As we approach the summer season’s racing and weddings, spare a thought for the couture milliner, for whom each gilt-edged invitation spells another sleepless night. Recently I was lucky enough to encounter Rosie Olivia at London’s University Womens’ Club and she gave a fascinating insight into the life of a couture milliner. The rather exceptional Olivia has supplied hats for members of the royal family – Zara Philips is a client – and is running her own successful couture millinery business at the tender age of 28. Her story is one of determination and utter dedication.
After starting out as a fashion student, she switched to millinery when offered the opportunity to intern first for Stephen Jones and then later for Philip Treacy – the two titans of couture millinery in the UK. After graduating with a First Class honours, she won a grant and mentor from the Princes’ Trust Enterprise Programme that enabled her to set up her own business. She credits her two internships for giving her essential commercial experience that helped her navigate this successfully. Five years later she still runs the business alone but is now considering taking on an intern herself.
Her work ethic is formidable. Working on her own, she alone is responsible for fulfilling all her orders, whether she is working on a couture basis with a client or producing a range of stock for a department store. Sometimes she works through the night. As you might expect, she is driven and dedicated. She produces around thirty hats in each collection and will be designing them a year ahead of putting them on sale, often in the ‘down time’ when not producing, doing PR or running her business.
One gets the impression that Olivia almost regards designing as leisure, the fun activity to reward the slog of admin. Even so, sixty designs a year is a lot, so where does her inspiration come from? Sometimes it can come from client collaboration. Olivia much prefers her client to commission a hat before choosing the rest of her ensemble. It gives her the freedom to begin by finding the right basic shape to suit her client’s hair, face and jawline and then to design the hat around it.
If not a client, sometimes inspiration comes from the trimmings themselves and Olivia clearly has a unique flair for this. As she talks about designing, she cannot resist running her fingers over a confection of coral-coloured ostrich feathers adorning a beaded ivory beret. It is perfect, a highly tactile mixture of contrasting textures that work perfectly together. As she strokes the feathers, I start to feel the stirrings of covetousness.
A hat that lovely needs no reason for its existence. Perfectly conceived and balanced, it draws the eye to the wearer’s face, flattering and highlighting. It is at this moment I understand completely why a couture hat comes front and centre when planning a special ensemble.
Rosie Olivia sells direct from her website as well as through some London department stores. If you are in London and would like to meet a milliner too, then your luck is in. On Wednesday 25 May, the ladies at Atelier Millinery will be holding an Ascot Preview evening from 6pm to 8pm in their Soho shop when you can try on the hats and enjoy a glass of fizz. Harrods are also holding a ‘Meet the Milliner’ event on 28 and 29 May in their first floor millinery salon when top milliners will be present to give their style advice. There is no excuse to be inadequately hatted in London this summer.