Even if you’re not familiar with his name, you’ve most certainly seen his work. British designer Philip Treacy is perhaps the best-known milliner in the world – and that’s not just because he designed the hats worn by Princess Beatrice, Victoria Beckham, and 33 other guests at the Royal Wedding. For the past 20 years, photographer Kevin Davies has been capturing Treacy’s intricate process behind-the-scenes as he designs hats for the likes of Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell and Madonna. The result of their collaboration is a 200-page retrospective, “Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies,” (Phaidon), which was released this month.
We had the rare opportunity to speak with Treacy about the new book, his feelings on hat etiquette, and his rather unexpected opinion on an American classic: the baseball cap.
DuJour: The book really conveys how hands-on you are during the whole process. Are people generally surprised by that?
Philip Treacy: They are. I’m not just sitting here and grandly giving somebody a sketch. I’m the person who gets the sketch – I’m a craftsman. The physicality of the making the piece is a big part of my job because it’s what I do with my hands. We don’t do this in a factory in China or in Italy.
You use fit models for your hats the same way clothing designers do for clothes. All jokes aside – do they need to have a certain type of head?
It’s not really the shape of their head – it’s more the personality of the person, or the attitude of the person. Believe it or not, the girl who is in the photograph as our fit model Isabella [Blow] brought in to the studio and insisted I employ her. She just tried hats on all day long and she really enjoyed wearing them. It wasn’t a hassle for her – she wasn’t in the corner texting her mate. She loved to look at herself in the mirror and show off the hats and she loved to model.
And do you find inspiration in that?
Yes, absolutely. The best I can explain it is with catwalk models, the girl would come in wearing jeans, looking like a hippie, and transform into whatever the designer wants them to wear. For hats, they really enjoy to show themselves off.
Have you ever worked with someone incredibly challenging to please?
It doesn’t usually work if they’re very particular about what they want, because if they know what the hat should look like – if they know better than me – then maybe they should be making it themselves.
What about Grace Jones… she wasn’t a challenge at all?
Well, I mean the words “Grace Jones” sound like a drum being beaten. So she does put the fear of God into people with the very mention of the words “Grace Jones.” But I know a very different person. I was expecting a very difficult person… and she’s charming. Jamaican. Friendly!
So you really get to know the people you’re designing for…
It’s not like shaking hands with someone in a room with 600 people because you really get to meet them. They’re meeting you with their vulnerability in a way. Because they’re entrusting you to make something extraordinary for them.
Is that kind of pressure stressful?
When you meet somebody you meet their face. You don’t meet their foot. So to decorate the head is a very important part of the body, because it’s what we look at. Whether they’re a mom going to a wedding or an iconic entertainer, people expect a lot when they come to me. It’s quite pressurized. Well maybe not pressurized, but it’s just that the expectation is high and I have to deliver that with my skills.
Would you say you’re an evangelist of hats in general, even if they’re not as ornate and beautiful as the ones you design?
Yes. I love hats! People are always trying to kill them off but they’ve been around since the beginning of time and they’ll always be a part of our world while we have a head on our shoulders.
Ok, so you’re not hat elitist. What are your thoughts on baseball hats?
I love baseball hats. I wish I had designed the baseball hat. It’s one of the most fantastic hats!
Really? That was not the answer I was expecting…
Yes, of course! I love all hats. The rappers wearing the baseball caps, the ethnic communities wearing hats, the fireman’s wearing a hat; you turn on MTV and every pop star is putting a hat on. Until we lose our heads, hats will always be a part of our world in some way.
What’s your stance on hat etiquette? Are they office appropriate?
Oh, I think hats should be worn breakfast, dinner and tea! Hats are emotive objects. They are provocative. They are part of ultimate moments in women’s lives. For a party or performing at the Super Bowl like Madonna’s that we did with Givenchy. Or whether you’re Gaga at the Grammy’s or whether you’re at a wedding. It’s a memorable thing to have a hat made.
What do you think drives people to buy them?
It’s more than love – it’s obsession! It’s the biggest impulse buy in the world. Because you don’t need a hat – ever – but neither do you really need to wear lipstick or jewelry… but we do.
Do you think they have the ability to transform a person for that moment?
Totally. It’s having a good time – that’s what a hat is. They make you feel good. It’s romantic. There’s a romance to hats. Even if it looks a little unusual. I’m not trying to make a crazy hat, even though a lot of people think I do. I’m trying to make a beautiful hat.
What is something you’d like readers to take away from the book?
It’s not about glossy images; it’s about process and behind-the-scenes. People have no idea how hats are made or what goes into it and what’s involved. When your name is associated with rare refined things and labels… they just think the hat jumps out of a box totally finished. But they don’t! It’s like making a building. It’s a very complex craft, though it’s supposed to look effortless. But it sure ain’t effortless. I’m in a very lucky position that I get to influence how people see hats in the 21st century. And that’s exciting. It’s visual entertainment for the head.