Australia’s First Masquerade Mask Shop

Australia First Mask Shop – Insignia Masks

We go way back – to before Masks were available in Australia

Customers and friends often ask “how is it you have this business?” Actually it’s been a real gift that one morning I woke up and knew with absolute certainty that I must import masks to Australia.

Having returned from a European holiday with lots of wonderful treasures from Venice, I decided to collect Masks. I had never collected anything else before and assumed it would be easy.

It’s hard to believe there were no masks available in the shops. I wanted to hang them on the wall, collect and decorate with masks. There were none to be bought at any price.

When I launched the business I asked customers if they had seen any others available. None of my customers had seen masks in Australia.

When loss inspires

The birth of my business coincided with me being retrenched and becoming divorced. Timing was terrible yet without those two losses, I doubt that I would have had the fortitude to persist.

You see, the very things that were lost freed me up and enabled me to push through. I needed a job and never wanted to work for anyone else again. I found a friend who spoke Italian which enabled me to go and find the Italian artisans that were the foundation of my fledgling business.

In 1994 I decided to import masks. Using my last available cash, I went to Venice, found a good source and began Liberty Imports with big dreams and no money.

How to market

I was certain that the local Gift Shops would love my masks but when I cold canvassed the shops the answer was consistently, “their lovely but we aren’t really a mask shop“.

Only I would be stupid enough to start a business importing something no one wanted.

This was a real obstacle. Stuck between never wanting to work for anyone else and no income, I persisted. At one point I would eat wild harvested mushrooms and eggs on toast a couple times a week. Mum’s was an even better source of a good hearty meal and any money made went into the business.

God’s guidance and my enthusiasm galvanized me against the grief of any sacrifice. Somehow the people with the right advice appeared so that I found direction.

I met a stranger who told me that exhibiting at Gift Fairs would expose me to lots of retailers. Though one exhibition company was exclusive with membership over $1000- the competition was expensive yet achievable. The first year I sold a few, the second year I had repeat business and sold 4 times as many.

I was accepted on the third try as a “New Enterprise Initiative Business”. A Government assistance program where a new business can get a mentor, small business management course and social security for one year.

My mum Grace, would travel with me and we would load up the Mitsubishi Galant and drive across Australia to Melbourne or Sydney. We did the circuit of Home Shows and Gift Fairs and lived like Gypsy’s for years sometimes only 3 or 6 days at home between shows. My Mum, in her seventies was up for the adventure every time.

Changing the Culture

At the Shows I was able to explain that the masks were made for the Carnival of Venice. That they are an authentic piece of art, hand painted or with Gold or Silver leaf, crystals and feathers. Made for a 1000 year old carnival in the city of watery reflections, music and art.

We sold mostly decorative Wall Masks at the shows, because there were no Masquerade Parties in Australia at that time. I renamed the business Insignia Decorator Masks and Collectables to reflect this.

We would have 100 Wall masks and 4 Masquerade Masks but things changed and my wonderful customers gently guided me to today’s success.

The Insignia Collector’s Club was started to inform our customers about Venetian Masks and the history of Murano Glass Jewelry.

We sent out newsletters for over a decade. I believe that this is why so many Australians know about the Carnival of Venice and Venetian Masquerade Mask History. The Doctor of the Pestilence, Bauta and many other Venetian details are well known in Australia.

Copying is the highest form of praise

Mum used to say that “to copy was the highest form of praise“.

If it’s annoying between friends its even more frustrating in business.

I’m one of those people that you can wake up in the middle of the night and I can tell you what I was planning in my sleep. Sounds funny to some, however its normal on my Mum’s side of the family who are very creative.

The idea of a Phantom Mask was playing in my mind after the great success of the musical. So, I personally developed our Phantom Mask in a particular shape that felt more secure to wear than the one in the musical. My Italian artisans did not have any Phantom Masks as this is a French character created in a book by Gaston Leroux.

When asked about a phantom, my artisans just agreed to make what ever I wanted. One of the staff was asked to wear a full face mask and I free hand sketched with pencil what I was after onto his masked face.

Having cut out the parts not wanted and smoothed the profile we tweaked the design here and there. Within 15 minutes, modern Phantom Masks were born.

This shape has been copied more than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. Oh well, I like to think I am a leader in my field, leaving the unimaginative opposition confounded in my wake.

Let’s do some leopard

A similar thing happened with Murano Glass. I’m a Leopard Print girl. I love it more than florals and there was no leopard Murano Jewelry available.

Again my artisans just made it for me. We talked of gold leaf with spots of amber and glittering black “venturina” glass to create the spots. All this entombed in clear glass proved to be a hit and…. just like that, there was leopard print Murano Glass everywhere. But first, we had it in Australia at Insignia Masks.

Adapt and Survive

Insignia Masks was well established and blooming with the addition of Murano Glass Jewelry when the Global Financial Crisis hit.

At first there was barely a change so that I thought my Gift Shop retailers and I would ride it out. My shop owners kept saying “your stuff is still selling” however sadly over 90% of those shops did not survive the GFC.

We created a website directed to the public called Venetian Fantasy Masks, however later changed the name to Mask Shop Australia because it was easier to spell and remember.

In march 2020 Covid Kill Joy hit and I’m still here hanging on like a barnacle on a weathered coastal rock. Two years without pay and I still go to bed and think about masks. I was born to do this.

San Marco square at Sunset, flooding from high tide Mothers Day 2005

This business has been the most wonderful adventure of my life. I have walked the cobblestone streets of Venice for months and know Venice better than Adelaide.

I have absorbed the romance of Venice into my soul and held it there with relish.

The Italians I have done business with have changed me into a person who believes that life must have beauty, love and music and without that one just exists.

Both my Italian artisans and I know the value of hard work but so rewarding to be fulfilled in ones chosen profession no matter what the hours or pay.

With almost 30 years experience specializing in masquerade masks I am at your service for any enquiry at all with regard to Masks, Murano Jewelry or the city of Venice. You are welcome to contact me (in Australia +61) on 0412 658 696

Sincerely Antoinette

Owner & Founder of Mask Shop Australia & one lucky girl!

Our Stunning Mask Shop Logo – My how we have evolved.
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