Turning heads: Hats off to the new crop of Irish milliners
Irish millinery is free spirited, not tied down by imposed rules
Irish design: millinery by Michelle Kearns, Deb Fanning and the Season Hats.
Millinery and fantasy go hand in hand. Extravagant hats create mystery, glamour, sophistication and that playful childish sense of dressing up. In Ireland millinery means fanciful dos for nuptials and race meetings, and with weddings every weekend and the Curragh racing season starting on Saturday, April 13th, Irish hatmakers are busy turning straw, silk, satin and flowers into perchers, discs, boaters and pillboxes – headturning affairs for Ladies Day and other events.
“Hats communicate in a way clothing can’t,” says celebrated milliner Stephen Jones.
Given that the crown prince himself, Galway-born designer Philip Treacy, revived and reinvigorated hatmaking, are the Irish particularly gifted when it comes to millinery? According to Lina Stein, the Australian master milliner and teacher who has been based in Ireland for a number of years and trained many success stories, Irish millinery is free spirited, not tied down by imposed rules as in other countries. Thus, Irish makers tend to be more resourceful and imaginative.
Ashleigh Myles, winner of this year’s Fashion Innovation Award for millinery, used everything from cereal bowls to Ikea tables and lamps as shapes for hats
Ashleigh Myles, for instance, winner of this year’s Fashion Innovation Award for millinery at the Golden Egg Awards in Galway, used everything from cereal bowls to Ikea tables and lamps as shapes when she first started making because she couldn’t afford expensive hat blocks. “Nothing was safe in my kitchen,” she says.
Self-taught, since her hobby became a business in 2013, she has won many awards for her handcrafted hats and headpieces though she continues to work as a financial controller in her native Rush. Her winning collection in Galway was made entirely from 2,000 black and red cable ties.
“They are easy to manipulate and bend but hard work,” she says of these unconventional hat materials.
Husband and wife team
The Season Hats is another award-winning Irish company run by husband and wife team Paul Stafford and Selina Horshi in Derry using innovative techniques – plissage (pleating) and laser cutting – and applying it to millinery.
Their signature satin folding hats fold flat like a fan and then unfold into spectacular pieces. Inspired by Chinese paper folding techniques, they are simple to store and transport, each piece made up of 46 bits of precision cut French satin. It’s no wonder they have been featured in Vogue, OK, Schon and many other magazines. Their most recent fan is Saoirse-Monica Jackson of Derry Girls.
Aoife Harrison is another established Irish milliner who started her successful business 10 years ago. She not only makes bespoke pieces for mothers of the bride and groom, but also wholesales and teaches the craft too.
Her Hatty Hen Parties in her studio at the Pepper Cannister Church in Dublin are particularly popular – for €50 a head, participants get 2½ hours’ demonstration on a Friday evening and are then encouraged to try their own hands at headpieces. Prosecco and cupcakes are provided and, according to Harrison “it’s all a bit of fun for all ages and even business groups and nobody needs any experience”. Many come back as customers.
According to Harrison, the main influencers today when it comes to hats are the British and Spanish royal families: “The young royals have really encouraged young people to wear hats and the Duchess of Sussex really nails it because she has a role to play and so many events to attend.”
Current taste however, she says, is for softer styles, and hairpieces that can be worn on the left or right side of the head are more substantial than fascinators “and they don’t block the view like a big saucer or a very wide brim at weddings when there is a lot of kissing and hugging”.