Turning heads with designer hats
Belfast student Blaise Harvey (21) tells Jane Bell how she's worked with top milliner Philip Treacy's team and helped with a Princess Beatrice hat for Royal Ascot
You've got to take your hat off to Belfast Metropolitan College student Blaise Harvey when it comes to showing initiative. The 21-year-old fledgling fashion designer has secured herself a prestigious work placement with celebrity milliner Philip Treacy, whose fabulous hats have graced the heads of royalty, movie stars and supermodels.
Blaise arrived at the designer's London studios at just the right time, amid the flurry of activity in the run-up to Royal Ascot (which finished at the weekend), the premier event in the national social calendar for a headturning hat.
The world's greatest race meeting is the place to be seen in stylish summer headgear designed to be remembered. Everyone, from princess to pop star, wants a tiffer to die for, whether it's a frou-frou fascinator or a creation the size of a cartwheel.
"A good hat," says Treacy, is "the ultimate glamour accessory. It doesn't matter how much people pay for them, everyone wants to look a million dollars in a hat."
Certainly all eyes turn when the highly original hats from the Irish-born designer's bijou studio in London's West End are on show.
As Ascot approached, it was all hands to the needle and thread in this busy world of feathers, ribbons and pearls. Blaise got to do some handstitching on the hat Princess Beatrice wore as she arrived in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot — a white teardrop design with black spiral detail.
And, under close expert tutelage, she also got to work on an elegant creation worn by Karen Millen, of the eponymous top-end high street fashion chain, as she recently received her OBE.
"So far, I've made maybe six or seven complete hats but I don't set about it myself, I'm guided through it," Blaise explains. "I was doing hands-on work right from the beginning. I couldn't believe they trusted me that much."
She grew up in Donegal in a creative household where they didn't have the distraction of a television set until she was eight or nine years old. Philip Treacy hails from a big family of siblings in a Co Galway village, where he started dressing his sister's dolls from the age of five and gathering feathers from his mother's chickens and pheasants to create splendid headgear.
The young Belfast student seized the initiative and contacted the famous hat designer by email to secure work experience.
Philip (40) had once done something similar himself when he successfully approached London milliner Stephen Jones for a six-week student placement many years ago. He went on to spend 10 years designing at Chanel.
Blaise brought along a sample of her handstitching — an embroidered dragon — and the four to six week placement was hers. "I'd contacted quite a few other designers. Most didn't reply and others said 'No'. I was thrilled that Philip Treacy gave me a chance. It's a wonderful experience for which I'm very grateful and I'm taking every opportunity to learn."
Later this summer she heads off to Hong Kong on a six month work placement with fashion company SGA International, which designs for high street chains such as Next, Debenhams and John Lewis.
Blaise expects to be working for one of the company's American clients, who are breaking into Europe, so a trip to New York is a possibility. "I can't wait to go to Hong Kong, I've never been out of Europe before so it's really exciting.
"I didn't want a local placement. I thought if I was doing a placement I might as well go as far away as possible and see as much of the world as I can."
Her expenses in gaining fashion industry experience this year have been partially covered by winning a £2,400 scholarship from Belfast Metropolitan College.
Clifford Cathcart, centre manager for fashion and textiles at the college said:"Her current placement with Philip Treacy and the one pending with SGA in Hong Kong will make her an asset to the local fashion sector.
He explains: "Our BSc (Hons) Fashion Management is designed to prepare students for working in the global market. Blaise's willingness to experience the international industry highlights a useful attitude. As we all know off-shore manufacturing is playing a powerful role in the fashion industry and Blaise will be able to garner valuable first hand experience. One of our lecturers, Colin Fryer has tremendous experience in this area and has made a huge contribution to the development of her placement.
"Some Northern Ireland companies who employ our graduates (Aria Clothing and Douglas and Grahame) engage with international suppliers and value employees who have this type of experience. We have no doubt that Blaise's placement will broaden her horizons from a design point of view and she will gain excellent industrial experience during her months in China."
Blaise wonders how she'll settle down to the discipline of Finals in the fourth year of her fashion management course at the college, starting September 2009.
But she has no doubt she made the right decision in opting for a Further Education college course at Belfast Met rather than some of the university or art college courses that were open to her. "I find the arty approach to fashion very hard to take seriously. You need to know how to make the clothes, that's what's important in the working world. Belfast has been good for me."
Blaise says her personal style is charity shop chic. She's worked in Oxfam in Belfast and picked up bargains there as well as trawling vintage shops.
A 'skirts girl' more than a jeans fan, she rarely gets the time to make her own clothes but likes to customise various items for an individual look.
Hats are a big passion and she reckons she owns up to 100, from tartan or tweed trilbys to berets in a rainbow of colours.
"I've got some hats I made myself from when I was on a short course at St Martin's in London. My biggest splurge was splashing out £100 on a Victorian top hat from an antique shop. It's a man's hat but quite small. I think it looks great. It certainly gets me noticed."