Philip Treacy, milliner extraordinaire and the allure of concealment

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The publishers, Rizzoli are continuing their run of pre-Christmas releases of gorgeousness with a new book about the milliner, Philip Treacy.  It is a truly beautiful tome and last week Treacy appeared in person at the London bookshop Foyles to talk about his techniques, inspirations and clients with Alex Fury.

20151020_193314 Treacy is a marvellous story-teller and highly articulate about design and the relationship between millinery, craft, art and fashion – a relationship taken to its extremes in some of his creations, from ram’s horns to Roswell.  He sees millinery as an artisan craft, much more associated with hands-on sculpting than 2D design.  Though a very modern milliner, he still uses traditional, handcrafting techniques to make his hats, even when using innovative processes like 3D printing.  He starts by folding and draping on a doll in his atelier, before developing a model to be sent to a specialist in Paris to be turned into a mold around which the finished article is shaped (see picture, above).

Where does the inspiration come from?

“Every hat I have ever made has begun in my mind as a photograph.  I can see it on the model, at the right angle, before I even begin.”

Treacy talked with passionate enthusiasm about the photographers and models who have inspired his designs, notably Christy Turlington, who supported him in staging his first couture millinery show in Paris in 1994, and Linda Evanglista, whose portrait appears on the book’s cover.  He also draws inspiration from the things around him: objects or news stories.  He has designed hats inspired by Warhol’s soup cans, orchids, even the Roswell incident but one of the themes that he consistently returns to is the mask or veil, drawing on old movies or ethic headdress.

“Concealment can create allure.”

20151020_195728It surely can and it was interesting to hear Treacy talk about his approach to customers.  These have included famous and very flamboyant hat-wearers – Isabella Blow, Grace Jones, Daphne Guinness, Lady Gaga.  His relationship with each helps him to design pieces that project their personality as well as flattering their looks.  In fact he approaches millinery as problem-solving for his client.  Customers come to him unsure of what they want or unsure about whether they can carry-off a hat.  His task is to help, re-assure and boost confidence in his clients.  This is something we’ve heard from other highly successful designers from Yohji Yamamoto to Yves Saint Laurent: their desire to use their product to help the customer reach their potential is the root of their success.  (Incidentally it is also a sentiment that comes across clearly in Betty Halbreich’s fantastic fashion memoir, “I’ll Drink to That”, about her legendary career as Bergdorf Goodman’s Personal Shopper).

We were also treated to some fascinating anecdotes about PT’s clients – the hat he made for Isabella Blow with a brim so vast she only just managed to manoeuvre her way into an event; the gory origins of the ram’s horns used in his first collaboration with Alexander McQueen at his AW 1996 Dante show, sourced from Isabella’s prize-winning Soay herd; or his introduction to Karl Lagerfeld’s atelier, faced not only with the legendary Couturier but a bevy of super-models and equally super photographers (Meisel, Newton, Ritts….).  No surprise then that when asked what he’d do differently if given his time again, he couldn’t think of a thing.

He is an inspiration on many fronts: his creativity and modern approach to millinery; his ability to build and maintain relationships with clients and colleagues; and his confidence in preserving traditional craftsmanship alongside innovative techniques.   Most impressive of all though, are his extraordinary services to the craft of millinery itself.  Alongside his forbear, Stephen Jones and their mentor Sheila Hix, they have resurrected hat-wearing, made the world a more interesting and colourful place and made their clients feel ready to conquer the world.  That’s quite an achievement.

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