Last year, while businesses across myriad industries and sectors were busy dealing with the effects of COVID-19, camilleriparismode – one of a handful of local firms which can claim to have been in business continuously since the 1800s – turned 130 years old. In the first of a series of stories dedicated to Malta’s industry greats, Sarah Micallef discovers the passion and heritage behind camilleriparismode
Founded by Paolo Camilleri in 1890 under the name A La Ville de Lyon, camilleriparismode is now run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Camilleri family, and retails the finest fabrics, homeware, furniture and fashion articles. Now in its 131st year, Mark and Hannah Camilleri, two of Paolo’s great great grandchildren, reveal that the business at the time was very different to what it is today.
“It started out as a small shop on the corner of Merchants Street and St John’s Square in Valletta,” Mark explains, highlighting the fact that Valletta was very much the business centre of the island. “The population of the capital at the time was of 26,000 people – nowadays Valletta has 6,000 inhabitants. Everything happened in Valletta, making it the place to be if you wanted to be in business.”
Back then, the shop traded in items primarily dedicated to ladies, including lingerie, hats, handbags and perfume. Later, in the 1930s, the business expanded to trading more in fashion, but not as we know it today.
“At the time, readyto-wear or prêt-à-porter fashion didn’t exist, so we would deal in fashion fabrics for both men and women,” Mark maintains, adding that the suspicion today was that the opening of a second shop, just across the street, was a way of separating the men’s and women’s fabric selection at a time when it was considered more proper to do so.
This is also where the current name originates from, Mark and Hannah reveal. After Paolo’s two sons split the business, Carmelo went on to invest in the second shop, growing it and becoming renowned as the purveyor of the latest in Parisian fashion. “We were known as the Camilleris who import Parisian fashion. From that, it turned into camilleriparismode,” they say.
Carmelo would go on to further expand into home furnishings – a line of the business which Mark and Hannah reveal would experience huge growth following World War II, as “Malta had to be rebuilt.”
Carmelo’s children made up the third generation – Mark and Hannah’s grandfather and his three brothers. After them, the shares filtered down to the fourth generation, current directors Franco (Hannah’s father), Victor (Paul’s Father) and Anthony (Mark’s Father). Finally, Mark, his brother Andrew, Paul, Hannah and her two sisters (Mara and Sophie) are the fifth generation..
While the women from previous generations were involved in different capacities, Hannah happily reveals, “my sisters and I are the first women in the management sphere of the business. It’s refreshing for a 130-year-old company – I think they needed a woman’s touch!”
Looking back on its vast history, Mark considers the first major milestone in camilleriparismode’s story to be the opening of the second shop in Valletta, where the shift to home furnishings took place, followed by the opening of their shop in Sliema in 1990. Then, between 1995 and 1996, they purchased GK Interiors – a company that produced sofas, which was struggling to stay afloat. “We wanted to acquire a factory where we could manufacture quality sofas – back then, and even today, it was difficult to find the quality we were looking for, so we wanted to expand our portfolio of products related to our fabrics and their use,” explains Mark.
In the year 2000, upon refurbishing the Sliema shop, the decision was made to go beyond being just a fabric shop. “We wanted to go beyond the visual, so we started introducing scented candles to add atmosphere, and from there, one thing led to another. From candles we brought in lighting and chandeliers, tableware and even wines, to introduce the sense of taste. It was about a holistic approach to what a home should be. We recognised the need to grow horizontally, and that also prompted the need for larger premises,” they say. From there, the next milestone was the opening of the Rabat factory premises as a shop in 2009, where the team also launched their design department, headed by Paul.
“I was born a year before the Sliema shop opened, and I will always remember the excitement around the concept of the Rabat shop as a girl,” recalls Hannah, remembering happy childhood days playing in the factory with her sisters and cousins. “It was our playground,” Mark agrees, “I remember playing hide and seek with my brother between the fabrics.”
Reflecting on the nature of the family business, Hannah says that camilleriparismode is more than just a job, but an intrinsic part of who they are.
What’s more, the family atmosphere also extends to employees who are not directly related, they add, revealing that some employees are even in their third generation, and others have spent their lifetime with the company. “We call them our extended family,” they smile, adding that “the term family business is lived here. Our philosophy on the way we were brought up with the business is not something we can switch off. Work is our life and family, and that extends to everyone that works with us.”
They also consider their heritage to be one of their strengths. “The fact that we have been dealing in fabrics since the 1930s, when the internet did not exist, means that we have acquired a lot of knowledge,” Mark says.
In that time, the business landscape on the island has changed immensely. Asked about what this has meant for their industry, Hannah emphasises that you can’t look at the industry without first considering how much Malta has changed. “Demographically, we have so many different nationalities now living amongst us,” she explains, describing it as a learning experience. “We’d have clients from different parts of the world that would even make us aware of new brands – keeping our ears open helped us to adapt,” she says, adding that what has perhaps been the biggest recent change is the development of Malta in general.
As a company that focuses on quality with a penchant for aesthetics, Hannah can’t help but wish that every project gave importance to certain details but acknowledges that isn’t always the case. On the plus side, she notes that people are more informed than ever before, partly due to the internet, and are looking for beauty. “That helps us as a company that deals in beautiful things,” she laughs, adding “people are looking more for beauty, and thankfully, we have it.”
And, apart from the beautiful items they present, it is the passion which the team possesses which they feel really sets them apart. Describing the qualities that make camilleriparismode special, Mark and Hannah list talent, dedication and discretion as important aspects of the business, along with creativity and innovation.
These aspects also translate into the most recent sector of their business: camilleriparismode’s projects and design department. Having been recently awarded the Rehabilitation and Conservation Award at the Malta Architectural and Spatial Planning (MASP) awards for their work on Villa La Fiorentina in Attard, Hannah describes this new offshoot of the business as “a response to the growing demand for beauty with the way Malta is developing, and has grown to include our in-house architect, project manager and interior designers, enabling us to tackle any project from start to finish.”
“We have a crazy passion for what we do. And I use the word crazy intentionally!” laughs Hannah, as Mark nods in agreement. “I remember we once moved the set-up of the entire store because one of the racks was 5cm off!” Indeed, other than just looking great, Hannah maintains, “the work and the passion behind all that we do translates into an energy that resonates within our shops, which people feel when they walk in. This carries through in projects we present and products we create.”
This also forms part of their heritage – a passion which they say filtered down all the way from their great great grandfather. “We feel that we have been handed something that isn’t just ours. We are always on a mission to be better, do better and find ways we can improve. It is much more than a job to us. I feel the responsibility entrusted to us by those that came before us,” Hannah says, explaining that it is truly the family legacy. “You feel the weight of it, but also the drive to push forward and keep it going.”
As for how the company dealt with the difficulties brought about by COVID-19, Mark sums it up as adopting a philosophy, as they say in Maltese, of: rasek fuq ghonqok, u saqajk ma’ l-art. “We didn’t lose our head in World War II, so we didn’t lose our head in the pandemic,” he smiles.
And as they assess the future as the business lives out its 131st year, I ask, what’s next for camilleriparismode? “World domination!”, they laugh, before answering seriously, “we are looking at continuing to expand our portfolio, and also possibly looking to expand geographically within Malta” – indeed, it certainly looks like the Camilleris who once made a name for themselves importing Parisian fashion have far more up their stylish sleeves.
This interview featured on the first ever edition of Business Now magazine, the sister brand to BusinessNow.mt
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