Philip Treacy is a living legend of the fashion world. For the last three decades the eccentric Irishman has been making hats for British royals and A-list celebrities. On top of that, Treacy creates hats for Chanel, Givenchy, Valentino, Versace and other fashion houses.
The designer’s work can be seen not only on the podium and at the Royal Ascot races, but also in the Harry Potter films and the TV series Sex and the City. Catching the “mad hatter” in his boutique workshop in London’s Belgravia quarter turned out to be quite a difficult task. Despite the pandemic, Tracey’s travel schedule and haute couture shows are as busy as ever.
The world is changing but something seems to remain the same – hats. What’s the secret of this accessory? Why will hats never lose its popularity?
A hat is a positive symbol. A good hat is the ultimate glamour accessory. It thrills observers and makes the wearer feel 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.
How has the hat changed over the past 30 years? Are there any trends in materials or style, size, decorative elements etc.?
Three decades ago a hat was a relatively conformist accessory. And today a hat is part of the visual language of fashion. And people wear hats to feel good and say something about who they are. A hat today expresses how confident people have become. A great hat exists outside its own time. I use contemporary influences, be it sculpture, or art, or whatever is going in the world today. I think that while people have a head, there will always be hats.
Has the craft of millinery evolved at all since you began your career in the ‘80s?
The craft of hat making has not changed at all. The craft remained the craft. The possibilities of how a hat is perceived has changed enormously.
How many people work in your team?
How long does it take to make a hat? Can you briefly run me through the whole process?
The hat starts off as a drawing, I will make a prototype in a light flexible material called Sparterie, this goes to the block maker in Paris to be carved in wood or to be mauled in metal. There are two different processes for making a hat, by hand on a wooden mould which can take up to 3 days for one person to make the shape without being trimmed, or on a metal block when the shape can be stamped out in minutes. All the hats are then hand stitched, trimmed and hand finished in our London studio by highly skilled milliners. It can take from one day to one month to a year depending on the hat.
How do you know which hat fits a particular person?
You match the hat with the personality of the person, everybody loves the idea of having something special just for them. Designing a bespoke accessorise is almost like being a psychiatrist. If you come to me I wouldn’t ask you very provocative questions of what a hat should look like because I’m supposed to do that part but I would ask you where are you going, where are you wearing it to and then I will try to figure out how far you really want go cause you always try to persuade a person to go a bit further than they’ve planned because I want them to wear a modern hat.
So many people say: I’m not a hat person…
Everyone is a hat person they just need to find the right hat.
How do you choose the perfect hat?
There are only ever guidelines to follow, but never rules…you will know through your own judgment when a hat is right…but the most important thing is that the wearer feels happy and confident, do they smile when they see themselves in the mirror? Do you see a sparkle in their eye?
The Haute Couture hats I make for clients are all designed especially to fit their face and personality. I look at our clients and at their personality. I’m thinking of them. My aim is to make that person feel a million dollars. This is the whole point of why people wear clothes, to look their best. And let’s be honest, everyone wants to talk to a person with a hat on.
When will men start wearing hats? For example, they are already wearing pink T-shirts and bright shorts.
A hat is a conversation piece, it’s a personal expression regardless of your gender. Hats are meant to be for everyone. It’s a very potent part of the body to decorate because when you meet people for the first time you are not meeting their foot or their hand or their hip, you are meeting their face. The purpose is to enhance its features. It’s also a cheaper alternative to cosmetic surgery!
What inspires you? What helps you avoid emotional exhaustion?
Nature in its exquisite perfection.
Once you said that you wouldn’t be sitting here today without the support of the hat-wearing British monarchy. “If the royal family decided not to wear hats… then I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with you, because hats are part of the culture of Britishness.” Do you still believe that your career was shaped thanks to royals?
The British Royal Family have kept hat wearing alive in the imagination of people all over the world. It’s part of English dress and culture, but we have an international audience who are seduced by glamour, and glamour is and will always be attractive to men and woman. So glamour is a sort of a good currency to work in and there is nothing more glamorous than a hat.
What’s the cheapest hat in your shop?
The baseball cap. I don’t believe in elitism in fashion. Fashion is for everybody to enjoy and it’s everybody’s right to look great! I try to make hats affordable to every demographic from the popular youth couture to the couture racing clients.
What was the most complicated and expensive hat you ever made?
The 17th Century Dalian or Sailing ship hat. I’d seen old renderings of ships in women’s hair. It was a costume designer’s dream. The idea for this hat was inspired and created from a chapter in Olivier Bernier’s book, Pleasure and Privilege, called Rule of Fashion about life in France in the 1750’s. The chapter described a British Fleet Admiral, D’Estaing, losing a famous battle to the French Fleet. In celebration, women in Paris wore ships in their hair to go to the Opera, I loved the emotion attached to this. It’s made from satin and the bone of the feather. The sails are paradise feathers. The rigging is made from the feather bones which is what you strip away from the feather and that which remains.
Do you know the total number of hats you have designed?
I never counted.
Did you ever refused to make a hat and if so, why? And for whom?
You said in other interviews that you would like to make a hat for Marilyn Monroe. Who else is in your list of the most desired clients?
I think Marlene Dietrich was incredibly glamourous. I bought a picture of her for the G hotel with her signature, she had also written, Glamour is my stock and trade. It couldn’t be truer. It’s mine too.
Speaking about clients, what’s the percentage between British and international clients for Philip Treacy? What countries are the majority of your clients from (apart from the UK)?
Our shop is a destination for people all over the world! The majority of our clients, apart from the UK, are from the United States, Ireland, Japan, Russia, Spain, Australia and Qatar.
Garrard jewelers told me that almost every rich Chinese and Asian bride wants a diamond tiara for their wedding. Do they want hats?
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 diamond tiara or a hat! These things are the spice of life and remind us of the essence of pleasure and beauty.