The stars going gaga for Treacy
Milliner Philip Treacy is the darling of hat-loving celebs, from Lady Gaga to Madonna. The Galway man tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the frivolity of fashion and the fuss over that fascinator for Beatrice
Published 20/02/2012 | 06:00
Milliner Philip Treacy is the darling of the hat loving celebs from Lady Gaga to Madonna. The Galway man tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the frivoilty of fasgion and the fuss over that fascinator for Beatrice,
'There's Lady Gaga," says the milliner Philip Treacy, OBE, pointing at a spooky wax head on a crowded table that indeed bears the current queen of pop's striking features. "It's from Madame Tussauds. We need it because we're always designing for her. She's a hat-a-week person.
Besides a postcard of Treacy's pals, Charles and Camilla, is another head. It's black, the size of a child's, and topped with an elaborate cardboard headdress -- the mock-up of the gold-and-diamond horned crown that Madonna wore for her Super Bowl performance earlier this month.
"Everybody grew up with Madonna," says Treacy, "so to see her vogueing in front of the whole world in a hat I'd made was quite something."
We're in Treacy's London studio, across the road from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where his staff of 15 are flat-out preparing for London Fashion Week, which started on Friday. Treacy, 44, is swinging in a large chair suspended from his ceiling, thimble on his thumb as he reflects on what's been his annus incredibilis.
It kicked off with last April's royal wedding when the softly spoken Irishman's hats were worn by no fewer than 36 guests -- including Victoria Beckham ("She likes clothes, and I say, what's the crime in shopping?"), the Duchess of Cornwall and -- most infamously -- Princess Beatrice, whose fascinator was compared to a giant pretzel, an octopus, and a toilet bowl.
For weeks, the internet throbbed with spoof pictures of the titfer, the funniest being one of Barack Obama and his National Security Team each wearing the octopus, as they grimly watched the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.
The US Secretary of Defence later confirmed that the "primary reason" pictures of the dead bin Laden were not published was for fear that pranksters would Photoshop Princess Beatrice's hat on to bin Laden's mutilated head.
"My friend [the designer] Anthony Price says fashion is like hanging your washing out on the line and inviting all the world to look at it," says Treacy. Is that what it felt like? "I really didn't bargain for the extent of the judging," he says awkwardly, all the time winding threads together to make a ring. "I was just doing what I thought was my job."
Did he lose confidence? "No," he says, wincing. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It was one of the best, the most complex, the most technically challenging hats I have made. It wasn't about what I thought at that point, but I was thrilled with it -- and so was Princess Beatrice. When the whole fuss erupted, I very sweetly got a text from her, saying: 'Isabella would have been thrilled ... '"
He is referring to his mentor, Isabella Blow, the fashion editor, who killed herself in 2007. "Isabella introduced me to the royal princesses when they were very young," Treacy continues. "She would have loved all the fuss. She loved a bit of shaking things up."
But all publicity is good publicity. Princess Beatrice emerged from the brouhaha a
thoroughly good egg who raised £81,000 for charity by auctioning the hat on eBay, and quickly wore another -- admittedly less outre -- Treacy hat to Royal Ascot.
Already long-established as the hat man (he's worked with everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Sarah Jessica Parker), Treacy's name was on more lips than ever. A few months later, the weddings of Zara Phillips and Kate Moss abounded with his creations. And, of course, he regularly plonks lobsters, telephones and lightning on Lady Gaga's head.
"I avoided Lady Gaga for the longest time because she reminded me so much of Isabella; she has the same fearlessness. Then [the late designer] Alexander McQueen called me and said: 'You have got to work with Lady Gaga! She has got the same boobs as Isabella!'"
What kind of boobs, I enquire. "Well, good boobs." No boobs, you mean? After all, flat chests are de rigueur in fashion, and Treacy worked for 10 years for Chanel's outspoken fattist Karl Lagerfeld.
"Oh no! Good boobs is ... " He makes a wiggly hand gesture. "Voluptuous. And Lady Gaga's really sweet and generous. She thanked my employees for their hard work. I was astonished. It's easy to do, but most people can't be bothered."
Would one of those lazy people be Lady Gaga's predecessor Madonna? Post-Super Bowl, Twitter was alive with debate about whether, at 53, she could ever reclaim the throne. But this time no one was mocking Treacy's handiwork.
"Hats are for life's ultimate moments," he explains. "They're worn at races, at weddings. Occasions many of us, who aren't royals and celebrities, only attend once or twice in a lifetime. If Madonna hadn't worn a hat, her performance wouldn't have been such a big deal."
It was December when the creative director of Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci, asked Treacy to design Madge's headgear. "I was thinking there is such a thing as Christmas, but it was worth it." There was just one fitting in New York. "I flew in, spent four hours with Madonna, and then immediately flew home. Economy," he adds. I shriek in horror (Treacy's a tall chap: it would have been torture). He shrugs resignedly.
"I grew up in a little village in the west of Ireland. The weekly Top of the Pops was an almost religious experience. So to fly economy for four hours with Madonna was a thrill."
Unusually in this histrionic world, Treacy comes across as shy, thoughtful and completely down to earth. One of eight children, he started sewing at six ("Whatever makes him happy," his baker father rebuked shocked neighbours). He came to London as a student and quickly became Blow's protege.
"Fashion is an illusion," he says repeatedly. "It's a multi- billion-pound industry that has to appear frivolous. Designers work and work and work, all night sometimes. It wears us out but people think we're just having a party and hanging out with Lady Gaga." He snorts. "I came in here one weekend and there was a message from Lady Gaga saying, 'I really feel like wearing a red hat today.' I'm thinking: 'Not on Sunday.'"
It is this relentlessness, he implies, that did for both Blow and McQueen, who also committed suicide two years ago. "I keep reading that they were tragic, but they were two of the least tragic people I've ever met. They were like comets. Unstoppable. But it's hard to be everything to everyone all the time. McQueen never did a bad show. He had brilliant people around him, but really it was down to him, and it was a lot of pressure and a lot of people to please."
Blow suffered from cancer, infertility and depression. She also had money worries -- leading her to accept jobs unsuited to her creative temperament. "She'd have to be at Claridge's at 9am for some designer sock launch and she hated it. It really depressed her. She didn't agree with that corporate sucking up." His blue eyes are mournful. "I think of her and Alexander every day."
Mindful of his colleagues' stresses, Treacy was unimpressed by Samantha Cam-eron's hat-free royal wedding. "She looked great, but it was a shame and I think everyone thought that. As the Prime Minister's wife, she is in a position to support a British manufacturing industry that exports all over the world -- which is what we quintessentially are."
He adores Queen Elizabeth, however, once asking her if she enjoyed wearing hats. "It's part of the uniform," she replied stoically. Then there's the Duchess of Cornwall, who wore his hats not only to her stepson's wedding but also to her own. Every year she sent his adored Jack Russell, Mr Pig, a Christmas card. When Mr Pig died (Treacy's friend Grace Jones sang a lament she composed for him at the funeral), the duchess sent a letter of condolence. "That tells you a lot about her humanity. Mr Pig was very fond of her. She is extraordinary and wonderful."
But now a new generation of hat-wearers is emerging. "Hats have always been part of difficult times," Treacy affirms. "During the war, wearing a pretty hat was one of the few ways to cheer people up. When you look at a hat, love it or hate it, you're entertained."
Time to look up the Barack-in-a-pretzel pictures again.
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