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Swinging by the milliner for a made-to-measure hat isn't something people do much anymore. (Unless you are Kate Middleton. In which case, hi! Glad to have you as a reader.) But Brookes Boswell, an interior-architect-turned-hatter, is keeping the tradition alive and well in her Vinegar Hill millinery-slash-apartment, and making the neighborhood a little more dapper in the process.
Visitors are ushered through the front hallway that doubles as Brookes' workspace, and into her living room, where they're greeted with tea, '60s folk on Spotify, and the hatter's golden retriever, named Bao because "he looks like a little steam bun."
Once Brookes' customers have reached a puppy-and-hot-beverage-induced state of relaxation, the head-measuring and trying-on begins. There's an entire wall devoted to her hand-blocked creations, which range from rabbit fur felt bowlers to paint-splattered Panama straw sunhats—all under $250.
"I can make adjustments for the size, the length of the brim, the color, the material, the trim," she says of her process, which typically takes two weeks from consultation to finished product. Of course, if you're impatient (or just really need a cloche ASAP for the Jazz Age Lawn Party) you can you buy a sample or pick up one of her designs at Goose Barnacle, The Rising States, and Space Ninety 8.
We chatted with the milliner (in between deciding whether or not we could pull off a turban) about fedoras (so misunderstood!), why tall crowns are becoming a thing (hat tip to you, Pharrell), and which comes first: the hat or the outfit.
How did you get into making hats?
My background is as an interior architect. I moved to New York in the fall of 2008, and as I was looking for a new job I did an apprenticeship with a milliner, really just for fun. It was a terrible time to look for a job, but a good time to make a career move.
She offered to teach me how to make a hat and it sounded interesting. The longer that I looked for a job, the longer I stayed with her and just kept learning until it turned into something more than an apprenticeship. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself and have my own design studio. It just happened that I pursued a millinery fashion career rather than going back to architecture.
Which stores carry your designs?
I sell to Goose Barnacle, The Rising States and Space Ninety 8, as well as a lot of smaller boutiques around the country. Urban Outfitters sometimes buys from me. A lot of people come to me for made-to-measure hats.
How do you guide customers who are new to hats?
Getting the exact circumference around your head is the most important part. Otherwise, trying on different styles and seeing what looks best on you is key. A taller person might want a hat with a slightly larger brim or taller crown, so that it looks proportional. You don't want to put a tall man in a short-brimmed hat, or he'll look like he's wearing a beanie.
Do you wear hats all the time?
I do! But not as much as I should.
Do you choose your hat or your outfit first?
If I know that I definitely want to wear a hat, then I choose the hat first.
Why do you think fedoras have such a bad reputation?
They shouldn't! They're such a classic style. They probably have that reputation because there are so many cheap, bad fedoras that are being made.
So you are pro-fedora?
I can definitely be pro-fedora. I'm very much for finding a hat that you like and that fits you well and just wearing it until it falls apart. They can break in and they can change a little bit, but seeing someone who is wearing a very obviously well-worn hat that they've had for years is very attractive.
How long does it take you make a hat, start to finish?
It definitely depends on the hat. About two weeks, but I'm not working on the same hat for those two weeks. I need to block the brim and it needs to dry overnight. Then I take it off the crown block and it dries. Then I need to trim it and sew it.
Can you walk us through a typical hat-making process?
I block the hats on wooden hat blocks. For the most part I buy vintage ones. Once in a while I'll have a new hat block made, but mostly I just look out at antique stores and eBay. For straw hats, I soak them, and then when they dry they take the form. The straws that I get from the manufacturer have a bit of glue in them, so they stiffen when they dry. With felts, I steam them. Hot steam will get them to completely soften and loosen up and I can mold them easily.
Doesn't your apartment get hot from the steam?
Yeah, sometimes! I still steam felt in the summertime, but it's not too bad.
What are some of your best sellers right now?
My best seller right now is a style that I call the Jackson. It's a longer-brimmed hat that has a single crease down the front, but not a pinch. The longer brim is definitely in style. And it's unisex.
Do you get a lot a lot of orders when the Jazz Age Lawn Party rolls around?
I do! But because I sell mostly everyday hats, the orders come pretty consistently throughout the year. Before the holidays I definitely get more people wanting hats for events or gifts, too.
What are your price points?
It really depends on the material. Mostly the Panama straws are around $200 and the rabbit fur felts are about $230. Right now I have a batch of straws that aren't Panama straws, so they're a little bit cheaper. I'm about to block them and sell them on my website for $100. Every once in a while I will use materials that aren't quite as expensive so I can charge a little bit less.
Is it just you? Do you have interns?
It's just me. I do everything from here. I design, I do all the production, I handle everything for the business. I do work with a showroom and they handle all of my PR. So anything that needs to go out to a stylist goes through there. My publicist also handles quite a bit of my wholesale sales.
You're bringing turbans back!
A couple of seasons ago I worked with a graphic designer and a surface pattern designer to develop some patterns that would be exclusive to my line. I just came out with these little turbans with the bows and they're doing really well. They're so cute.
Which hat is the most popular with guys?
The long-brimmed Jackson, again. I have a lot of male customers who have never worn a hat before. They have no idea what they want.
Do they find you on their own?
It's word of mouth. They always bring their girlfriends. They're not sure what they want and they're close to being uncomfortable. They don't really know how to wear it, so we usually try on a bunch and see what they're most comfortable in.
When you see a guy with a frayed baseball cap is it upsetting to you?
No, not at all!
I imagine that it's a small industry. Are there any people who you look up to?
Yes and no. There are definitely some really amazing milliners out there. But I also think it's a blessing that I come to the fashion industry from outside and I can kind of keep that perspective.
What do you think is the next hat shape? What's the next fedora?
I have been making hats with taller crowns for a little while and I've been trying to push some exaggerated shapes. So I was really excited to see Pharrell wearing that Vivienne Westwood hat. I think that moment being such a pop culture phenomenon will make people a little bit more adventurous.
How do you pack a hat?
You need a hat box.
Ugh. Is that the only way to do it?
Where do you even buy hatboxes?
From me! You can ask a milliner, or you can find great vintage ones.