Cécile Tilley 

1925 – 2014

 

Cécile Tilley didn’t do dull. There was nothing small, ordinary, vague or conventional about her – ever. Flamboyant and fabulously grand, Cécile – or Ciel as she was affectionately known – was an original to the core. Her innate sense of style was possessed of something so natural and untaught that it was instantly fresh, irreverent and glamorous. It seems so obvious now that Cécile’s immense talent – that enabled her to instinctively throw the best parties, cook the most incredible food, and create smart, loved and layered interiors – would go on to spawn an eponymous design business.

It seems that her unconventionality, was destined from birth. Born Marie Therese Cécile Pitout on the 15 March 1925 in Mauritius, the joy of her birth was marred by the untimely passing of her mother soon after, from complications in childbirth. And so it was that Cécile, as she was known, was taken in by her maternal aunt, Marie Zelli Feuilherade and raised as her own. Cécile’s childhood, surrounded by her first cousins in Mauritius was happy and by all accounts she seemed oblivious to any sense of abandonment. If anything, in true Cécile style, she took full advantage of it, displaying at a young age the verve that would serve her well in later life.

When Cécile walked into a room, the distinctive scent of bergamot, jasmine and ylang-ylang would precede her. Her trademark bright red glasses may have given way to tortoiseshell frames in later years, but her sense of style never waned. Throughout her life Cécile had all her clothes custom-made to her exacting standards, creating a personal look that was classic yet haute couture. As Cécile saw it, quality was everything and only the very best fabrics would do. Every bale of cloth was subjected to her unerring finger pinch test and if you stood still long enough next to her, she’d inadvertently do the same to your clothes. Should the thread count not make the grade, she’d declare in her baritone voice: ‘cheap, cheap, cheap.’

Cécile’s sense of humour and candour was legendary. Everything that came out of her mouth was funny and risque. She had a series of Cécile -ism’s that define her to this day. ‘Momaa-ma’ was reserved for those things that were hideous and unpalatable, whilst ‘gaga’ was Cécile’s seal of approval for anything that she loved and found charming.

She had a keen sense of the outrageous and there was always a French twist to whatever she wore, be it the pairing of bright red socks with mocassins or an oversized man’s watch with a crisp white shirt. For Cécile, bold was always better. And as such she was never one for petite pieces of anything, her rings had to cover half her hand and a small diamond, no matter how rare or valuable, would never elicit more than a disparaging and perfunctory: ‘Mmmm, ninty, ninty…’ Yet another Cécile- ism.

Cécile and the Feuilherade family moved from Mauritius to Durban when Cécile was in her teens, and they settled in quickly amongst the city’s close-knit Mauritian community. Outgoing and with a largesse for life, Cécile was outrageous and wild. In her early 20s, she met and married Duncan Tilley, who was an absolute catch with his gorgeous looks and piercing blue eyes. An outdoor type who was very much a guy’s guy and a man of the sea, he shared Cécile’s wicked sense of humour and her lust for life.

With Duncan at her side, Cécile’s creative output was prolific and the earliest expression of her creativity was in the many beautiful homes that she created in Durban and Umdloti. Her largesse was by no means impractical when it came to her homes, everything was well thought out and considered and she was an absolute perfectionist. But once Cécile had created and lived out her fantasy in a home, it would be sold ­– lock, stock and barrel – with nary a backward glance. Cécile was always moving on, eager to tackle the next thing.

On more than one occasion Cécile and Duncan would bring the entire beach at Umdloti to a standstill, at the sight of their cook Charlie walking all the way from their house at the top of Margaret Bacon Avenue to the beach, bearing an enormous silver tray laden with china, cake and other delicious eats. This would be set up beautifully beneath the umbrella for everyone’s enjoyment, as though it was a commonplace occurrence at the beach. Whatever Cécile did, she did it well and with absolute style.

Her marriage was no less successful. Not only did Duncan absolutely adore Cécile but he was a constant support to her throughout their lives together. When she opened the hugely popular and uber glamorous Cécile’s Kitchen in Umdloti, he was there, catching fish for the menu, and staying with her until the last guests had left. Similarly, when she started the lamp factory in Ballito with Boyd, he was there to lend support and give an opinion.

In turn, Cécile loved nothing better than to glam him up and had all his clothes tailor-made for him. When in his late 70s, he became ill and bedridden, Cécile devoted herself to ensuring that his every comfort was met, amidst an arcadia of crisp linen and countless starched pillows, all scented with her favourite French fragrance, Piver.

Cécile was warm, friendly, generous, exciting, impossible and totally outrageous, and she had a natural affinity for young people. Unable to have any children of her own, Cécile was immensely maternal and so children were naturally drawn to her. An invite to Cécile’s home would always include children and she’d spend inordinate amounts of time having outfits made up for them and creating beautifully decorated caravans in the garden of her home just for their entertainment. A sleepover at her house was always taken up a notch with the creation of magical bunkbeds complete with big mosquito nets and lots of plump cushions. Children returned the compliment and flocked to her in droves. Of course, Cécile did as she saw fit and would think nothing to deliver children back home to their mothers in new clothes and newly shorn hair, declaring: ‘There, they look much better.’

Her inability to see a divide between generations was as rare then as now, and was to prove crucial when Cécile met Boyd in her 60s. Their creative rapport was instant, and they too found commonground in humour and a desire to do things differently. Although at that stage Cécile had lived a full life, she was more than game for another creative challenge. Her uncanny ability to make things look fantastic out of absolutely nothing, saw them creating lamps from moulds and employing natural techniques such as acid-wash and paint techniques to make them look old and authentic. Soon, they were receiving orders and thus Cécile & Boyd’s was born.

Under Cécile’s generous tutelage, the early days were a frenzy of creativity with wonderful music and delicious Mauritian lunches at long tables under the trees on Jonny Rey’s farm in Verulam. But while lots of fun was had, there was also a prolific output of work with Cécile becoming a matriarch to an entire creative tribe who would descend upon the farm to work each day.

And so it was Cécile who set the blueprint for the value systems still enshrined within the business, and it was she who instilled serious intent from the outset. At her bidding Deloitte’s did the books and every Friday, none other than Stuttafords Van Lines would drive up the farm driveway to collect their lamps for delivery around the country.

More than 26 years on from those halycon days, Cécile’s compelling and inclusive legacy lives on in the values she brought to the business. Respect, generosity of spirit, transparency, humility and candour, to name a few, all remain core to Cécile & Boyd’s design ouput and business relationships. For someone who travelled seldom and read little, she was extraordinarily original. Haughty but humble, Cécile was about as far from an austere style icon as you could get. But a style icon she most certainly was. Nor was she a snob. She embraced originality and diversity in everyone, and her friendships blossomed with people from all walks of life, so long as they had a point of view and a sense of humour. Cécile’s contribution to all who knew her was enormous and multi-layered, but in essence, incredibly simple: Everyone should look good and live well.

 

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Cécile Tilley
1925 – 2014