Millinery is having a moment. Ireland’s top hatmakers tell DEIRDRE MCQUILLANhow they got ahead in the hat game.
Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A graduate of Fine Arts at Dún Laoghaire, Lynn’s background in sculpture and architecture informs her millinery style. “My hats have simple, clean lines and are very structured,” she explains. “I don’t particularly like feathers or anything too fluffy or soft. I love colour and use a lot of straw, felt, flowers and wire.”
She previously worked as a 3D designer for an architectural company, but on completing millinery courses at the Grafton Academy, she earned a stint with Philip Treacy in London. “I learnt everything from sewing labels into hats, to how a hat is made. I also learnt how unglamorous it is.” Further experience came with celebrated British milliner Stephen Jones in Covent Garden.Lynn is based in Project 51 on South William Street, Dublin.
Watching John Shevlin transform a straw hat with a twist of the hand is to see a master craftsman in action. “I have shapes in my head and sometimes everyday things around me might trigger an idea,” he says.
Arty types like Bobby Womack and Jools Holland love his pork pie hats and horse show judges his box bowlers. The business was started in 1960 by his father, who went on to make hats for Aer Lingus, and today, Shevlin hats are exported all around the world. He is the only milliner making real Panama hats in Ireland; his straw comes from Ecuador and his grosgrain trims from France. A fluent French speaker, he visits Paris several times a year for trimmings.
“In recession, accessories like hats count and can totally change an outfit – and hats are fun,” he says.
Of German-Australian origin, Lina Stein, who trained as a milliner in Sydney, is married to an Irishman and lives in Westport, Co Mayo.
“The great challenge for a milliner is reading the client properly, understanding where they are coming from and what they want,” she says.
She enjoys creating hats for shows, experimenting with materials, passing on knowledge and interacting with people. “My style I would describe as frivolous but elegant. It’s not completely off the wall, but I would be a bit quirky rather than completely conformist,” she says. According to Stein, there is a huge upsurge of interest in hats. At the recent International Millinery Forum in Australia, she was one of 15 tutors among some 200 hatmakers from around the world. “Hats make you feel good and can transform people completely, but the biggest challenge is getting the client right.”
Hottest new kid on the (hat) block, Edel Ramberg from Galway, is a millinery talent known for her vibrant structured shapes, one of which took the prize for best hat at Ladies Day at the Galway Races last year. Since then, she has taken orders for Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot.
Ramberg studied fashion at Limerick School of Art Design but it was working with Philip Treacy that really taught her the craft. “I learnt little tricks like how to curl feathers, to make flowers sit nicely. It was all about the finish, the quality and the detail,” she says.
Today, her hats are stocked in Harvey Nichols and in Premoli, Yourells and her studio in Galway.
“I’m always a little bit ahead,” smiles Kate Betts, no pun intended.
From Liverpool, Betts, a fine arts graduate, has been living in Ireland and working as an artist since 1998. Three years ago, after winning a hat competition at a Tango Ball in the Garda Club judged by the Argentinian ambassador, she decided “to give millinery a go”.
After completing a millinery course with Lina Stein in Mayo, she tried selling in street markets, but her real break came when she met cabaret artist Rose Lawless and started making hats for her shows.
She specialises in pillboxes “because they suit a lot of women” and is impressed with the enthusiasm Irish women have for wearing hats to the races. Her hats can be found in Lulu’s vintage shop in Monkstown.
Co Kilkenny-based Linda McKay spent three years nursing in Australia before returning to Dublin and a job as wardrobe mistress in the Gate Theatre. Down Under she trained with the country’s most celebrated milliner, Jean Carroll, combining nursing with her training. The rigour of that training stays with her. “I remember taking four days to make a top hat and I had a problem with it. Jean made me start all over again.
“I won’t make that mistake again. Everything I do is by hand, no sewing machine, no glue, even the linings for the top hats are handmade. I learnt a lot from that point of view.” Now with her own shop in Thomastown, McKay, who also gives classes, describes her style as “classic with a twist like a corkscrew. I try technically to do everything as brilliantly as I can.
WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLINER?
Brendan Courtney is running a hat design competition over the summer at various Ladies Days across Ireland, with the first heat starting this Monday at Fairyhouse. Philip Treacy will judge the finalists, whose work will go on sale in Arnotts later in the year. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org)