The South African born milliner is the name to drop in New York when looking for designer headwear. And when you’ve discovered him we suggest you calmly keep our hat on.
Enticed by his seductive and characterful designs noteworthy society types and retail shoppers alike have flocked to Swanepoel’s heady designs. In keeping with a growing trend of accessible design for the masses, he recently developed a line of hats for US discount retailer Target, bringing his creations to a wider audience at a fraction of the price. With one of his mainline hats costing more than $500 and with offerings such as a leopard fedora named The Kwele and the fur-covered Bardot riding cap, clients are sure to stand head and shoulders above the rest at any social occasion. We asked him to share his thoughts on this growing fashion phenomenon.
SA Fashion Handbook: What prompted your move to New York?
Albertus Swanepoel: I came to New York on vacation in 1989 and was offered a job by fluke after a few days. I never left. I love South Africa, but I found it culturally unfulfilling, and to me, there was a lack of sophistication. The longer I am away though, the more it inspires me!
What attracted you to hats?
At first it was a means of survival. I like the sculptural quality, the age-old craft of hat making and the challenge to keep it modern. I enjoy working with my hands and making a hat is less cumbersome than making a garment, for example. I love getting a message across in such a small item.
Briefly describe what is involved in creating one of your hats.
One can either use a wooden hat-shaped block for a felt or straw hat, hand sew a braided hat (strip straw) or create one from fabric. You can also create your own shape with foundation fabrics and then cover it. Most hats get made on a wooden hat block and then get finished with wire, ribbon and trim. It takes between one and fifty hours to make a hat, depending on the style and material.
Is there any correlation between what you wear on your head and on your feet?
There never should be! I hate matching outfits!
Why the sudden resurgence of interest in hats in the fashion world?
To quote French designer Christian Lacroix: “It’s the dot on the i.” A hat is a small fashion detail and not a huge financial investment, but one which can change and update your wardrobe by giving you instant character or attitude.
Are men starting to adopt hats in greater numbers, driven by designers such as yourself?
Yes, there is a big uptick in men wearing hats. The short brimmed fedora (or Trilby) is finally over (thank goodness!) and now men are starting to wear wider brimmed hats. Men’s accessories on the whole are a burgeoning market, whether it’s bags, bracelets, hats or shoes.
In your experience, which factors influence a product’s sales success?
I think there is too much fashion in the world. No one needs anything anymore. An item of clothing or accessory should have an emotional resonance with the consumer. It has to be desirable, also on trend (especially with accessories), or timeless – depending on your personal style. It’s important that your brand is clearly formulated and understood by the consumer. They want to relate to your ‘story.’
Ultimately, artistic sense must make good business sense. How many of your design decisions are driven by sales versus artistic instinct?
I never create hats, or a collection, with sales in mind. It’s all about design, style and inspiration for me.
I also never repeat best-selling items from previous collections, I always try to move forward. This might not be the smartest idea, but whatever!
You can never predict what store buyers will like, so to me, it’s important that I’m happy with my work. If buyers see my passion, they relate to it as well.
Where are hats going stylistically as future fashion accessories?
I call hats the orphan accessory – it’s the last thing women think about. Its also very trend-driven in a fashion sense. If fashion goes through a minimalist period, hats disappear. Then, there’s always the sun protection issue, status factors and hopefully some whimsy too. There will always be a place for hats. Currently, we’re seeing wider brims and less ornate decoration. Hats can look vintage or old very quickly so I try to keep mine modern and relevant.
What is your most coveted item?
My health, at this point!