work on display in Paris!

“To anyone wanting to start out in a fashion career, my advice is to study at Tafe for sure, the teachers have invaluable industry experience, plus you get to put together your own collection when you complete your Diploma. 

“While millinery is only taught in short courses at Mt Gravatt Tafe, you can still do a Cert II to learn the basics which is a lot of fun. If you then want to study further there is Hat Academy online. 

“I went to master milliners in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane for individual lessons to learn further traditional techniques, which was invaluable and well worth the expense.”

You can follow Caren’s amazing journey and work on Instagram



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