Hats off to milliner who turned heads at Galway Races

Inspired by architecture, Marie Claire Ferguson designs from a fresh perspective and her approach is working - one of her hats won the Best Dressed award at this year's Galway Races

Marcks, black wool felt wide-brim hat with tilted crown, made to measure (£235/€285), by Marie Claire Ferguson

Marie Claire Ferguson may not be a name well known down south but, in the UK and elsewhere, this Northern Ireland-based milliner has established a reputation for inventive headwear handmade in her lakeside studio in Strangford, Co Down.

Her head-turning creations made her a star at Ascot this year where she also made all the hats for the entertainment at the racecourse. A few of her hats also feature in the newly-released movie Absolutely Fabulous and her bridal wear includes some sumptuous floral crowns and beaded hairbands.

For this shoot, photographed by one of the North’s top photographers, Latvian- born Gundega Roge, Ferguson used the Derry singer Jilly St John who fronts the rock band Wyldling to model her latest collection, Bauhaus.

Inspired by the structural architecture of post-war Germany, "It is pared back, very different to my other collections and more my own personal style", says Ferguson, who grew up in Ballycastle, Co Antrim and studied architecture and landscape archaeology in Sheffield University.


“My work has always reflected an element of architectural form and this one focuses on sharpness in structure, but subverting traditional shapes.”

Those graphic lines and sculptural curves use muted colours of black, ecru and steely grey and she has incorporated metal – copper plate and rivets – in some styles for extra flamboyance.

“[Metal] is malleable and works both polished and tarnished. It’s something for those who are slightly more expressive with their fashion. To wear a hat takes a bit of acting – you have to up your character and there’s a bit of theatre there too,” she explains.

A surprise change of career brought Ferguson to millinery. After university, she worked in the architectural field all over the world in places such as Albania and Syria, travelling quite a lot as an archaeologist. At the same time, having always been interested in art and design, she took an evening course in millinery in York where she was living.

“I just loved it and did three more years, learning professional construction millinery techniques using lots of different materials,” she says.

Initially, Ferguson started selling online on Etsy, shipping mostly bridal pieces to the US and Australia. As the business grew the now mother of two decided, six years ago, to return home with her husband to a house on the shore of Strangford Lough.

Local taste can sometimes be over the top, she admits, and “sometimes I have to reign myself in. But I quite enjoy talking people round and getting them to wear a hat that suits their outfit”.

“It’s about getting them to try different styles. A lot depends on their height and shape and the angle at which the hat is worn – I am a bit obsessive when it comes to angles.”

Ferguson's favourite material is wool felt, which she buys from Poland and Hungary, and she also uses linen with prints by artist Lucy Turner with whom she collaborates. Inspiration is often sparked by architecture and these hats have names such as Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, Poelzig and Van der Rohe.

"What I love about millinery is its versatility and the whole technique in blocking hats can be quite physical. I use wooden hat blocks from all over the word. A woodcarver in Strangford also makes some for me so I have unique shapes that no one else has."

Visit marie-clairemillinery.co.uk for more.