Surreal and sculptural, PHILIP TREACY's (1967-) hand-made hats are feats of craftsmanship. Born in rural Ireland, Treacy designs haute couture and ready-to-wear hat collections from his London studio. He has also created hats for the couture collections of Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino and Alexander McQueen.
When Philip Treacy was growing up in Ahascragh, the tiny village in the west of Ireland where his parents owned a baker’s shop, he made hats for his sister’s dolls from the feathers shed by his mother’s chickens and ducks. “My mother had chickens, geese, pheasant and ducks, so all the ingredients of the hat were in my house,” he recalled.
“My mother had a sewing machine. I was never allowed to use it, but I was so fascinated by this little needle going up and down joining fabric together that I’d use it when my mother went out to feed the chickens. There was like five minutes to get it out. I’d lift the machine out which weighed a ton, lift the lid off which made a lot of noise, whirl the things which made a lot of noise. If my mother found me I was in a lot of trouble. I used it to make clothes for my sister’s dolls. I couldn’t care less for the dolls but I could make the clothes really easily. I was making bust points before I knew what a bust point was.”
Philip’s sister was the only member of the family who encouraged his interest in fashion although the others didn’t discourage him. “I remember one day being in a neighbour’s house and he said to my father: ‘Don’t you think it weird that this boy is making dress for dolls.’ And my father said: ‘Whatever makes him happy.’ You have got to see where I come from to understand how profound that was. For a person of his generation it was very unusual.”
In 1985, Treacy left school and went to Dublin to study fashion and made hats “as a hobby” to go with the outfits he produced for the course. “Nobody really had much time for the hats because it was a fashion school, but there did come a point when I was more interested in making the hat than the outfits.” As work experience, he spent six weeks with Stephen Jones, the London hat designer, and when he interviewed for the fashion design course at the Royal College of Art in London in 1988, he mentioned his hats. The RCA was planning to set up a hat course. “I became their guinea pig. After one day I said to my tutor Shelagh Brown: ‘What should I do? Should I make hats or clothes?’ She said: ‘Make hats.’ It was practical, not a great apparition.”
As a student project, Treacy made Ascot hats for Harrods department store. Claire Stubbs, its fashion director, hailed him in the Sunday Times as “the next great British hat maker”. Treacy took his hats to show Michael Roberts, fashion director of Tatler magazine, and his style editor Isabella Blow. “What a beauty!” recounted Blow. “It was a green felt hat cut like the jaws of a crocodile with jaggedy teeth… a lot like Concorde –streamlined, sleek, so exciting. I thought: ‘This is major. I’ve never seen felt cut like this.’”
Blow was soon to be married and, having chosen a Medieval theme for her wedding dress, she tracked down Treacy and asked him to make her head-dress. “I wanted to base the hat on a 1930s play called The Miracle which Lady Diana Cooper was in,” remembered Treacy. “I suggested to Issy that maybe this would be good for a wedding. I couldn’t believe that I’d hit upon the one person who didn’t expect tulle and veiling and pearls and that for her wedding hat.”
Taking Treacy under her wing, Isabella Blow introduced him to established designers like Manolo Blahnik and Rifat Ozbek, as well as fashion editors such as Andre Leon Talley of US Vogue. When Philip left the Royal College in 1990, he moved into the basement of Blow’s house and set up a studio there. “Issy was living upstairs with her resident hat-maker in the basment working away all night long coming up with the goodies. Suddenly all these wild people pitched up at all hours of the night to try on hats. Issy and I were like Harold and Maude trekking around London in a car… we’d go to an exhibition, we’d go and get books, we’d go and have a drink. All the talk was of hats.”
Treacy was summoned to Paris to meet Karl Lagerfeld, chief designer at Chanel. “I was 23 and I’d just left school, I didn’t know whether to call him Mr Lagerfeld or whatever. I was totally intimidated by that whole scenario, but Issy was exactly herself. She just walked in to the house of Chanel and said: ‘We’d like some tea please.’” Not only did Treacy make the hats for Chanel that season, but Lagerfeld based his couture collection on the white net bubble hat with a black silk chiffon scarf that Isabella was wearing that day.
At the time hats were long out of fashion. “Hats were associated with old ladies and I thought that was crazy,” said Treacy. “Everyone has a head so everyone has a possibility to wear a hat and you feel good in a hat. People feel better for wearing them. I totally disagreed with the perception of hats at the time and I thought: ‘I’ll change that.’”
He not only made hats fantastical – his creations for Isabella Blow ranged from The Ship, a replica 18th century sailing ship with full rigging and The Castle based on Blow’s ancestral home at Doddington Park and Prince Ludwig of Bavaria’s palace, to Gilbert & George, a surreal concoction of pink and green laquered ostrich feathers and a mortar board so wide that Isabella couldn’t fit through the door of the charity event she had ordered it for – he also lightened their structure so they sat more comfortably on the head. “You know that scenario where roses are red, leaves are green, I love arguing that. ‘Why should they be?’. I hate rules and formulas. That’s so boring. It’s the opposite of creativity. Rules are ridiculous things that are meant to be broken.”
As well as Chanel, Treacy has made couture hats for Valentino, Gianni Versace and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy. “Having studied fashion design it helped me greatly when I started working with designers because I understood how the clothes draped or moved and the proportions. What I didn’t understand as a student was that fashion isn’t clothes, fashion is much more interesting than that, it’s a feeling and a mood – not dress-making.”
Having begun his business in the basement of Blow’s house at 67 Elizabeth Street, Treacy opened his first shop in 1994 next door in number 69. He also opened a studio a few doors along that side of the street and found an apartment opposite. “My world,” he once said, “doesn’t go much beyond my own street.” Treacy likes to eats the same lunch each day – double egg, chips, beans, toast and tea – at a greasy spoon café in Victoria Coach Station and the same supper- takeaway risotto porcini, tricolore and vinaigrette.
Although Treacy has designed a ready-to-wear hat collection since 1991 and has developed ranges for high street chains including Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, the heart of his business is still haute couture hats. He begins by mocking up the shape in straw “which I bend and stitch, pin and press, until the shape and the proportion fit my vision”. Once satisfied with the shape, he has a sleek wooden block specially made in Paris on which the hat is steamed and moulded.
Philip’s studio, where he works with a team of fifteen and Mr Pig, his Jack Russell, is filled with feathers, ribbons and pearls. “I spend a lot of my time torturing normal farmyard feathers until they look extraordinary. Next to all the technological advances in the world, nothing is quite so impressive as a feather. People often ask: ‘Where’s the machinery?’ My hands are the machinery…. I only feel dressed in the morning when I’ve got my thimble on my middle finger. It stays there all day.”
1967 Born in Ahascragh, County Galway, Ireland
1985 Studied fashion design at National College of Art & Design, Dublin
1988 Enrolled on the MA fashion design course at the Royal College of Art, London where he specialised in hat design
1989 Worked with John Galliano and Rifat Ozbek. Met Isabella Blow and is commissioned to design her wedding head-dress.
1990 Graduated from the Royal College with first class honours.
1991 Opened a showroom and workshop for couture hats in the basement flat where he was living in Isabella Blow’s family house on Elizabeth Street, Belgravia. Began a long collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld designing hats for the Chanel haute couture collection. Launched the Philip Treacy ready-to-wear range of hats. Won British Accessory Designer of the Year award: he has won this award five times.
1992 Started designing a diffusion range of hats for the Debenhams chain of stores.
1993 Staged his first fashion show in London Fashion Week. Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Kate Moss modelled in the show.
1994 Opened his own shop on Elizabeth Street, Belgravia.
1996 Exhibited in the Biennale di Firenze exhibition.
1997 Launched an accessory collection of bags, gloves and scarves. Exhibited in the Cutting Edge exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
1998 Exhibited in Addressing the Century exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London and Satellites of Fashion at the Crafts Council, London.
1999 Designed hats for Alexander McQueen’s haute couture collection at Givenchy in Paris and for Karl Lagerfeld’s collection at Chanel.
2000 Staged the first Philip Treacy haute couture hat show in Paris, becoming the first hat designer to show in Paris couture week.
2001 Collaborated with the artist Vanessa Beecroft on an installation at the Venice Art Biennale.
2002 Exhibited in When Philip Met Isabella: Philip Treacy’s Hats For Isabella Blow at the Design Museum, London.
Visit Philip Treacy's website at philiptreacy.co.uk
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain