Hats Off to Modern Milliners
For many, the word “milliner” evokes figures from a bygone era — antiquated artisans whose skill sets were passed down to them from earlier generations, and whose numbers have dwindled in recent decades. Today, their creations can come to define a person or look, like that vintage Vivienne Westwood hat has done for Pharrell Williams, or those Stephen Jones Millinery masterpieces have done for the Thom Browne runway. “In our millinery program, we’re seeing a younger student who is really interested in the art of the hat,” observes Ellen Goldstein, a professor of accessories design at F.I.T. for over 30 years and the founder of the school’s accessories program. “This is someone who is not looking to make ‘just some hat,’ but to experiment with material, size and style to create that sculptural piece of art” — like Gigi Burris, a young milliner who was among the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nominees in 2014.
Here, just in time for the season of wide brims and baseball caps, we round up some of the dedicated women breathing fresh air into the Old World craft.
House of Lafayette: The classicist
Growing up in France, Virginie Promeyrat saw the chapeau treated with reverence and regularly “borrowed” her grandfather’s hats to wear herself. She carried that affection for the accessory through business administration school, all the way to New York City, where she worked for Chanel and eventually began creating her own hats, the first of which she introduced in July of 2014. She plays on classic men’s silhouettes, adorning them with feminine elements like scarves and beads. Her Johnny Panama in light grey, which has a raw edge and a bit of sheen, sums up her approach: “Hats are easy,” she says, “and yet can change your entire appearance.”
$125 – $450, houseoflafayette.com.
Clyde: The minimalist
Since Dani Griffiths was a young girl in Vancouver, constructing hats (often from household objects to project a certain character) was her calling. After moving to New York City when she was 21, she picked up the trade by dedicating eight hours to hand-shaping each hat and learning firsthand about how various materials behave when manipulated. Then in 2012, the self-taught milliner debuted her first collection of angora felt hats at Assembly New York. Her designs, which she shapes herself, are feminine and without frills — like the Pinch Panama hat in nude and white (her favorite).
$138 – $312, welcometoclyde.com.
Gladys Tamez Millinery: The sculptor
Gladys Tamez was burned out on her ready-to-wear line and traveling in Spain when she stumbled onto a 200-year-old, family-run hat-making atelier. Inspired by the range and complexity of the craft — “It pains me to see anybody who has nice shoes, nice clothes, good style and a quality purse topped off with a mass-produced hat,” she says — she flew back to L.A. and studied under more veteran milliners before introducing her eponymous collection in 2011. In an ongoing collaboration with the musician Sia, she explores her surrealist side with the use of hair (of course). Still, Tamez refers to her wide-brimmed Bianca as “the little black dress of hats,” and regards the investment piece as an instant heirloom, meant to last for generations.
$350 – $2,000, gladystamez.com.
Lola: The pop artist
Lola Ehrlich came by her creative chops honestly: She was born in Holland and raised in Paris by artistic parents, and did stints as everything from a ballet dancer to a textile conservator. Once she moved to New York, in 1989, she realized her love of hats by opening a one-of-a-kind hat store in the East Village. The pieces were made by a friend, though, and she understood that she would only alleviate her creative frustration by learning to make them herself. So she studied at F.I.T., set up a studio in Bushwick and, eventually, in 2014, launched her eponymous collection at Bergdorf Goodman. The beauty is in the details: playful, hand-punched perforations; stitching that evokes a child’s crayon scribble; a giant fox pompon atop a baseball cap. Ehrlich never wears hats herself but believes that baseball caps will likely be known as the hats of our time. “Millinery is a dying trade and we love endangered species,” she says. “Just like microbreweries, Brooklyn pickles and the obsession with handmade axes and canoe paddles, it’s a link to a time we imagine was kinder and better.”
$150 – $450, lolahats.com.
Jennifer Ouellette: The veteran Impressionist
Jennifer Ouellette credits days spent at her mother’s St. Louis vintage clothing shop (which started with a collection of hats) with forming the foundation of her style. There, she learned about historic silhouettes and developed an appreciation for breathing new life into classic lines. While studying textiles and theater design in Missouri and London, she began making her chapeaux; and ultimately, she worked with multiple British and American milliners, including her mentor Stephen Jones, to learn her craft. “No other accessory carries quite the mystery,” Ouellette says. “People like to solve mysteries. That’s why hats are the most intriguing accessory by far. They become a means of self-expression.” She delivered her first official order to Barneys New York in 1996, and specializes in hybrid headpieces, like a horsehair braid headpiece and bouclé flower earmuffs.
$150 – $600, jenniferouellette.com.
Littledoe: The experimenter
Chase Cohl approached making hats the way she has every facet of her accessory line: through trial and error. At 22, inspired by the desire to create her own dream chapeau, she sat alone in her house like a woman possessed, watching millinery videos day and night and reading books about everything from steam irons to distressing. “Hats not only make people wonder who the wearer is, but also move people to admire the ballsy ability to pull something off,” Cohl says. “It’s pretty weird and wonderful that there is such a resurgence of this kind of craftsmanship.” She first launched her accessories collection under the name Littledoe without fanfare in 2008, while studying poetry in New York, and it quickly caught on with editors at Style.com, Nylon, Teen Vogue and Rolling Stone. Inspired by the 1960s and 1970s, the line has evolved from, in her words, “crunchy and barefoot” to refined or “bourgeois bohemian.”
$150 – $900, littledoeislove.com.