London awaits its head boy

No designer at the London fashion shows will be more courted, feted, oohed and aahed at than milliner Philip Treacy. Jim White watches him work
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The Independent Online
On Monday evening, with 72 hours to go before Philip Treacy, the country's foremost milliner, put his latest collection of headgear on show in London Fashion Week, things were getting fraught in his studio; so fraught, indeed, that hard hats should have been issued. The models' clothes hadn't yet turned up, there had been a mix-up in the booking arrangements so one of his favourite cat-walkers had suddenly become unavailable and six of the show hats, requiring at least 60 hours' work apiece, had yet to be started. Some of his 10-person creative team were visibly fraying like a tramp's trilby. And worse, the telephone was melting with calls from the desperate in search of tickets for the one show to be seen at, the most fashionable outing of Fashion Week.

"It's Tara," said one of his team at one point, holding her hand over the receiver as yet another caller hung, anxiously, on the other end of the line. "Tara wants a ticket." "Who's Tara?" whispered Treacy, an oasis of calm in the panic, as he gently adjusted the feather on what appeared from a distance to be a gorgeously plumed nesting bird but was, in fact, a hat.

"You know: Tara," said his aide, sotto voce lest Tara heard down the line. "Tara Palmer Whatsit." "Who's Tara Palmer Whatsit?" he replied, puzzled. "She's a, you know, a...a...a, oh you know who she is, she's, she's Tara Palmer thingy. Anyway she'd simply adore a ticket." "Well, I can't even find a seat for my brothers, they're standing up at the back," he said. "I'm afraid you'll have to tell Tara I'm sorry."

Philip Treacy sounded as if he really was sorry. He would have loved Tara, whoever she was, to be there among the lucky few. And not just Tara. If he had his way, his show would be in Wembley Stadium, his creations paraded in front of 80,000 people. Because he is, he says, on a mission; a millinarial mission.

"I'm really on a crusade to promote the hat," he says. "One of the greatest moments in my work is when I get a first-time hat wearer, a hat virgin, come into the shop, needing something because they are going to a hat function. And I say to them: 'you'll have a great time in that hat'. And they look at me puzzled. But the number of times people have come back to me and said, 'you were right, I had a fantastic time'." His studio in Belgravia is full of party ice-breakers, ideal attire for centre-of- attention seekers. There's a still-life of pink quill pens; there's a mass of red fluff which tumbles down to the shoulders in the manner of a Roy Wood fright-wig; and there's a huge spread of feathers, which radiate out from the middle of the forehead and look like the result of incident involving a peacock's rear end.

But these are his stunts, the witty cat-walk show-offs which attract the flash-bulbs. There are also on display, atop the sleek white mannequins dotted around the place, extravagantly brimmed straw boaters, or delicate white silk numbers so elegant you can see why people have a good time in them; simply because they would make any old dog look as divine as Kristin Scott Thomas in "Four Weddings And A Funeral". They are what Isabella Blow, the show's artistic director and a woman seldom seen without a Treacy on her head, calls "husband catchers." "That's what they are," she insisted, flicking a feather from her brow as she fielded yet another anxious phone- call. "Wear one of Philip's hats and I guarantee you'll get a husband." Not that I was looking for one.

But later, as he sat away from the hullaballoo in the flat that he shares with Isabella and her husband directly over the road from his studio, Treacy reflected on this definition of his craft.

"Issie's got a point, you know," he said. "Some people think hats are silly. But the whole point of a good hat is that it totally changes the geometry of the face. There is no doubt it makes you look more attractive."

As if to prove the point, on the wall above his head is a huge photograph of a woman wearing a fabulous melange of feathers: marriage bait if ever you saw it. The woman is Linda Evangelista, the photographer was Irving Penn and the hat was the second one Philip Treacy ever sold. Which is what you call starting at the top.

"I don't question what it is I've got, or where it came from," he said of his creativity. "I just get on with it and know I'm very, very lucky." Indeed the story of Philip Treacy's rise to the apex of British fashion, to the point where he is the hippest designer in an increasingly significant business, is a short one. From a household in Ireland without any couture connections ("my brothers are things like policemen and counsellors for alcoholics") he was studying fashion at college in Dublin and decided to spend the summer in London pursuing his major ambition in life: meeting Boy George. In order to facilitate this, he got himself a job working in the workshop of Stephen Jones, George's favourite milliner, sewing in labels and linings to Jones's eccentric creations. And it was there that his life took on a new direction: he didn't so much meet George as hats.

"I'd always been very tactile, I loved making things with my hands," he said. "As a kid I made toys, furniture, anything. There's a thrill in making things with your hands. And I discovered with hats-making it's the sheerest of pleasure. There's a very complicated craft involved in making sure the architecture is right and in understanding fabric and helping it to do what it wants to do. Each hat is like a new beginning. There's really nothing else like it." In 1989, after graduating from Dublin, he landed a scholarship at the Royal College of Art in London.

"They decided to institute a hat-making MA course, and I was the guinea pig," he recalled. "Thankfully, otherwise it might have been a different story." With the first hat he sold - made with feathers taken from the geese his mother kept in the garden back home and worn to Ascot by a woman who took the place by storm - Treacy was on an upward trajectory. Picked up early and promoted by Isabella Blow, who has fashion contacts the length of an ostrich feather, he was almost immediately the most feted designer in Britain, the one everyone wanted to be seen wearing. He not only met Boy George, he designed the Devil-horn hat the Boy wore on his last album sleeve.

Now 27, Treacy has reached the point where his shows send ripples throughout anywhere in the world that people are interested in looking fancy. There was, for instance, the hat which concluded his show last year. An elegant black number, it was topped off by a majestic two-foot high 18th century French sailing boat. There were suggestions at the time that this was an Airfix kit. In fact it was constructed by Treacy entirely from chicken feathers: the rigging from the bones in the middle of the feathers, the sails from the softer outer bits.

"I made it all myself," he said. "Often, you can design something and get your team to make it. But there was no way I could get someone else to do that, so I had to do every bit of it myself." So exquisite was the piece that the day after the show he had 15 name- your-price calls from around the globe, one from the-artist-formerly-known- as-Prince who demanded to have it.

"I couldn't let it go, you know," Treacy said. "Sometimes with hats, you can make a copy. But not this one." He sells plenty of others, however, at big prices: at least pounds 400 for a bespoke item, designed by him to suit your face. Rough arithmetic suggests he turns over upwards of pounds 80,000 equipping ladies for Ascot. That's not to mention the income from hundreds of other hats he makes for the summer season, or from the ten couture houses in Paris, Milan and New York he supplies, or from the contract with Debenhams to design their in-house range. Within three years of starting up, Philip Treacy is big business.

Perhaps because all this happened to him so quickly, however, Treacy has none of the shrill affectedness of so many of those who pursue his career. Looking less like the hottest fashion property in the British Isles than an extra from Trainspotting - hair out of control, chin unshaven, attire relaxed, a thimble permanently on his middle finger - all that appears to concern him are hats. Or rather making hats for other people.

"Do I make hats for for myself?" he said, looking rather surprised at the question. "No. Never. Hats give pleasure. And the pleasure I get is from making something which gives someone else pleasure. That's it."

Philip Treacy's show is at the Natural History Museum, London, today. No tickets are available.