London-based Irish-born milliner Philip Treacy is the undisputed king of hats. Championing a look that is eccentric but elegantly refined, he’s challenged the dusty connotations often associated with the accessory and the women who wear them. Treacy chatted with us about his career, the hat’s cultural legacy and his favorite types of collaborations.
JC Report: When did you realize that hat-making was your vocation?
Philip Treacy: I started making hats and dresses for my sister’s dolls when I was about 5-years-old. My mother had chickens, geese, pheasants and ducks, so all the hat ingredients were at easy reach in my house. My mother also had a sewing machine, but I was never allowed to use it—when she went out to feed the chickens I never missed the chance to have a go. I had to be quick, if she found me using her sewing machine I would be in a lot of trouble. I couldn’t care less for the dolls I made clothes for, but I could make hats and clothes for them really easily. “Don’t you think it’s weird that this boy is making dresses for dolls?” I remember a neighbor asking my father once. To that comment my father responded, “Whatever makes him happy.” You have got to see where I come from to understand how profound that was.
JCR: Leaving your childhood behind, at what point did you decide to start focusing exclusively on millinery?
PT: In 1988 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 up or down the hats, but at the time they were thinking of setting up a hat course so I became their guinea pig. After one day at the college I asked my tutor, Sheilagh Brown, if I should focus on hats or clothes. “Make hats,” she said. It was a very practical decision, not a great revelation.
JCR: What do hats mean to you personally?
PT: A hat is a positive symbol. A good hat is the ultimate glamour accessory. It thrills the observer and makes the wearer feel like 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 it’s own time. 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.
JCR: The hat is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, and its frumpy connotations are slowly subsiding. How has the millinery business changed through the course of your career?
PT: People always ask me if I would have preferred to live in a more hat-friendly era, such as the ’20s or ’40s, but I think it is much more exciting to work today. 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 that because we all have a head, everybody has the possibility to wear a hat. I have had the greatest pleasure in having the opportunity to challenge people’s perception of what a hat should look like in the 21st century.
JCR: How do you approach that challenge, and what makes you thrive creatively?
PT: I use contemporary influences, be it sculpture or art or whatever is going on in the world today. I love to work with my hands making something from nothing—turning 2 dimensional material into a 3 dimensional object is the ultimate moment of creativity in my craft. I believe in beauty and elegance and communicating thoughts and dreams in a visual way.
JCR: You’ve collaborated with most big names in fashion. Are there any designers whose work you admire in particular?
PT: I am not trying to be diplomatic, but I’ve worked with so many that I really can’t choose. It’s fun to work with Valentino because there is only one Valentino. And the same goes for Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen. It’s exciting to work with strong designers because they let you interpret their style. Some designers are specific, but many designers that I have worked with for a long time give me free rein to design with their collections in mind.
This interview was conducted by Emma Holmqvist.