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The art of hat-making has been practiced since the 18th Century. Hats can make or break an outfit and even take it to the next level. As a design process, however, hats can be overlooked. But with great luxury fashion houses such as Dior who collaborate with top-tier milliners like Stephen Jones and the legendary Philip Treacy, hats have become an integral part of a design collection. South Africa has its own hat-making stars too…
Albertus Swanepoel: the legend
South African born, New York based milliner, Albertus Swanepoel’s journey is what fashion design dreams are made of. Hailing from Pretoria, Albertus is a true success story. From winning a Coty Award for the country’s top designer, Albertus came to New York in 1989 to work for a clothing brand. This led him to study millinery with Janine Galimard, who had worked with the great couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Having collaborated with iconic designers such as Carolina Herrera, Diane Von Furstenberg and Alexander Wang (to name a few), Albertus has solidified his position as a global milliner. “My customers are men and women, from the age of 30-75. They are confident and sophisticated, whimsical and they love fashion. Because I’m making everything in NYC, my hats are (sadly) not cheap, and even when I tried to make cheaper hats, it’s always my more special, expensive hats that sell,” says Swanepoel.
Exuding a sense of charm, playfulness, and a cheeky sense of humour, whilst not losing the impeccable construction and craftsmanship, it’s little wonder that Sarah Jessica Parker and Brad Pitt have proudly donned his hats. The great milliner also gets a nod of approval from the high priestess of fashion, Dame Anna Wintour.
“Hats are a niche market and sometimes saturated. So, it is very important to have your own vision or voice. I make most of the hats myself and customers notice that there is handcraft visible when compared with hats that are machine stamped and mass trimmed. People say my hats have a soul. I hope that is true. My African heritage also gives me an edge to design with inspiration. I believe that hats should be modern and relevant, not “costumey” or too retro-looking. Using high-quality products makes a difference,” says the milliner.
Having been in the fashion business for over three decades, Albertus affirms that passion and drive are the keys to longevity. “I am also quite a stubborn person and have perseverance (something you really need to have in New York). Also, I can’t do much else in life, so I must stick with this,” he laughs. “I want people to enjoy my designs for a long time. I actually like seeing my hats battered from being worn, so I focus on super high-quality materials and shapes that are flattering and easy to wear, such as fedoras, cloches, western and bucket hats.”
Currently, Swanepoeol is in production for New York Fashion Week. He’s creating the hats for Adam Lippes, a luxury brand. He’s also working on hats for James Spader in The Black List, a TV series and is working with a major celebrity. “I can’t say whom now… so stay tuned…” concludes Swanepoel mysteriously.
Simon and Mary: the cool kid
If you’ve never seen a Simon and Mary hat on the street, you’ve probably been living under a rock. With some of the coolest hats in South Africa, the Simon and Mary brand has been worn by the country’s top celebrities and fashion royalty such as Maps Maponyane, Trevor Stuurman, Sarah Langa, and Langa Mavuso.
Launched in 2014, the name of the company is inspired by Dean Pozniak’s grandparents, who have been in the millinery business since 1935, after escaping Nazi Poland to come to South Africa. Rooted in family, the Simon and Mary brand prides itself in treating its team like family. “We have 80 people in our factory and we consider them as our family,” says Dean Pozniak.
Being born into a millinery dynasty, Pozniak finds that the beauty of hat-making comes naturally to him. “For me, the process of hat-making is like second nature. My father was a milliner and so was my grandfather so you can imagine that hat-making is vital to me. But what separates them from other milliners or brands? The fact that we are always keeping the brand relevant and moving with the times,” he explains.
This is quite evident in the many covetable designs that the brand keeps on creating — they are constantly evolving. Intent on keeping the heritage and legacy of his family going, Pozniak says, “we’re quite an inclusive brand and so therefore our demographic is quite large.”
Simon and Mary are making sure that there’s a perfect hat for everyone. “We’ve been successful, because of our inclusive philosophy. Watch out for our new design coming soon – we’ll be launching our toweling bucket hat,” adds Pozniak. Well, we can’t wait to see what this heritage brand comes up with next!
Crystal Birch: the creative genius
Creating a beautiful world of make-believe with a touch of humour and surrealism, Crystal Birch brings a unique aspect to the local world of millinery.
“Hats are what people see immediately when they look at you. It’s a conversation starter. It’s a dot on the I,” explains the Pretoria-born designer.
Starting off as a stylist, Birch fell in love with the idea of hat-making and in producing a Wonderland-like, imaginative space in which to create. Studying Fashion Design at Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion in the heart of Stellenbosch, the quirky milliner built a foundation for her great sense of design. She spent time in London honing her skills under the guidance of Noel Stewart and Piers Atkinson, arguably two of Europe’s finest talents in the art of hat-making.
The Cape Town based designer now works from a massive factory space and partners with the 84-year-old manufacturing company, Parisian Milliners. Her innovative hats from sunhats to berets have become desirable items that some of the country’s top designers, such as Thebe Magugu, have enlisted her to take their garments to the next level.
“What keeps me going is doing what I love, having an obsession for hat-making as well as having a great team,” says Birch. What’s next? “We’re continuing to push the boundaries and do what we do best, creating the best hats,” Birch concludes.