Piers Atkinson: A thoroughly modern milliner

Editor, publicist, fashion consultant:  Piers Atkinson has worn many hats in  his career, but the one that fits most  comfortably is that of avant-garde milliner to the stars. Rebecca Gonsalves meets him

For fans of extrovert fashion, Piers Atkinson’s creations are the cherry on top – quite literally. His most famous design is that of a pair of over-sized lacquered  cherries which have been snapped perched atop the heads of such style-setters as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Vogue Japan’s editor at large, Anna Dello Russo. Before launching his first collection of hats in February 2008, Atkinson had worked for the designer Zandra Rhodes and the fashion publicist Mandi Lennard, as well as establishing and editing the London Fashion Week newspaper The Daily. Couple his jam-packed CV with such bold designs and Atkinson should by all rights be something of an extrovert.

It is something of a surprise then, that in person he is rather mild mannered. “I think like all artists I’m a bit shy and sensitive,” he says when we meet on a wet Wednesday morning in Hackney, east London. There, Atkinson hosted a pop-up shop with fellow milliners including Noel Stewart and Lizzie McQuade, where fashion followers could get their toppers and titfers in time for Royal Ascot, which starts tomorrow.

“We’ve got on to the Ascot and  weddings circuit so we’re absolutely up to our necks in that,” says Atkinson. “People come to me for hats for Buckingham Palace garden parties, racing season hats, weddings and they are a big part of the business.” Royal Ascot made headlines in 2012 when it banned fascinators from the Royal Enclosure, but the fashion for non-commital wisps of fabric and feathers clued to a hairband has been dwindling for a long time and fascinator is a dirty word among fashion folk.

Atkinson’s designs are certainly more adventurous than that, but they appeal to a surprisingly broad cross-section of women. “My customers are all very strong, determined women,” says Atkinson. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re loud – some of them can be quite demure and shy. But they’re absolutely, strangely, very confident to do their own thing. Hat wearing anyway takes a level of confidence – and that’s why we make tiny hats and headbands as well as huge brims.”

While Atkinson may not have a formal education in hat design, his mother, Hilary Elliott, was the milliner for the English National Opera, and he and sister Lucy learnt the skill watching her work at the kitchen table. “It’s nice that there’s a bit of a focus on millinery at the moment,” says Atkinson. “You can’t make a hat that’s wearable unless you use the old techniques: which is a wooden block that you stretch very  certain fabrics around. You can’t use just anything. So you have to use these traditional base methods.”

“We were so privileged as children. We were backstage seeing mum at the fittings in the theatre and what looked so graphic and amazing from a distance, when you got close there was still a lot of detail but you could see it was a big shiny button and not an Elizabethan pearl. The trickery, the smoke and mirrors of the stage: that always fascinated me and you’ll see the influence of that in the way I put my hats together.”

As well as his mother, Atkinson’s spells working for Rhodes, the artist Andrew Logan and the costume designer Robert Allsopp have influenced his flamboyant design style. “Sometimes the girls [in my studio] say ‘oh, you can’t do that with a hat’, because they’ve done the ‘how to make a hat properly’ course. Maybe that I haven’t has been a strength; rule breaking is what London fashion’s about isn’t it? Breaking the rules without being absurd.”

Atkinson’s childhood was something of a rural idyll: raised by his mother and grandmother – an artist and horticulturalist – he spent his teenage years in Norfolk. “We had no neighbours at all, just trees. So I used to sit and get depressed and listen to my Grace Jones records and Kate Bush. There was a guy who lived across the field, an incredible artist called Bruce Lacey, and when I got fed up I’d go over the field and hang out with him.”

But as is so often the case, the isolation of the provinces made Atkinson yearn for something more cosmopolitan and exciting: “When I was growing up Thatcher was making adverts of Aids gravestones falling over and splattering homosexuals. It was a very different kind of era. Yes I did dream about bigger, better things but I was also quite scared of London. I felt it was quite threatening, very urban.”

“I like that slower, ‘English’ pace of life where I grew up,” he continues. “But I was definitely looking at Smash Hits! and iD.”

The influence of those image makers was obviously lasting: Atkinson studied graphic design and photography at the University of Bristol, before moving to London in 1995. “I hadn’t really planned to be a milliner,” he confesses. “I was happy working with the British Fashion Council [on The Daily]. I hadn’t thought about being a designer, if you look at someone like Stephen Jones or Philip Treacy and my mum, I didn’t think I was good enough. But I’ve  always made hats, because that’s what was happening at home. I’d make headdresses and go out to nightclubs. There was a wonderful explosion of exciting clubs around the early Noughties. I was going out and dressing up and making clothes for me and my friends.”

Having gradually built his business, Atkinson is proud to be able to turn a profit and produce his wares in London – which he attributes to the fact that his hats are such special occasion pieces.

“It’s a niche industry which means it’s been easier in a way for me to shine. Everyone does wear a hat, but they’re beanies and baseball caps. I think it’s natural for people, if they’re showing off it all goes on the head as well. The ‘here I am’ statement, that’s what I love about it. I can do it if I’m out and dressed up in a nightclub, but not walking down the road. That’s for other people, for walking down the road.”