Ahead of the rest
A new book about Ireland’s maverick milliner is an acutely observed chronicle of a remarkable career, writes DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN
A topless silver thimble is Philip Treacy’s permanent accessory, the tool and symbol of his craft. In a new book about the celebrated Irish milliner, the telling cover photograph shows him slightly off centre, thimble and scissors in action, skilfully slicing the feathers of a hat into sharp arrowheads on a patient Grace Jones, her eyes closed as he works the shapes artfully around her head. To see a master milliner at work bringing a hat to life in all its time-consuming intricacy and detail is the subject of the book, by the well-known photographer Kevin Davies who first met Treacy 20 years ago.
The physicality of creation and obsession with perfection have always been characteristic of Treacy’s work; he has the zealotry of an impassioned and demanding artisan, forever eloquent on his subject.
“Feathers are to hat-making what flour is to bread-making – they suggest weightlessness, allure, delicacy and primitiveness of power. I can suggest 100 different emotions through feathers,” he once said.
The book gives an intimate insight into his life, work and creative process, documenting his studio environments from his early days on Elizabeth Street in London to his spacious three-storey headquarters in Battersea now housing his workshop, office and showroom.
Photographing people lost in their creative worlds spurred Davies, a self-confessed “not in your face” kind of photographer, (well known for his collaboration with U2), to gain rare access to Treacy’s world.
“I was interested in the preparation, the atmosphere, and the attention to detail. I wanted to take pictures that were more about the reality than a glossy, posed image,” he says in the introduction.
The photographs of Jones, for example, from the early days of Treacy’s long association with the singer, show the teamwork involved. “She’s a legend, a classic Hollywood star; a delicious nightmare and sharp as razor blades,” says Treacy, whose comments on some of his starrier clients are always well observed. There’s a photo of him casually ironing Naomi Campbell’s dress before their glamorous arrival in a Bentley to Ascot. “She treats the world like it’s such a small place. Tokyo one morning, Rio in the afternoon – and I love that about her,” he says.
The black-and-white photographs capture the milliner’s absorption in his work, oblivious to the apparent chaos around him, every shape taking hours to perfect. The anecdotes from the two men are as revealing as the photographs, the sense of trust between them obvious; nothing is posed, no positions adjusted to suit the camera. Interspersed are some striking still-life images of Treacy’s more extraordinary creations such as his orchid hat, Chinese wedding hat, upside-down rose, Madonna Rides Again and the black-and-white zebra hats.
More private, carefree pictures show him on holiday at home in Galway with his long-term partner in life and work, Stefan Bartlett, and their two Jack Russells, playing on the beach. These light-hearted images provide a striking contrast to those taken in the studio before the royal wedding with television crews from America, hat fittings for royalty, interviews, photo sessions and the frenetic work to complete the 36 hats for the event. “It was like a plate-spinning act, keeping up with Philip as he moved from his studio to the showroom, to the office, to guests’ hotels and even to an embassy,” comments Davies.
Treacy’s recent show at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, his first catwalk presentation in 12 years, in which many of his headpieces blazed with light, was a further milestone in the career of this original, unstoppable and freewheeling Irish talent.
It was too late to include shots of the show in the book, but with nearly 200 photographs, this is an acutely and sensitively observed chronicle of a remarkable career and artistic collaboration.
As Gianni Versace once said, “Give Philip a needle and thread and he writes a poem, give Philip a feather and he writes a song.” One could make the same observation about Davies in another way.