The Master Hatter

Philip Treacy in his London studio
Philip Treacy in his London studio

By Marilyn Cole Lownes, Contributor
February / March 2007

Philip Treacy, whose beautiful hats are works of art, draws inspiration from his Irish country childhood

As bells pealed out over the village of Ahascragh in County Galway, Father McManus stood under the eaves of his church, awaiting the bride. It was business as usual for the priest whose parish kept him busy most Saturdays with their weddings.

And, as usual, unbeknownst to the priest, the freckled face of a small boy with a crop of corn-colored hair and the palest blue eyes appeared at the window of the house opposite.

Mesmerized by the sight of the wedding guests in all their finery, the delicate child looked on with fascination and a sense of joy.

“We lived opposite the village church,” recalls world-famous milliner Philip Treacy, sipping tea in his workshop in Battersea in London. “I used to watch all these weddings and I remember thinking how unbelievable it was, the way people got all dressed up and how glamorous they looked.”

It was many years later in 2005 that Philip Treacy watched another wedding take place. Only this time, it was as milliner to the bride, and it was far from the tiny parish church on the West Coast of Ireland. Philip stood alongside the Prime Minister, political figures, diplomats and showbiz personalities who had gathered in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle to watch the Duchess of Cornwall wear his creation as she walked down the aisle as the wife of the Prince of Wales.

“Camilla was the coolest of customers,” says Treacy, “I think it was because she trusted me. Sometimes people come to you and act like they think you don’t know what you are doing. And, fact is, you know very well what you are doing.” He laughs. “Anyway you’d be an idiot to make them look bad.”

Today, surrounded by some of his innovative and exquisitely hand-crafted teak blocks which mold his couture hats, Philip explains where his confidence and security come from. “My father was a baker and my mother a housewife. They looked after us and we were completely self-sufficient. We didn’t want for anything. I grew up in a village of 500 people. I didn’t see a city until I was seventeen.”

Being the second youngest of seven boys, and with one sister who was the eldest child, Philip recollects, “I thought my sister, Marion, was the most glamorous girl in the world. She was a huge inspiration to me. She was my introduction to fashion and magazines. She worked as a nurse in London and used to come home on holidays with all these great magazines like Harper’s and Queen and Vogue, which I’d never seen.”

Discussing his creative journey, Treacy recalls, “As a child I always liked making things like puppets, toys, Christmas decorations, stuff like that. And,” he smiles, “when I was six, Mrs. McDonagh, a neighbor, taught me how to sew.”

After completing a Foundation Course in Galway, Philip went to the National College of Art in Dublin, where he excelled, winning a scholarship to go to the Royal College of Art in London.

“I studied fashion design first. I didn’t really have any heroes in the way of designers and I didn’t really care too much about them.” He explains, “When I came to college in London I found that many of the students were a little jaded but not me, because the city was all new to me.

“At that time I had no idea that I would become a milliner, I just liked fashion and style.”

Inviting me in, he opens the door to an adjoining room, saying warmly, “Come in and meet the girls.”

Almost hidden by an abundance of beautiful fabrics in velvet, satin and silk, about a dozen women work diligently and quietly at their craft. There are no machines here as the hats are all made by hand.

From behind one of the benches, Philip plucks a wonderful hat, a tiny burgundy velvet beret, adorned with pheasant feathers, as glamorous and dramatic as the rest.

“I was always influenced by beauty. At home in Ireland we were taught about the beauty of nature,” he recalls. “We had lots of chickens, pheasants and geese so the prime ingredient of the hats I make are feathers because I know them very well. I now appreciate the profound effect my childhood had on me.”

He also pays tribute to others who have helped him succeed. Isabella Blow, the famous and influential stylist and fashion director of Tatler magazine became his muse. “I loved Isabella’s irreverence with labels and designers. She really couldn’t care less as long as she liked the work,” laughs Philip.

The allure of Treacy’s designs is that they are completely original in their witty, amusing, romantic and sexy ways.

“Hats are very sexy.” He smiles. “When I started at the Royal College of Art, they thought hats were for old ladies and I thought that was completely insane. Why would you think like that? I love the idea of the unknown and the future; you don’t know what’s going to happen next week, and that’s a fashion attitude. It’s all very well, accusing someone of being a ‘fashion animal’ – I’m one, too! Fashion animals are obsessed with something for a moment, then they move on to something else. That’s the nature of fashion – it’s all about change.”

Pointing out that as prolific Ireland is for its writers and playwrights, it isn’t known for its designers, Philip declares, “There is a different type of ‘Irishness’ today; it has changed dramatically. I never thought in terms of second best; I thought ‘I can do that.’ So I didn’t have a geographical block.

“You make your own luck in a way, but you also have to leave. Ireland is small. Most artists have to leave to find their success elsewhere. Some people think worldly and some people think parochially.

“Our family has never been politically motivated; there doesn’t seem to be anything positive in thinking that way.”

What does he look for at first or see in a client or model?

“I look at them and at their personality. I’m thinking of them,” explaining, “My aim is to make that person feel and look like a million dollars. Which is the whole point of why people wear clothes, to look their best.” A tailor can hide defects in the human form; can a milliner? “Absolutely. A hat can completely change the personality of the wearer, make them stand differently and walk differently. A hat can make that person interesting. People think sometimes that people who wear hats want to show off. But human beings, since the beginning of time, have always wanted to embellish themselves. So hats have been around since the year dot. It’s a human thing to want to dress every part.”

“We look different today to how we looked twenty years ago. I think people look better now. They have more money to spend and there are more things available.”

I point out that the New Yorker magazine told their cartoonists to stop illustrating their men in hats because people don’t wear them anymore.

“Oh dear,” exclaims Philip “that’s very sad. People always ask me if I’d prefer to have been a hat designer in the 40’s or 50’s, but actually I prefer to be making hats now. It’s more exciting.”

Talking about exciting, what were the most memorable moments of his career?

“There have been many. Getting into the Royal College of Art was a very exciting moment for me. Working with certain designers is always exciting,” he enthuses. “I worked with Karl Lagerfeld for ten years. The first time I’d seen a fashion show in Paris, I was working in it. I made this wild hat for the Chanel catwalk show for Linda Evangelista, the supermodel. I’ll always remember because she was wearing a white short dress and all the models were going out really quickly, but I noticed that she waited until the runway cleared, which I thought was very interesting because now the runway was all hers. She was very smart.”

And the Royal Wedding?

“Well, that was amazing,” says Treacy. “The wedding was fantastic because everyone was expecting Camilla to look awfully overdressed. And she didn’t. She looked great – Robinson Valentine made her dress and coat.

“All you have to go on is your instinct, in what you do. I remember a couple of weeks before the wedding, when it was all coming together and this was a big deal – everyone was waiting to criticize – and I thought, ‘Unless I’m mistaken, I think she will look fantastic.”

Like with any bride, “I want them to be thrilled with the outcome because it’s expensive and it’s an important moment in their lives.”

Noting that Philip Treacy was part of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Anglomania” show in New York this year – the Duchess of Cornwall’s headpiece was exhibited – and that department stores throughout the U.S. sell his ready-to-wear line, I ask about his American experience.

“I love America because there is such a positive atmosphere surrounding the people.”

And what moves him?

Referring to recent news coverage of Romanian children being sold, Philip confides, “I cried yesterday when I saw those poor children in Romania.” He continues, “My sister went to China to adopt a baby, who had been born under a bridge and left in a brown paper bag in a village.” Brightening, Philip describes “and now she is an adorable, feisty three-year-old, who steals mascara from her Mum and wants to talk on the mobile phone all the time.”

Asked about his hobbies, Philip responds, “There is no such thing as playtime when you work in fashion, because it’s all-encompassing.”

His projects last year included “making hats for anyone who pitched up from all over the world,” designing for a Harry Potter movie, the Royal Wedding, and working on a new project, “The G” hotel in Ireland.

“I was asked to design this hotel in Galway and I didn’t want to do it because I thought it’s not what I do and I don’t know anything about it,” admits Philip. “I told them, ‘I can’t give you traditional Irishness,’ and then I thought ‘I’m giving them 21st century Irishness, which is what I’m all about. I just went for it and it’s the biggest success.”

What’s the best thing about your job? “What I love about being a hat designer is that my customer base ranges from Marilyn Manson to Prince Charles’s wife,” laughs Philip. “The most interesting people in the world wear hats, and I get to meet them.”

Living above his shop in Elizabeth Street in London’s Belgravia, and sharing his life with Stefan, his partner of ten years, and his Jack Russell, Philip always remembers his roots.

“You may want to escape where you grew up, but you never do because it’s in your heart. I always talk about where I come from as though it’s sort of Rome or something.” He grins. “And for all the fashion shows I’ve seen in my time in London, Paris, Milan and New York, none of them evoke in me the powerful way those little weddings in Ahascragh did.”

And even more profoundly, he says, “Fashion is not known for its humanity. It’s about everything but that; fashion people are very unusual, they are obsessed with perfection and life isn’t like that. I think that is what my Irishness does for me; it gives me humanity.”

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