Why millinery is no longer old hat

Hats are worn to be noticed - and a new generation of makers are happy to oblige, says Hazel Davis
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The Independent Online

Ladies' Day at Ascot has long been a showcase for the artistry of the milliner, and each year, the hats worn provoke almost as much excitement as the races their wearers are there to watch. But who is it that thinks up these fantastic creations?

Janie Lashford studied millinery at London College of Fashion when there were hardly any courses on the subject in the country. She was working in costume and props for film and theatre at the time, and realised that hats were a very important part of her work. In 2002, she set up her own school, Janie Lashford's School of Millinery, in Worcestershire. She runs courses of two to four days, in groups or individually, and has also started to offer City & Guilds training.

"Millinery is halfway between craft and fashion," she says. "Some people come on my courses because they love hats; some because they want a career in hat-making; and some just want to learn an old skill." But for Lashford, it's not a dying art. "Hats create a sensation wherever you go. You don't get forgotten in a hat. There will always be a need for hats."

Rebecca Noden made a radical career switch to become a milliner. She was working as a recruitment manager for Arthur Andersen during the Enron crisis. She says, "The whole process took several months, and during the Deloitte & Touche takeover there was very little work to be done. So a friend and I decided we needed to do something to make it more interesting again."

Her friend did a silversmithing course and Noden applied for a millinery course at the London College of Fashion. "From the first class, I was hooked," she enthuses. "I remember walking to the Tube station to go home, a huge grin on my face, telephoning my boyfriend and my family to say how excited I was about it all. I signed up for the next nine-week course after my second week."

When the company eventually went down, as part of her compensation package she negotiated that it would pay for the third course she was taking and also a business course aimed at the fashion sector. She used the money to move out of London to Wiltshire and set herself up in business.

Noden also believes that millinery is very much alive and kicking. "It is certainly a changing art, and the old methods, although still there in essence, are being added thanks to innovations in technology and materials. There are more millinery classes and courses being run than ever, and the hat, in its various guises, has come back into the fold of high fashion, as well as being increasingly present in street fashion."

For Noden, we are "at heart, a nation of quiet exhibitionists, and the hat is the perfect expression of this". But she warns that "something like three-quarters of new fashion businesses go under in their first year. Be realistic - not everyone can have catwalk shows and a global empire".

The opportunities are there if you look, she says. "There are so many courses these days that I would definitely advise anyone thinking of a career change to take an evening class as a taster. Try to back it up with a business course. If you can't balance the books, your designs are irrelevant."

She also stresses the importance of asking for help: "Don't be proud - knock on doors until your knuckles hurt! Take any work experience, and don't be scared. If people shut the door in your face before they've even seen your work, it is no reflection on you or what you do. It's just not for them at that moment."

How to get ahead

Enrol on a short course or a City & Guilds course at Janie Lashford's School of Millinery ( www.themillineryschool.co.uk; 01386 832901).

Contact the London College of Fashion ( www.fashion.arts.ac.uk; 020-7514 7566) for details of its courses.

Visit www.thehatsite.com, an international portal for the hat-making industry.

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