The hat is without a doubt the boldest accessory that a woman can wear. And I believe it was the arrestingly-beautiful creature Iman, who stated that British milliner Philip Treacy’s hats were glamorous, sexy and eccentric. And that is such an important statement. It can be difficult to look all of the above simultaneously, but with a Treacy hat or fascinator propped solidly on your topper, it is indeed difficult to go wrong.
Since the 2010 suicide death of Alexander McQueen, fashion has witnessed a fiery landslide of McQueen’s visionary ideas sweeping the world of style, melting the mundane and burning away the banal like lava spewed from a hot cave.
And sitting squarely in the center of this beautiful demolition is Philip Treacy, the pale quiet ghost and sole survivor of the genius trinity, which includes the aforementioned McQueen and one unusual woman: the remarkable, the unmistakable…..Isabella Blow.
Isabella was the British fashion editor who discovered both McQueen and Treacy. Unfortunately, she also committed suicide three years prior to her protege McQueen, in 2007, by drinking a bottle of weed killer.
I have spoken to Philip Treacy several times, and there is a longing in his voice when he speaks of her. She remains his muse, even from the grave.
“Isabella Blow had something common to all of us, but unusual in fashion,” Philip told me. “She had a big heart. Her dilemma was that she worked in the fashion business, but was more interested in the fashion, than the business. She lived for the art and drama of fashion.”
Philip recounted a story for me of the way Blow would attend the shows, “with 600 people all sitting there, dressed in black. They were all serious, and there she’d be with a lobster hat on her head and a Nell Gwyn-inspired gown,” Philip recounted.
“She would be the only one to woo-hoo and clap. She didn’t care. I was so inspired by how she wore my hats. She wore them like she was not wearing them,” Philip continued, “like they just happened to be there. She was never a snob. She believed in talent–no matter where you came from.”
“I’m a baker’s son. Alexander McQueen is a cab driver’s son. Issie gave me my first commission while still a student at the Royal College of Art (in London),” Philip said. “I remember someone said to her, ‘Why is this student making your wedding hat when you could have anyone in the world make it?’ She didn’t give a fuck what they thought. Her focus was creativity, and I fell in love with her at that moment. When you were in her focus–and this includes Alexander McQueen, (pictured with Isabella, above), Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, whom she also discovered–it was like being in the middle of a love affair,” Phillip explained.
“Everybody loved Issie, but she didn’t always love herself. She did have ovarian cancer and she suffered with depression…it was all too much for her. Isabella Blow was the first extraordinary, interesting person I met in London when I moved here from Ireland. In 20 years I have met all my heroes and nobody in my honest true estimation surpassed her. She was incredible. I thought there must be others like her, but there wasn’t. Everyone was boring in comparison to her,” he added.
Although Blow was Treacy’s ideal client, this master milliner now counts many, many famous faces among his fans. Grace Jones, Boy George, Madonna, Lady Gaga….and not just the celebrities, either. Treacy tops off the royals and practically every serious high-end fashionista in the world today, and his career has spanned an incredible 30 years of not just relevancy, but reigning.
His creations are exquisite perfection–with unparalleled creativity and the kind of delicate details and nuances that one would expect in fine art. Each and every piece is painstakingly crafted in his bright London studio, with an expert staff that he oversees. Take a look at some of these Treacy masterpieces.
Above is a 17th-century Dalian or sailing ship hat. It is Philip’s favorite creation out of all his literally thousands of hats. “I’d seen old renderings of ships in women’s hair,” Philip told me. “It was a costume designer’s dream.”
The idea for this hat was inspired and created from a chapter in Olivier Bernier’s book, “Pleasure and Privilege,” Philip said.
The chapter, called “Rule of Fashion,” was about life in France in the 1750s. “It described a British fleet admiral, D’Estaing, losing a famous battle to the French fleet,” Philip told me. “In celebration, women in Paris wore ships in their hair to go to the opera, and I loved the emotion attached to this,” he continued. “It’s made from satin and the bone of the feather. The sails are paradise feathers. And the rigging is made from the feather bones,” Philip said, which, he told me, is what remains when you strip away the feather from its spine.
“I first used feathers, shed by my mother’s goose, as a child to decorate hats where I grew up in Galway, (Ireland). It took a year for Antony’s Yokohama cockerels to grow their tail feathers long enough for me to painlessly clip them to create hats that were worn by Honor Fraser and Jodie Kidd on the catwalk,” Philip told me. Above and below are two results of Treacy and McQueen’s collaboration from 2007.
“Birds are exquisite perfection. Their feathers are weightless, and they give movement and volume. Women love them and they are very sexy,” he stated.
“I like to invent new ways of using farmyard fowl; feathers feel like living, breathing material. You are drawing with them rather than just decorating a hat,” he added. Above, Issie Blow wears a pheasant hat designed by Treacy.
“She loved this pheasant. She said, ‘I want to be buried in it.’ So we buried her in it,” Philip stated.
Philip on his youth: “As a child I always liked making things like puppets, toys, Christmas decorations, stuff like that. And when I was six Mrs. McDonough, a neighbor, taught me how to sew. I studied fashion first. I didn’t have any heroes in the way of designers and I didn’t really care too much about them. 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 I would become a milliner, I just liked fashion and style.”
“I was always influenced by beauty,” Phillip continued. “At home in Ireland we were taught about the beauty of nature. 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.”
Philip described his process to me: “I sketch the hat, and then begin to make the shape in a natural fabric called spartrie. When the shape is completed it is sent off to La Forme in Paris who then creates a wooden block. With this block hundreds of hats can be created.” Above, Philip fits a hat on model Naomi Campbell.
Philip on the beginning of his career: “I was summoned to Paris to meet Karl Lagerfeld, chief designer at Chanel. I was 23 and I’d just left school. I didn’t know whether to call him Mr. Lagerfeld or whatever. I was totally intimidated but Issie was exactly herself. She just walked into the house of Chanel and said, ‘We’d like some tea, please.’ I went on to design hats for Lagerfeld at Chanel for 10 years. The first hat I designed was the twisted birdcage, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier and worn on the cover of British Vogue by Linda Evangelista.”
Philip on hats: “Hats are very sexy. 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 that? I love the idea of the unknown and the future; you don’t know what is 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, and then they move on to something else. That’s the nature of fashion. It’s all about change.”
“A hat can completely change the personality of the wearer, make them stand differently and walk differently. A hat can make that person feel 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.”
Philip on his clientele: “My assistant who looks after my shop tells me she sells a dream. She sells people things they do not really need, but they have to have. We all need beautiful things that make us feel good and give us pleasure. Whether it’s a flower, a sunrise, or a hat! These things are the spice of life and remind us of the essence of pleasure and beauty. I have had the greatest pleasure of having the opportunity to challenge people’s perception of what a hat should look like in the 21st century.”
“Our customers are everyone from a young girl who’s saved up for a £150 rainwear trilby to this very distinguished gentleman of about 70. He comes in every summer to order 20 couture hats to entertain the ladies who will be staying on his yacht. It doesn’t matter how much people pay for them…everyone wants to look like a million dollars in a hat.”
“I went to my studio today and Isabella is everywhere,” he said. “In every hat I made, every corner I turn, she is there. I will miss her laugh, her passion and her humanity.”
“I will always miss her.”