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Crowning glory

Whether it's a small blue beret or a hat piled three feet high with fake fruit, hats are back and are back big. Though prices are steep, a couture milliner will create a unique hat for every day or special occasions. Most work by appointment only and will expect you to bring an outfit with you to the first fitting. Top designers will usually have their season's collection samples to choose from which they can personalise or adapt. Some will even make your own personal design from scratch (bring your credit cards).

Gilly Forge 14 Addison Avenue London W11 4QR. (071 603 3833) Appointment only

Gilly Forge's studio (used in the cult film Blow Up) has a large open north facing window looking out onto a flowering courtyard garden - making it light, bright and airy. Her hats, worn by the Queen of Greece, Victoria de Rotheschild and Lady Antonia Pinter, are equally light and bright, mainly fine beautiful summer straws which cost from pounds 200-pounds 300. Clients are advised to bring outfits to the first fitting, which can take up to an hour; hats take a minimum of a week to make. Samples of floppy and hard hats are on display in the showroom and can be made in any colour. Choose from names such as 'Desert', 'Barcelona' and 'Madrid'.

Herald and Heart Hatters 131 St Philip Street, London SW8 3SS. (071 627 2414) Mon-Sat 10am-5pm

Three female designers run this hugely popular hat shop in a quiet residential street in Battersea. The shop itself is a caricature Lewis Carol millinery with a workshop overhead crammed with antique blocks and shelves bulging with ribbons, braids, flowers and feathers. Strong maritime themes run through the current spring and summer collection with colours ranging from sea-spray greens and deep navys through to smooth sand, ecru and pastel shell colours. Hat designs include a mariner's Tricorne in white straw and a Mainsail Picture Hat. Others range from a flat Chinese coolie hat to the Krakatoa East of Java hat with a wide brim and volcanic crown. These hats are ready to wear. Prices start at pounds 25.

Marina Killery operates out of a showroom at a Notting Hill. (071 727 3121) Appointment only

Killery makes divine summer hats in romantic natural gauzes and soft summer shapes. Prices range from pounds 280-pounds 350, but for something truly lavish prices stretch to pounds 400. Though all kinds of samples are on display, including more structured and tailored hats, a customer can come in with a hand drawn design and have a new hat made up from scratch. The whole process, from consultation to collection, takes a fortnight. Regular customers vary from the Princess of Wales, the Dutchess of York and an array of society names to Prince, who recently had a hat designed by Marina in her New York studio to go with a particularly gaudy outfit.

Hats can be dyed any colour.

Graham Smith 22 Crawford St, London W1H 1PJ. (071 935 5626) By appointment only

Graham Smith is a hatworld heavyweight who has been 'creating' for society events for the last 30 years. 'They aren't stunt hats,' says his right hand woman Marilyn de Keyser. 'He makes beautiful hats with incredible workmanship which are always right for the individual and what she'll be wearing.' Though he is master of the structured hat, he also does wide summer hats and bridal headresses. Sample designs can be adapted to colour, size and minor alterations. Prices start at pounds 300 and hats can take up to three weeks to complete. Regular customers include Princess Margaret and Shirley Bassey. Designer Bruce Oldfield also recommends his customers to use Graham.

Philip Treacy 69 Elizabeth St, London SW1 9PJ (071 259 9605) Open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm Appointment only

Current darling of the catwalk, Treacy's hats are everywhere at the moment, adorning the heads of royals, top models and celebrity wannabees. With its gold leaf and indigo interior and pencil thin mannequins, Treacy's showroom (designed by Tom Dickson) has become a mecca for mad hatters. After an initial fitting, hats take up to three weeks to make. Samples are on show to choose from; most can be adapted to suit each customer's specific requirements. Prices start at pounds 350 and range upwards to pounds 600. Ready to order hats begin at pounds 140.

'At the moment we are using a lot of banana fibre,' says Treacy's assistant Marie-Helene. 'It's a light see-through material which we can dye in different colours.'

Clients are advised to bring outfits with them for the fitting.

(Photograph omitted)