Wednesday, 17 September, 2014

Published June 21, 2014
Turning heads
London's Royal Ascot trots out the most fashionable blooms, berets and wide brims but closer to home, local milliners show styles with a distinct Asian accent that go beyond equestrian pursuits. By May Yip
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Kristine Hakim, on her Eskpade hats (above)

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BLAME it yet again on Kate Middleton, the relatable trendsetter who doesn't so much as break fashion rules as quietly puts her own spin on classic favourites. Thanks to the Duchess of Cambridge, headwear has become stylish statement-makers rather than traditional accessories, fit only for royalty.

"Demand for hats has grown after the Royal Wedding," observes homegrown milliner Mandy Pan, who picked up the craft after coming across the works of Jane Taylor, the go-to milliner for the Duchess. "Many people think that you can only wear a hat to special occasions but that's nonsense. You can wear a hat anywhere. It just depends on the hat design."

Apart from major horse-racing events such as the annual Singapore Airlines International Cup, during which eye-catching hats are usually donned, an increasing number of women are sporting loud toppers for themed parties, company dinner-and-dances, and weddings. In fact, there are at least four locally based hat-makers who craft the accessories by hand - despite the less-than-mainstream appeal of headgear here.

"I am getting more and more customers who are placing custom orders for hats to wear to special occasions such as weddings in exotic locations," says Chee Sau Fen, who has worked for more than 15 years in the visual arts and events industries before starting her hat label Heads of State Millinery three years ago. "Other customers are fashion leaders who usually grab our first prototypes in every collection and keep close tabs on the 'works-in-progress' photos from our sewing table which we post on our Instagram feed and our Facebook page."

The self-taught designer creates hats by sewing upcycled materials such as men's ties or abaca, a handloomed fabric that can be shaped by folds and stitches, rather than traditional hat-making methods of applying heat, moulds, glues, stiffening chemical sprays and wires to shape designs.

Ms Pan, on the other hand, picked up her more classic hat-making skills from Rose Cory, a one-time Royal Milliner in the UK. "I have lived in Australia for eight years and worked in the tourism sector. Very often, I was invited to horse-racing events such as the Spring Racing Carnival," recalls Ms Pan, who stitches and creates all the trimmings on her hats by hand.

"This was to be my first exposure to race hats and I started buying and wearing them. And when I saw (British milliner) Philip Treacy's gravity-defying hats in magazines, I was intrigued and started searching for hat pictures online."

While outre, intricately-crafted hats might be experiencing a fashion moment only now, homegrown hat-makers have been developing a love of pillboxes, fedoras and fascinators for years.

Another local milliner, Kristine Hakim, kickstarted her obsession with stylish hats while exploring a passion for vintage fashion. "A couple of years ago, I was very much inspired mainly by burlesque artist Dita Von Teese and the iconic Marlene Dietrich, and I started dressing up in vintage styles," says the owner of Mandarin Gallery boutique Eskpade, who picked up her hat-making skills from British milliners and books. "Then, I was asked to make some headpieces for magazine shoots when I was in Indonesia and I realised that I really enjoyed it, and hence decided to pick up the craft professionally."

For now, millinery training is still only available abroad. Ms Hakim suggests enrolling in colleges in London, while Ms Pan notes that Australian hat-makers are more innovative than their British counterparts at the moment and recommends courses with established milliners from the continent. And, as Ms Hakim adds: "If one is passionate enough, one could learn from books, the Internet and mere observation."

But the easiest way to satiate a love of headpieces is to simply incorporate them into one's wardrobe. Unlike toting a bag of the moment or tottering around in the season's trendiest shoes, however, wearing a hat does require a sartorial eye. "Asians tend to have wider faces, so the most flattering way to wear a hat is to tilt it to the side," advises Ms Hakim. "This will create a slightly elongated line, adding height and visually slim down the face."

Unlike mass-produced hats available off the rack from high street stores, such handcrafted designs don't come cheap, with prices starting from $200 for a simple design. The hefty price tags, however, are justified by the amount of skill and effort that go into the creation of the head-turning pieces.

Ms Pan, for example, requires at least three weeks' notice for a custom order and mainly attracts customers through word of mouth rather than other forms of publicity, since she could not keep up with a larger volume of orders. When selecting a hat, pay attention to the piece's fine details to determine its quality and craftsmanship, adds Ms Chee, who started her company after winning a creative enterprise business pitching competition by Asia On The Edge, a regional ideas incubator.

"Stitches should be invisible except when they are decorative," adds Ms Chee, whose hats are also sold at multi-label boutiques such as The Society of Black Sheep at Marina Bay Sands. "There is a sense of lively spontaneity in how the trims are attached. Nothing feels like it is sewn down rigidly. There is lightness and grace where lines and edges flow and float, defying gravity."

But local ladies are still apprehensive about wearing hats. "When you wear a hat, the head and face becomes the focal point and you get lots of attention," she says.