Take a walk through Valletta’s back streets, and you’ll come across old shop fronts with wonderful names, often faded or peeling with the patina of the years. Most are shuttered up relics of once busy shops. Some sport the names of the partners in the family firms while others prefix their wares or services with adjectives we’d rarely see in adverts today, such as ‘economical’ or ‘bespoke’. These shop fronts are the signs of Valletta of old, the ‘Vanishing Valletta’ documented by Maltese photographer David Pisani.
Not many of these old shops that were once the lifeblood of Valletta a century or more ago live on today. But one family of retailers can trace its history back that far; its story parallels that of Malta through World Wars, slumps and booms. It can document also consumers’ changing tastes in fashion and furnishings from Victoriana to 1930s’ modernism and 1950s’ post-war utility and beyond.
The firm, now run by the grandsons and great grandchildren of the founding brothers, is Camilleri Paris Mode, and it’s just turned 120. Once called ‘À La Ville de Lyon’, and located on the corner of Merchants Street and St John’s Square tucked next to the Co-Cathedral, it stocked general drapery and advertised that is was a “naval & military contractor”. According to an old newspaper cutting, its wares included “silks, woolen, cotton, linen goods, damask, tapestry, the latest novelties, and faldettas” (the traditional hooded cloak women wore in Malta and Gozo, known also as the għonnella).
The business witnessed its ups and downs and the story of the Camilleri family mirrors that of Malta. It grasped the market in the Fin de siècle era when it imported the lastest in Parisian fashion accessories to adorn Malta’s well-heeled society ladies, as well as ensuring wisely that it offered value and service to all strata of clientele; it saw a brother almost emigrate to Argentina; it saw the family business split and diverge; it had hard times following the First World War; and it saw its premises and the city around it all but destroyed by World War II.
As it celebrates 120 years in trade, Camilleri Paris Mode – its name still resonating with its history as a purveyor of Paris fashions – is no longer solely about fabrics. The firm’s now three shops, one still on Merchants’ Street, offer also wedding services (lists, gowns and accessories), design and manufacture of sofas, wines and delicacies, and lifestyle and living ranges suited to every interior from baroque palaces to marina penthouses.
Its nerve centre is thoroughly contemporary and housed in spanking new premises in Rabat. But appearances deceive. If there are two adjectives that describe CPM (as those in the know call it) today, just as 120 years ago, I’d say they are ‘bespoke’ and ‘fine’. Whether you’re calling in to get a single bottle of wine or talking about the interior of an entire flat, the family and its family of staff give you the kind of old-world service that you thought went out, well, a hundred years ago. It survived, when many shut up shop around it. There’s a lesson in that somewhere…
Photo: Rubelli Fabrics, courtesy of Camilleri Paris Mode.