With a new collection ready to turn heads, we, at Independent Woman, caught up with iconic Irish milliner Philip Treacy to ask him a few questions about how he got started, what he loves most and what has inspired him over the years.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a designer?
I was born in Ahascragh, in Galway and lived across the road from the village church. As a small child, I loved to watch the weddings there. The dresses seemed so glamorous and to see these creatures appear in these extraordinary clothes is probably what got me started. We didn't have much glamour where I came from. I started sewing when I was about five. I remember being with the teacher in school the boys would do woodwork or something and the girls were sewing and I thought: ‘Why can't I do that?' I asked the teacher and she said: ‘Okay' even though she was incredibly strict.
I moved to Dublin to study fashion at the National College of Art & Design and I made hats ‘as a hobby’ to go with outfits I designed on the course. Nobody really had much time for the hat because this was a fashion school, but there came a point when I was more interested in making the hats than the outfits. When the students had to arrange work experience I spent six weeks with Stephen Jones, the London hatdesigner.
After graduation I won a place on the MA fashion design course at the Royal College of Art in London. When I was interviewed I didn't know whether to play down the hats or play up the hats, but they were thinking of setting up a hat course so I became their guinea pig.
After one day there I said to my tutor Sheilagh Brown: What should I do? Should I make hats or clothes?' She said make hats. It was very practical though not a great revelation.
What inspires you now?
I take my inspiration from natural forms and the beautiful lines in nature. I use contemporary influences, be it sculpture, or art, or whatever is going in the world today. I always try and do something new and fresh, there is always something new inspiring me.
How would you describe your Spring Summer 2011 collection?
Sculpturally sophisticated but quite simple on the eye. Lots of 1920s glamour, lots of soft romantic colour and floral printed sinamay.
There's also some exquisite hand made silk flowers and pheasant feather trim is prominent. I wanted a collection that would give the wearer an instant lift and quite a lot of this season gives a nod to modern art.
For bridal wear there is a modern twist on veiled lace and this season’s millinery accommodates the rising trend for brides to make a stronger statement, to really have an impact at the altar. As always the collection is unique and because of the way we put it together, the collection is very directional.
I'm off the term ‘fascinator' which I neither use nor like. My oldest client is 99 years of age and she always says ‘what's fascinating about those feathers or flowers on the side of the head!'. I agree.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
I started designing hats 15 years ago and at the time people really thought hats were for old ladies and I thought that was completely insane. Publicly, the hat was perceived as something worn by ladies of a certain age, and as something from a bygone era. I thought this was totally ridiculous and I simply believe that as we all have a head, everybody has the possibility to wear a hat.
I have an opportunity to influence how people see hats in the twenty-first century. And that is a very exciting job, because I have a worldwide audience open to seeing hats in a new way. Young people had given up wearing hats because they felt they were too authoritive, too conforming. I think and hope they are no longer symbols of conformity but are highly individual acts of rebellion so when I do a show I set out challenge people's perception of what a hat is and can be.
People always talk about hats in terms of periods... they like 1920s cloches or surreal, upended shoe fantasies or 1940s military hats and I do too. But we live in the present and we should be making contemporary hats and showing them in a different and new way.
What's the one item everyone should have in their wardrobe?
A hat! Hats are meant to be for everyone. It's a very potent part of the body to decorate because when you meet people for the first time, you are not meeting their foot or their hand or their hip, you are meeting their face. The purpose is to enhance the features of the face. It's also a much cheaper alternative to cosmetic surgery!
Where do you like to shop?
For interiors I've been a fan of Tom Dixon (tomdixon.net) ever since he designed my shop 14 years ago. He has a purity that is very rare. At home I have his pylon table and some of his crown chairs in gold.
My favourite shop in the world is Antiquuis (antiquuis-london.co.uk) on London's Pimlico Road; it's filled with incredible objects you would never need but totally desire. I once shopped there with Isabella Blow and we saw a 5th century BC miniature head on a marble plinth.
Isabella encouraged me to buy it as a gift for my partner. When my he opened the box his first reaction was ‘I told you I wanted a dishwasher' followed by a stern warning never go shopping with Isabella again.
For shopping abroad it has to be Venice as the crafts are second to none. I'm drawn by the fabulous churches, the extravagant tombstones and I love to wander the side streets and browse the antique shops for Venetian masks and other objets d'art.
Where can we find you on a Sunday afternoon?
Taking my two Jack Russell's for walks in Battersea Park.
What makes you feel most glamorous?
Wearing anything by Alexander McQueen.
Who do you most admire and why?
My biggest inspiration has been Isabella Blow. She would attend shows with 600 people all dressed in black, all serious, and Isabella would be wearing a Lobster hat on her head and a Nell Gwyn-inspired gown with her boobs popping out. I was so inspired by how she wore my hats. She wore them like she was not wearing them, like they just happened to be there.
Issy gave me my first commission while was still a student at the Royal College of Art and I remember someone saying “why is this student making your wedding hat when you could have anyone in the world make it?” She didn't give a f*** what they thought. Her focus was creativity and she believed in talent no matter where you came from. I'm a baker’s son. Alexander McQueen is a cab driver’s son. I fell in love with her at that moment.
She took me to meet Karl Lagerfeld and going to Chanel at 22 years of age is just like going to heaven. She turned up at Chanel and said ‘We'd like some tea'. Those who didn't know her thought she was an eccentric crazy woman with a hat on, but she had something that although common to all of us is unusual in fashion, simply, she had a big heart.
In twenty years I have met all my heroes and for me nobody has surpassed her. She was incredible. I thought there must be others like her, but there wasn't. Everyone was boring in comparison to her.
If I think of the people she discovered, people like Alexander McQueen, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, being in the focus of Isabella was like being in the middle of a love affair and, though she didn't always love herself, everybody loved Issy.
How would you like your designs to be remembered?
Fashion is about individuality rather than conformity. The parents of today's generation don't have to wear hats like their parents did. Now children are wearing them because they want to, almost as an expression of rebellion. For women, hats will always be empowering. I think and hope I have changed the way we look at hats. They are no longer symbols of conformity. I am constantly challenging the perception of what a hat should be and what role it should play.
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, people looked so different from how they look today. In 30 years' time we are going to look completely different again. You always think things won't change and everyone will look the same in terms of how they dress or whatever, but that isn't true at all. Who knows how people will be expressing their individuality in 30 years' time ? I hope it will be in a hat. I am excited about what the future might hold.