FASHION / Heady stuff: Treacy puts on his own show

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The Independent Culture
Philip Treacy is the designers' new secret weapon. In the last two years, his hats have become an indispensible part of the international collections, taking over from the wedding dress as the item bound to bring a designer's name maximum attention. Why secret? Because it's the designer's name that appears on Treacy's hats. But today, at the London Collections, Treacy puts on his own show. MARION HUME interviewed him

WHEN Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld,Rifat Ozbek or Valentino want a hat, they know who to call. Philip Treacy, a quietly-spoken boy brought up in the west of Ireland, has put hats on the heads of the most famous models in the world's most high-profile fashion shows. Not bad for a boy who hails from a village half the length of a catwalk.

His star has risen quickly: three years ago, he was still in college. Now the top fashion names hire him for his attention-grabbing millinery. They want to ensure that pictures of their shows will whizz around the world - and Treacy's work is nothing if not photogenic. But there is a caveat. These are the designers' shows, and they want their names on the hats. As a result, the most exuberant and original hatter in the world has spent much of his fashion life treading on eggshells.

Luckily, in a business which is big -monstrously big - on egos, Treacy can cope. He is quiet and calm when he says: 'My work is a collaboration, my aim is to keep the client happy. When I started, I saw how it could be in that environment. I chose how not to be. My background is my safety net. I'd never heard about the fashion world for the first 18 years of my life. I never knew it existed and was so excited to discover it. I know what I do and that is enough. I don't seek attention.'

But it finds him anyway. Those hats - a towering hot pink turban, a sky-high straw pagoda or an orbit of tulle - shout out to be noticed, and sometimes their overpowering effect can be a problem. In Paris, back in July at the haute couture shows, a couple of us had a preview of Valentino's Chinese-inspired collection, in the presence of the designer himself. 'Oooh] Oooh]' exclaimed my companion, delighted at the sight of a huge hat, its shape ingeniously based on the palace of the Forbidden City; 'Ooohaaah]' she sighed at a feather- topped mink satin temple. 'Aaah]' she whispered at feathers drooping into the shape of a mandarin's moustache. 'Er, it's politic to comment on the clothes,' I whispered, as Valentino started to twitch.

Treacy needs plenty of diplomacy as he flits between competing clients, but they are so different from one another that he has, so far, managed the delicate balancing act. 'Rifat treats the hat as a modern item. It is never old hat. This time (for the Ozbek gypsy collection shown in Milan) we both agreed to move away from the icon hats.' Last season, Treacy produced two-feet high pagoda hats for Ozbek. This time the models came out wearing billowing black headscarves trimmed with coins.

Karl Lagerfeld, he says, is 'generous with his creativity. He's ready to go the distance'. For Versace, the aim is to do a Versace version of a hat, 'so I'll take a marine hat and blow it up into a Versace marine hat'. Treacy admits that Valentino, who phoned him up out of the blue, was the most awesome master.

'Valentino is legendary. He has been designing for 40 years and his workmanship is perfect. I was so freaked when he and Mr Giammetti, (Valentino's business partner) came to the studio in London, I mean, they are immaculate. They liked the hats and they didn't comment on the surroundings. But I like the notion of something coming from nothing and ending up at the Haute Couture.'

Tonight, we can Oooh and Aaah as much as we want when Treacy reveals a collection of hats under his own name. It is the first collection of his signature millinery since he left the Royal College of Art. Even this was auspicious, for in the course of a typical college show, out came Lucy Ferry, wife of Brian, English eccentric Isabella Blow, and other fashion-famous women whom this student had somehow persuaded to model his collection. On their bodies they wore shifts. But their hats won an ovation.

They were spectacular hats, and his creations since then have not disappointed. Treacy explains what makes his work different from the usual British 'stick a flower on it and make haste to the wedding' attitude to hat making: 'It's not about putting a grosgrain ribbon and flowers on a straw and calling it a hat. It is about balance and cut and shape and proportion with the face. Hat-making is a craft. Moulding the sparterie (from which a hat mould is made), wrestling with it, pinning it It can take a fortnight to get a shape, - and it shows on my gnarled, pin-stuck hands.'

Tonight's Philip Treacy show, the first time millinery has topped the bill at the London collections, is bound to command a lot of attention. 'It's my chance to show the hat in a modern light,' he says. The theme will be 'darker' he says, than his contract work for other designers. The materials, however, are very light and transparent. 'There's a feeling of weightlessness, of almost invisible hats,' he says. And who would he want as a customer? 'I'd like to make a hat for Anjelica Huston. That's a face for a hat.'

Philip Treacy's hats will soon be available from his first showroom at 69 Elizabeth Street, London SW1, 071-259 9605

(Photographs omitted)