Royal Ascot fashion: Heads they win
As the fashion world prepares for Royal Ascot this week, two local milliners tell Linda Stewart how they have been working flat out to have their creations ready for the horse racing extravaganza.
‘I’ll have four bespoke hats in Ascot’s Royal enclosure this year’
Grainne Maher is originally from Belfast and now lives in Carryduff. She is married and is a mum to Sorcha (12), Cuan (9) and Seadhna (8). She says:
I have a degree in music and for years that was my focus. The creative side of life was my first love and I was interested in art of all kinds and architecture, so it's a natural enough progression.
I just took a fresh look at the drawing board once I became a parent 12 years ago, thinking about how I could be come self-employed. Then I had a eureka moment when I was reading a magazine and thought I would love to make hats.
So I started learning the skills and once I was happy that I had the skill set, I started my own business. In 2011, I opened my first pop-up boutique, Proof, on the Ormeau Road.
The week before Ascot is great - it's a wonderful time for us. It's what it's all about for us. It is really exhilarating - making hats for race outfits is where you can really let your creative juices flow and it's a change to do the most OTT versions, the most dramatic versions of the techniques you've used for wedding hats.
The magic happens when you know not to go too far - there's a nice fine line and that's the exciting thing.
It's a privilege to have hats at Royal Ascot. I'll have four bespoke hats in the Royal enclosure this year and I guess there must be another eight in total at the general Ascot, between the ones we are making and the ones we are hiring out.
Making a hat can take days or it can take one day. It's a very subjective thing because there are so many different skills and techniques.
At the moment I am working with a lot of hand-cut leather and it takes hours and hours just to cut them out before shaping them into flowers and petals and putting the hat together. It can take up to a couple of weeks, stiffening things and going back to it - each piece is very individual.
Hats cost up to about £350 - that would be normal for a very special piece. I've sold the odd piece for more than that but it's a very rare occasion. They would usually be around £150-£200.
I'm seeing a combination of very classy, classic, even vintage style at the moment - even pillboxes are becoming very popular. The hat is dictated by the style of the outfit. You always consider what you are wearing from the neck downwards. Lots of people are going for jumpsuits and capes and a little pillbox or pork pie hat works well with that.
But anything goes as far as size, and the bigger the better. There are size rules for the Royal Enclosure - fascinators are not allowed and there is a 14cm diameter minimum requirement for hats.
As a result people err on the side of caution and go for big full-brim full-crown styles. For years that was the realm of the mother of the bride, but they are wearing them again - the difference is in how they are trimmed and edged. They may be a bit more sculptured.
As for influencers, there is a whole set of milliners in London who are themselves setting the trend. There's Philip Treacy who has been based in London for 30 years. There's Stephen Jones and there are several other milliners appointed to the Queen who would be leading the way, such as Rachel Trevor-Morgan.
I guess Kate Middleton is a good rule of thumb to judge. I don't know whether Victoria Beckham will be at Ascot, but she will be one to look at.
Some of my clients at Ascot will be wearing hats from my new collection which is on pre-collection release - its working title is the Fantasy Floral Collection. It's hand-cut leather in rose gold metallic, real gold metallic, patent leather in very vivid colours and finishes, perforated leather, suedes. Another shape that I'm doing for the first time is an urban turban shape which I am quite excited about.
The bread and butter of what I do is the wedding market, which is a lot safer - classic, classy, straightforward work that is all year round. It's really weddings and the races - there are not too many other occasions apart from the odd garden party. There would be trilbies and so on in the winter.
I think everybody in Northern Ireland is very stylish and in tune with what's going on on a global platform for fashion in general.
‘It’s about creating a unique piece for the client’
Marie-Claire Ferguson (43) is originally from Ballycastle, she lived in England for many years and has now set up a studio at her home in Strangford, Co Down. She is married with two children. She says:
When I was growing up I always had an interest in art and design. I studied archaeology at university and spent quite a bit of time in the field of archaeology when I lived in England — that was for nearly 20 years.
I started doing millinery in York, just as an evening class. Eventually, it got to a point where I ended up with so many hats that it was a bit ridiculous, so I thought I would give this a go as a business and it’s been that way ever since.
For the week before Ascot week, everything is a bit chaotic. I probably have 12-13 bespoke commissions for Ascot and then there are people who are also buying ready-made pieces.
There are lots of wedding hats on the go too at the minute as it’s also wedding season, so there are quite a few mother-of-the-bride pieces for weddings and a few smaller bridal pieces.
All the hats are hand-blocked which means they are shaped round a wooden block. I have a huge collection of blocks that I’ve collected over the years, so they are shaped around that using sinamay or straw — that is the fine straw that most wedding hats are made of.
It takes quite a while for the process from start to finish — it can take up to about 10 days, on and off, to complete a hat.
Most of my clients’ hats go over to England. For Ascot, I’ve made a couple of halo-type hats, a style that sits towards the back of the head.
I find people from England would wear larger brims, but I think people in Northern Ireland are still a bit nervous about hats and they tend to go for smaller cocktail styles.
There are some quite wide brimmed boater-style hats at the moment, and there are quite traditional shapes but with a more contemporary trim to them.
I have people who would go for a more feminine, softer look and others who go for some really wide, modern graphic pieces. It’s split down the middle, I suppose.
The price depends on what the hat is made of, the size and how much work it takes. You could spend whatever you wanted to on a hat, depending on what you use. The highest price has probably been around the £500 mark. I try not to be silly about it — in many cases hats are pieces that people will only wear once, especially occasion hats.
With most of the bespoke pieces, I like to chat to the client and get to know them. It’s really about their own preferences rather than someone else’s style.
Some people are quite nervous about wearing hats, while others are really flamboyant. It’s about working with their personalities and the colour that they like wearing.
I don’t like copying other people’s designs. There are only so many shapes you can do, but I’ve had people coming in and showing me a picture and it’s usually a matter of saying ‘that’s a nice hat but someone’s already made that hat’. It’s about creating a unique piece for that person.
At the minute, I am making quite a lot of hats for people in England which would be more race-wear and there are a few local weddings — the mothers of the bride would be my local customers.
I also make felt fedoras to go to Europe and America.
In the winter, I would send hats to Australia as they have quite a big race season there. Some of the people in Australia take this very seriously — some are almost professional race-goers, so they are always on the hunt for new styles and new milliners and people that haven’t been seen at those races before. It’s a funny world.
Some people just love hats and they just love clothes. They just get enjoyment out of hunting for new styles and having new pieces made for them.
I also get people who would be more into buying handcrafted hats, fedoras, homburgs for everyday wear, but want something more tailor-made rather than from the high street.
There is a wide range of shapes and styles at Ascot and I think it’s interesting to see a whole variety there. I just like seeing people having their own personality reflected in hats and having fun with it.
People are becoming braver with their hats. It’s become a bit of an addiction for some. They start with a small hat and come back for a bigger hat, then it gets bigger and bigger and madder and madder.”