British women have always been mad for hats. The late Isabella Blow would step out wearing the most daring creations, custom pieces are de riguer for weddings and important parties, and at next week’s Royal Ascot–dating back to 1711, the most important event in the British social calendar–the parade of colorful and gravity defying hats on display garner as much interest as the horse races. For years, the legendary Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones have cornered the hatting market, but a host of young London upstarts are not only carrying on the trade with brash styles, but are redefining the business of millinery. Just in time for this year’s Ascot, here’s our short list of the city’s hatters worth paying attention to.
Piers Atkinson has been a fashion Renaissance man after moving to London in 1995. Since then, he’s worked as a party organizer, as a press lieutenant for Zandra Rhodes and Mandi Lennard, as a fashion editor, and now a hat-making extraordinaire, whose incredibly cheeky work is an irreverent antidote to traditional British millinery. In the past, Atkinson has employed numerous knick knacks, including fans, pencils, and tassels to create an imperial headdress, and a headband with doll atop a banana to make a sexual statement. Atkinson’s autumn/winter ’10 collection unleashed some outrageous creations, such as an afro with a spear through it. But there were more subdued options as well, including veils with pearls and sequins as well as a beret with an antique lace trim.
Nasir Mazhar was a former hairdresser at Vidal Sasson, but transitioned from cutting to sculpting wondrous pieces for the head. The twentysomething Mazhar has worked with the who’s-who of London’s emerging fashion talents, including Gareth Pugh and Richard Nicoll, the Royal Opera House, the Globe Theater, and none other than the world’s biggest pop star, Lady Gaga. The singer has already worn Mazhar’s metal globe already, and recently, his futuristic binocular head piece was featured in Gaga’s epic video, “Alejandro“, directed by Steven Klein. For his own autumn/winter outing, Mazhar is just as outlandish. There are towering leather turbans, blond pigtails made with streaks of eye-popping hues, and a black veil that Morticia Adams would be fond of.
British designer Justin Smith was also a hairstylist before transitioning into millinery. Smith worked at Tony and Guy as a creative director before setting up his shop And People Like Us, and in 2007, he completed a Masters in Millinery from the prestigious Royal College of Art. Since then, he has received a New Gen Sponsorship, an award from ITS, an has been shortlisted by the British Council as a UK Young Fashion Entrepreneur in 2010. This past March, if you were an attendee at Manish Arora‘s show in Paris, you would’ve noticed Smith’s neon bobs that accessorized Arora’s wildly colorful show, which was more optimistic in comparison to his darker autumn/winter collection. There’s a beret with a skull attached, a top hat made with fur and a skeleton, and a black headdress which looked like large butterfly wings.
Like Mazhar and Smith, Søren Bach, who splits time between Copenhagen and London, also began his career as a hairstylist. Unlike Smith, who uses a diverse range of materials, Bach sticks to refining his signature fur dyeing techniques. For his all-fur autumn/winter collection, there’s a large mink, part of which was dyed fuchsia and red to create outlines of rose petals; an oversize white beret outlined with outlines of petals; and bouquet of red roses replete with green stems. This unique approach has caught the attention of style icons Kate Moss and the indomitable Grace Jones.
An RCA alum who has trained under the tutelage of Stephen Jones at Christian Dior, Noel Stewart forged a place in the London’s millinery movement when he established his label in 2003. He has collaborated with Roland Mouret, Marios Schwab, and Hussein Chalayan for their catwalk shows, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, and Kiera Knightley are fans, has exhibited at the V&A for Stephen Jones’ anthology of hats, and is stocked at numerous international boutiques, including Barneys in New York. Stewart’s latest, an autumn/winter collection called Facets, consists of chunky handknit beret with marbled leather trim, a trilby with velvet pom poms and discs, and a landscape made from ribbons, perhaps the pièce de résistance.
“I think it is really exciting, this shift in focus to the head,” says Bach. While Atkinson can certainly agree, he sees a deeper reason for why his contemporaries’ work has caught on in recent years: “London’s fashion scene has been starved of millinery. I guess we haven’t seen hats worn in a big way since the ’80s, so there are 30 years of hatting to catch up on.” According to Stewart, these days “everyone is spoilt for choice—the only question left is why not wear a hat?”