According to couture milliner Jess Collett: “… hats have the power to transform your style and mood.” I absolutely love hats and couldn’t agree more, so imagine how thrilled I was to catch up with Jess for our interview this month and talk all things hats! With 25 years working as a milliner for the fashion elite, and collaborations with brands such as Jaeger, Jigsaw and Emilia Wickstead, she is a leader in her craft, and yet another example of the hugely inspirational and empowering women I am so lucky to meet.
Can you tell us how it all began and what inspired you to specialise as a couture milliner?
I absolutely love dressing up. Ever since I was small, whenever I put on a hat I just felt complete. It was something I felt inside. I understand now that it was a feeling of confidence. I've always loved to make things with my hands, and so to create something to wear on my head was only natural I suppose.
Can you remember the first hat you created?
I had a hat party when I was seven. With the help of my Mum, we used an upturned sieve and poked cocktail sticks adorned with pineapple and cheese chunks into it – a truly 70s cocktail confection – and quite painful to wear!
Where does the inspiration for your hats come from?
The world around me – nature, a dress or a piece of fabric can spark an idea, a song or a mood – but I really love to find a material that inspires me and model it into a fancy piece of sculpture for the head, which elevates the mood of the wearer and those who see it.
Who has been your greatest professional inspiration?
I saw a Manolo Blahnik exhibition in the Design Museum after I'd left school, and I remember looking at these decorative and perfectly exquisite shoes and thinking – wow –this is not just a shoe, it's actually a piece of art that I would like to have. Something about it was magical.
What has been your biggest professional challenge?
Juggling motherhood and trying to run a business. Planning and organisation are my biggest challenges and I'm always trying to improve on this, as I believe that being organised and planning ahead gives you more time and space for the other things in your life. It’s difficult though, and I find it much easier to go and create something.
Being able to make a business out of something that I truly enjoy. I am grateful for that every day.
The person or persons you’ve most enjoyed designing a hat for?
I love to design for people who love wearing hats; they tend to be more daring, so you can push boundaries a little more. Collaborative design can take you to a place that you may not have gone on your own.
One person you would love to design a hat for?
For occasions I would love to make something for The Princess of Wales – she is a wonderful muse for a milliner. For a real piece of hat art, I think Harry Styles would be fabulous.
What is it that makes a hat successful?
Balance with an outfit and a confident happy smile underneath it.
What’s the most popular hat you are asked to design?
The Azure Headband worn by Pippa Middleton and my World Traveller sun hat.
Is there a hat for everyone or are there certain face shapes that simply don’t suit hats?
It's true, some are harder than others, but I do believe there is a hat to balance every face shape. If you are willing and open and have a good milliner to hand, then anything is possible!
Any tips you can share with us for selecting the right hat?
- Think about the silhouette of your whole look – It's all about balancing the outfit and your facial features.
- Generally, oblong faces suit broad brims and shallower crowns, round faces suit sharp asymmetric lines, squarer faces suit softer curvy lines, and oval faces suit most styles.
- If you are short, an up-turned brim or feathers sweeping upwards will give you extra height!
- Don’t be afraid to try on different types of styles – something you never expected may speak to you!
How has the industry changed since you began designing hats?
Although wearing 'everyday' hats has actually come back into fashion, sadly many of the hat factories in Luton and Manchester have disappeared as manufacturing in China has taken over. However, Luton, the hat capital of the UK and home to the block makers and straw and felt suppliers, still has some very old, established and thriving manufacturing companies who are holding the British millinery flag.
The Royal family and their traditions, together with horse racing, create the biggest business for occasion hats, so as long as these exist, people will still have events to wear hats to! The British aren't afraid to dress up, and I do believe the rest of the world look to the UK for inspiration.
What advice would you give to today’s up-coming hat makers?
Be daring. Believe in yourself and your ideas. Get lots of experience, as you pick up good tips this way. Visit www.thebritishhatguild.com This is where all of the top UK milliners and industry craftspeople and suppliers are. You can find all the top UK hatters and see the different avenues of millinery that we have taken. There's everything you need to know about hats!
And finally, your favourite quote to live by?
Life is better in a hat!