I have a confession. Before yesterday I knew very little about Philip Treacy.
Friday afternoon I got an email from Cliodhna asking if one of us would do an interview. With certain other things on my mind, plus a full weekend at The Cat Laughs ahead, I resolved to ask someone who actually knows something about fashion, but between everything, didn’t get the chance.
In addition, I was thinking “Is Culch.ie a place for an interview like this? Would anyone be interested in reading an interview with some guy who makes hats?” I didn’t know if I would be. How wrong was I?
The weekend over, on my way to Dublin yesterday, navigational and scheduling problems struck – specifically we got lost thanks to the Offaly road network being signpost free and Philip Treacy was only in Dublin for the day, over to launch a new hat in conjunction with Lyons Tea. My meeting him just wasn’t meant to be.
Back at the desk I took some time to research this internationally renowned milliner. As painfully ignorant of fashion as I am, I knew the name, I knew what he did (kind of) and I knew he was successful but other than that, I’d have been at a complete loss in interview without research. So I started with Wikipedia, where I learned that:
- He’s Irish
- He’s from Ahascragh, a tiny village in Galway only familiar to me from Sean Moncrieff’s prank calls as Monica Looly on Don’t Feed the Gondalas
- He has seven brothers and one sister
- He studied in NCAD and has designed for Givenchy and Chanel.
- He designed a hat that Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the London premiere of ‘Sex and the City’
So far, so good. A quick perusal of some other sites reveals his popularity in the fashion world, the excitement in Paris in 2003 over his hats, of awards he has won – five British Derigner of the Year awards, to be specific, of exhibitions he has had - and the like. Nothing though that I could quickly find to really inform me though of exactly who he is and why he’s popular. Nothing that jumped out at me.
And then I visited his website. I read his biography. Twice.
I looked at the galleries, at the videos. I went back to look at the hats. I saw the work that had gone into them. I got a sense of what it was that he did. I began to build a picture.
I don’t get fashion. I’ve lived most of my life in clothes from Dunnes, Penneys and occasionally NEXT, when I had the money to spend. For years I’ve looked at the money people spend on clothes and think “not for me”. It just not something I’ve been interested in.
It’s only recently I’ve started to actually look properly at the physical make up of clothes, how they’re constructed, how they’re fit and how they can change someone. A recent trip to Griffith College awakened a huge respect for clothes designers and the work that goes in to an outfit.
When I’d initially read that Treacy had designed a hat, commissioned by Lyons Tea, to “celebrate the rich qualities of Lyons Gold Blend” I was of course sceptical – especially not having seen his other work. I read the press release:
The eye catching creation was made using hand dyed black pheasant feathers and vibrant red coq feathers curled using a signature Philip Treacy technique. Each feather was curled, shaped and then placed individually to create a fantastic 3 dimensional masterpiece, which conjures up the image of Lyons Gold Blend brewing in a cup.
and thought “Yeah, right“.
Treacy has said of the hat he had created “I wanted to create a hat that would symbolize how the tea swirls in the cup as it is poured, and how the leaves and tea bag infuse the water fortifying the brew.” I had all sorts of visions in my head – the mad hatters tea party being only the beginning. I hadn’t a clue what to expect.
And then I saw the hat itself.
There’s a lovely part of Philip Treacy’s official biography where it mentions that he grew up across the road from the village church:
“ As a small child, I loved to watch the weddings there. They were the equivalent of fashion shows to me. The dresses that people wore, I couldn’t believe them, they were incredible. It seemed so glamorous to see these creatures appear in these extraordinary clothes, as we didn’t have much glamour where I come from.”
He went on to create hats and dresses for his sister’s dolls with the ingredienst supplied by his mother’s geese, chickens, pheasants and ducks. As I read on, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this young man, growing up in rural Ireland in the 70s, just taking his creativity, simple materials and creating beautiful things with it.
He started making hats “as a hobby” to go with outfits he was designing in NCAD and through hard work, cultivated talent, support and extraordinary chutzpah and courage, he’s become one of the top designers in the world.
I was enthralled. Inspired. Intrigued. I suppose everything you should be when you read about someone who has succeeded through dint of effort. I had so many questions to ask. I felt very ignorant. I felt I should have known who more about who he was and just how successful he has become. I wanted to find out how. So I asked him.
I submitted questions to him yesterday and today got back the following:
Why do you do what you do?
I come from a tiny village in the west of Ireland. I am one of seven boys and one sister. My father was a baker and my mother was a housewife. My brothers are garda, psychiatrists and alcoholic counsellors. The garda deal with “headers”, my other brothers deal with complexities of the mind and it’s fitting I deal with what sits on the head.
I make hats because I love hats. It’s an enigmatic object that servers the human purpose only of beautification and embellishment and making one feel good whether you’re the observer of the spectacle or the wearer. A hat is a positive symbol. A good hat is the ultimate glamour accessory. It thrills observers and makes the wearer feel a million dollars. This creates a high status of desirability and although the images received can seem out of this world the conspicuous consumer relates strongly to it. The message is simple and absolute, a great hat exists outside its own time.
There’s a lovely quote in your biography that reads:
” I started sewing when I was about five. I remember being with the teacher in school. The boys did woodwork, or something, the girls were sewing and I thought “Why can’t I do that?”. I asked the teacher and she said “Okay”.
Does that surprise you in any way? Given rural Catholic education at the time, do you think it was something about you as a child or something about her as a teacher that made her give you that chance?
No, perhaps it was just that the ability to make things with my hands came so naturally to me that it wasn’t questioned as much as it otherwise might’ve been.
Another lovely quote is your father saying “whatever makes him happy” in response to a neighbour asking about your sewing back then. Did you ever think that you perhaps “shouldn’t” be doing what you were doing or was your family structure as supportive as that?
I never thought I shouldn’t be sewing, it was more of a party trick, I loved to work with my hands making something from nothing – creating clothing and accessories for my sisters dolls turning 2 dimensional material into a 3 dimensional objects.
In 1991, you were “summoned to meet Karl Lagerfeld” in Paris at the age of 23. In 1993 you were “calling Christy Turlington to ask her if she’d do a show”, as well as dealing with the world’s top models. Are you a naturally confident person who could do that given the opportunity or was it built on the success you had worked hard for? Were you surprised by the reaction or did you just take it as it came?
If I wasn’t such a strong person I might not have carried on with my sewing in my childhood.
Your biography also talks about how you looked at the women at weddings in the Church in Ahascragh and how you found them so glamorous. Since then you’ve worked in the top end of glamour and with some of the world’s top models and most beautiful women. Has your interpretation or definition of glamour changed much?
Hat making has been around since the beginning of time; it’s part of every culture. I haven’t invented the hat; I have just sort of made them sexy.
One of the most exciting aspects of my job is that I have an opportunity to influence how people see hats in the twenty-first century. And that is a very exciting job, because I have a worldwide audience open to seeing hats in a new way. I don’t believe in elitism in fashion. Fashion is for everybody to enjoy and it’s everybody’s right to look great!
People think that I have teams of people around, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Because it’s a tactile medium that I work in, the equipment I use is really ten fingers. In the past, mass production was thought to be the future, but now that handcrafted work is dying out – it’s entirely opposite. Handwork will be the luxury of the future.
Do hats suit everyone?
I believe in beauty and elegance and communicating thoughts and dreams in a visual way. I started designing hats 15 years ago while a student at the Royal College of Art. It was at a time when hats were perceived publicly as something worn by ladies of a certain age, and something from a bygone era. I thought this was totally ridiculous and simply believed “we all have a head, so everybody has the possibility to wear a hat.”
Are you ever nervous about how a hat might be received? Do you ever look at one of your creations and say “Ah no, they’ll never go for it” – especially some of your Haute Couture creations?
My assistant who looks after my shop tells me she sells a dream. She sells people things they do not really need, but they have to have. We all need beautiful things that make us feel good and give us pleasure. Whether it’s a flower, a sunrise, or a hat! These things are the spice of life and remind us of the essence of pleasure and beauty.
I have had the greatest pleasure of having the opportunity to challenge people’s perception of what a hat should look like in the 21st century.
What models working today can you think of whose looks you love and would love to work with?
I loved working with Jordon Dunn and Chanel Iman last season.
Do you take much time to go to the cinema, to read books or listen to music? If so, what sort of films/books/music do you enjoy?
I love going to art galleries and walking my dogs through Battersea Park on the way to work.
Is there any particular type of music playing in your workshop when you are creating a hat? Would there be different music for different types of hats?
I tend to listen to old show music I’ve had mixed when I’m working in my studio.
You originally studied hats as an accompaniment to outfits. What prompted the change?
In 1985 I moved to Dublin from Ahascragh to study fashion at the National College of Art & Design, where I made hats as a hobby to go with outfits I designed on the course. Nobody really had much time for the hat because it was a fashion school, but there did come a point when I was more interested in making the hats than the outfits.
When the students had to arrange work experience, I applied to spend six weeks with Stephen Jones, a London hat designer. A few years later I won a place on the MA fashion design course at the Royal College of Art in London. When I was interviewed I didn’t know whether to play down the hats or play up the hats, but they were thinking of setting up a hat course so I became their guinea pig. After one day there I said to my tutor Sheilagh Brown: What should I do? Should I make hats or clothes? She said: make hats. It was very practical, not a great revelation.
When commissioned to make a hat, where do you start? Is it a drawing, a model/sculpture, a doodle or just a vision that eventually becomes all of the above? Do you visualise your creation on someone first?
The hats usually start off as drawings. Then I make a mockup in a very light flexible fabric called a sparterie and this goes to the block maker in Paris. He then uses the model as a map, or a key, to carve the actual shape in wood, using some measurements, but mostly his eye. I depend on his desire to make his block look exactly like the form I gave him and which to capture every single nuance of the original shape, because in hat making let me tell you, even a fraction of an inch is crucial. It’s all very precise.
How long does a hat take to make? Would you be comfortable with somebody looking for a replica of one of your hats or do you prefer unique, bespoke designs?
A hat can take anything from 3 hours to 3 years to complete. We make two ready to wear collections a year, with approximately 55 occasion styles. These hats are sold to stores in varying colour options and through our own shop in London. So replication of the RTW collection is expected! When you order a one off hat from our own boutique we will not make a replica.
Do computers and/or the internet play a big part in your working life? Do you use 3D modelling or the like for your creations?
There are no computers involved in the design side of my business, only the admin, sales, PR and marketing. People think I have very technical machines in the studio making the hats, but the only machines we have are our hands and a needle and thread.
Have you ever met someone that you just couldn’t make a fabulous hat to suit?
I design hats for all sorts of people. Fashion designers, pop stars, politicians, Elder ladies, teenagers. Anyone who loves hats. But when I first started making hats it was for ladies of a certain age. Young people had given up wearing hats because they felt they were too authoritative and conforming.
I think and hope I have challenged the way we look at hats. They are no longer symbols of conformity but highly individual acts of rebellion. I am constantly challenging the perception of what a hat should be and what role it should play.
Finally, any advice for (a) the unfashionable – those who just throw on a pair of jeans and t-shirts – and (b) the people in design college at the moment? Could you pick one thing you would say to them?
Hats are meant to be for everyone. It’s a very potent part of the body to decorate because, when you meet people for the first time, you are not meeting their foot or their hand or their hip, you are meeting their face. The purpose is to enhance the features of the face. It’s also a cheaper alternative to cosmetic surgery!
The photos I’ve seen, the articles I’ve read, the questions he’s answered – they’ve all made me admire Philip Treacy. Even Chiodhna admitted via email that “he was such a lovely guy and so interesting. Still walking on clouds here, I rarely get affected by the whole fame thing but he was just a legend!” I’m honestly jealous I didn’t get to meet him.
However, the hat itself will be on display at the Lyons Gold Blend tent, Feature Stand D, at the upcoming Taste of Dublin, in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens from June 11 to 14. Visitors can enter a draw to win the one of a kind hat – to quote the press release – “whilst enjoying a smooth and refreshing cup of tea in a bespoke Mad Hatter inspired red interior.”
Lyons hat model is Klaudia Molenda. Photos by Robbie Reynolds.
You can also enter the competition over on http://www.lyonsgoldblend.ie – good luck!
My warmest thanks to Philip, to his assistant Nina and to Cliodhna from WHPR in helping with this interview. It was an honour. I hope it was enjoyable.