Wednesday 21 August 2019

Passing the hat: Irish creatives tell what it's really like working for the legendary Philip Treacy

Master milliner Philip Treacy has inspired the next generation of Irish hatmakers - not least those who got the chance to work alongside him. Here, a group of the fashion visionary's former employees and interns tell Meadhbh McGrath what they learned from him

Hats off: Margaret O'Connor in her Ennis boutique. Photo: Eamon Ward
Hats off: Margaret O'Connor in her Ennis boutique. Photo: Eamon Ward
Treacy's iconic butterfly hat created for Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2008 collection
Milliner Martha Lynn. Photo: Jason Clarke
Princess Beatrice in the controversial Treacy creation she wore to the 2011 royal wedding
Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2015 Met Gala
Official portrait of Philip Treacy ® Kevin Davies

On the night before the royal wedding in 2011, Kate Middleton was tucked up in a London hotel, Prince William was trying to get to sleep amid the cheers outside Buckingham Palace, and at a studio in Battersea, Philip Treacy's team of hatmakers were diligently attending to 36 hats.

The next day, the Irish designer's creations would appear on the likes of Victoria Beckham, Camilla Parker Bowles and, most memorably, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. In the early hours of that morning, the staff were hard at work putting the final touches to them.

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"We were still finishing people's hats at six o'clock in the morning and getting them sent straight to the hotels," recalls Fiona Graham, who worked with Treacy for seven years as a senior milliner. "That was an all-nighter. Before that, we would have been up till 1am or 2am, but the day of the wedding it was right through the night. I remember getting home and my friends coming over to watch it. I fell asleep at five o'clock from sheer exhaustion, but the adrenalin keeps you going."

Treacy will be on everyone's lips - and many stylish women's heads - when the Galway Races gets under starter's orders on Monday. The milliner was born in the village of Ahascragh, Co Galway, and has become an institution in the fashion world. From his early friendship with Isabella Blow to his visionary work with Alexander McQueen and his show-stopping designs for Grace Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga, he is revered as a master hatmaker - Gaga was so awed by him that she applied for an internship in his studio in 2010.

Treacy's iconic butterfly hat created for Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2008 collection
Treacy's iconic butterfly hat created for Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2008 collection

But an internship with Treacy is no small matter: even Gaga knew it wouldn't be just making the coffees and sorting the post. For many of the young women and men who spent time in his studio, it marked a turning point in their careers.

"I completely expected to be making the coffees, but in fact it wasn't like that at all," says Mark T Burke, who worked with Treacy for a month in 2008. "I was shown where the kitchen was and where the cups were the morning I arrived, and I thought, 'Oh yeah, it's gonna be one of those internships', but I never made coffee. It was far more hands-on than I ever expected I'd get."

At the time a student in textiles at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Mark was quickly put to work stitching in labels and trimming feathers. Martha Lynn, who travelled from Roscommon to spend two months in Treacy's studio in 2010, notes that interns were required to prove themselves in the role.

"You do have to work up," she says. "I was there in January, which was a really exciting time because you get to work on things for fashion week. I worked on hats for Valentino, and I got to work on a hat with bolts of lightning that Lady Gaga wore to the Grammys that year. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before and really cool."

Given the inventiveness of Treacy's designs - such as Isabella Blow's spectacular ship hat, the red butterfly headdress for Alexander McQueen, or Lady Gaga's telephone hat - it's no surprise that former staff describe his studio as something of a museum.

"There was a room where all the hats were blocked, a room where you'd spray-paint, a room where the buyers would go where all the beautiful hats were on display, and then a room where all the silk flowers were stored. It was like a treasure chest," recalls Edel Ramberg, who worked in the studio for two months in 2009. "For someone like me, it was the most exciting place you could be! It was delicious, everywhere you looked you wanted to reach out and touch everything."

Treacy's adored Jack Russells would amble around the studio, while the stars of cinema, music and even royalty were frequently in and out for fittings. Margaret O'Connor spent three months with Treacy in 2011, and vividly remembers the buzz in the workroom in the lead up to the royal weddings of both Kate and William, and Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall.

"It was an eye-opener for a country farmer girl," she laughs. "It was the nicest type of crazy you can get. I was making hats for the royals! It's something you'd never imagine as a young girl, you'd never think you'd even be in the same room as these people.

Milliner Martha Lynn. Photo: Jason Clarke
Milliner Martha Lynn. Photo: Jason Clarke

"It was just madness, but everyone was really nice. I had tea with Princess Beatrice, and Zara Phillips borrowed my lipstick - I was wearing a certain shade of orange and Philip said, 'Go get your lipstick!' And Zara wore it to whatever event she was going to. There were always interesting people there - it was a constant stream of people."

Despite the frenzied atmosphere in the studio, Treacy prizes precision in his work. Martha recalls him being in the workroom every day, and setting strict ground rules.

"Some designers aren't as hands-on - he's really hands-on. If something isn't perfect, he'll say, and rightly so, 'take that apart and do it again', not only to the interns but to the staff. When I say he's a perfectionist, I really mean it, and you can see it in his hats. There's nobody else like him," she explains. "He'd be very particular about things: be very careful not to prick your finger and get a little bit of blood on the hat, make sure your hands are clean, and use the thimble."

For Margaret, this meant taking a month to learn to sew with a thimble.

"It was the best thing I ever learned. That skill alone was vital to me, because I work quicker now, and that's because of Philip Treacy's studio," she says, noting that work that previously took her 45 minutes to do can now be completed in 15, thanks to the thimble.

"It was quite intense and very structured. Everything was done in stages, and I loved it. I loved the discipline. As a young person and an artist, you can be very messy - you have to learn to be really refined, and then you can go and do your crazy stuff. Sometimes you meet really creative milliners, but it's not finished to the same level that it would be at Philip Treacy."

One other rule about his work? Don't call it a 'fascinator'.

"That nearly seems like a derogatory term," Fiona sighs. "It just doesn't describe the couture millinery that Philip does - he absolutely hated the word, he'd never let anybody utter it in the studio."

But Treacy is no tantrum-throwing diva: those who worked with him remember him as a generous, level-headed boss who was hands-on in the workroom, despite having his own private space in the studio.

"I found him not a bit loud or eccentric, just very nice, gentle and down-to-earth, so it was nice to work around," Edel recalls, while Martha describes acting as a mannequin when Treacy needed to try pieces on.

Official portrait of Philip Treacy ® Kevin Davies
Official portrait of Philip Treacy ® Kevin Davies

Fiona adds: "He's not one of these bosses that comes in, tells you what to do and walks out, he's very involved in the process. You'd be back and forth and he'd tell you, 'try it this way' or 'you're doing great, keep going'. He's a very gracious man and very softly-spoken, but he's a good laugh as well, he's not Mr Quiet in the corner!"

Last year, Treacy spoke to BBC's Desert Island Discs about the backlash surrounding Beatrice and Eugenie's royal wedding hats, telling the programme: "There was a moment where I thought I would find myself with my head on a spike outside the Tower of London."

But in the studio, Margaret recalls, he remained cool and collected. "It got so much press. It was great, at the time, to be around all that in the workroom, and [Beatrice's hat] raised so much money for charity afterwards," she says, pointing out that the hat later sold for more than £80,000 in an auction for Unicef and Children in Crisis.

The interns, who spent only a few weeks rather than years in the studio, quickly bonded with Treacy over their shared Irish roots, whether it was coming from a rural area or a big family.

"I thought I wouldn't even clap eyes on him, but he was so, so friendly. When he saw me he said, 'you're not from here' and I said I was from Galway, and he said, 'oh, I'm from Galway as well'," says Mark, who grew up in Loughrea.

"He took me for dinner to his house, and Stefan [Bartlett], his partner, cooked the dinner. We went to the cinema to see something really random, and I was obviously completely starstruck, but he was so, so nice to me.

"It was an inspiration. He'd come from a similar background to me, so it gave me a real fire in my belly. I finished my degree in 2009, right in the middle of the recession, so it gave me that fire to push on," says Mark, who went on to have his own millinery business for six years, before moving into interiors.

He still makes hats occasionally, and in autumn he will produce an anniversary range to mark 10 years since his first collection.

For Edel, it wasn't until much later that she realised what an impression the training had had on her life. She joined Treacy's studio from Savills, where she worked as a retail fashion consultant, but by the time she left the internship, she was determined to pursue a career in millinery.

"At the time, I didn't realise how lucky I was to work for someone as great as Philip Treacy - to be allowed into his studio, which is basically his mind. For him to share his experience and his knowledge with you, you can't put a price on that. I feel very grateful for that," says Edel, who now has her own shop on College Road, Galway.

"When I look back now, that was the starting point for my career - I'm 10 years next year in business, and you can learn, but you'll never get experience like I got."

Martha, who runs an eponymous millinery brand in London, agrees, and argues the internship was even more valuable than a degree course.

"People would pay to go to college or university, but this was my training, and it was definitely worth it," she says. "I learned that being a perfectionist really pays off. Some people might say, 'ah, it'll do', but he would never, ever say that. I realised that's why he's as good as he is, because he's a true perfectionist."

"Philip taught me that attention to detail," Fiona adds. "You've got to get it perfect because people are investing a lot. When people come to Philip Treacy, they're coming for a special hat. They want something that a lot of thought, care and skill has gone into."

Originally from Firhouse, Co Dublin, Fiona is still based in London, but left Treacy's studio in 2015 after having a baby. In the last year she has grown her brand Fi Graham, even designing Princess Eugenie's hat for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding.

"Seven years is a long time to work with somebody, and the buzz of the workroom is more sustainable in your twenties. I've just moved on to a different phase of my life, and I can't do all-nighters and that kind of thing," she says with a laugh.

Since completing her internship, Margaret has opened her studio, Notions by Margaret O'Connor, in Boston, Tubber, Co Clare. In 2013, she created a hat for Lady Gaga, which the pop star wore to an exhibition of Isabella Blow's extraordinary wardrobe, on the arm of Philip Treacy.

"That was really cool," she recalls. But in all the excitement, she was still thinking of her one-time mentor: "Philip would have seen my work… and I'd just love to know what he thought!"

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