Like the requisite cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae, a Spring Racing Carnival outfit is not complete without a resplendent hat. Limp feathers and a smattering of sequins stuck to a headband is inadequate next to the ladies – and those few brave gents – who embrace the theatricality of full-figured headwear or at least a thoughtfully crafted headpiece.
Empirically the hat is under threat from its watered-down cousin, the ubiquitous, barely-there fascinator, and we repeatedly hear that the local fashion industry is feeling growing pressure from throw-away imports. So how does the niche industry of millinery fare when it relies on a spike during just one season of the year? We speak with the new wave of modern hat-makers to see if they really are a bit mad for taking on the craft.
Sonnya Gunawan and Elena Tanudjaja are behind vintage-inspired label The Hummingbird Road. Their prêt-à-porter pieces tend towards “hair adornments” rather than full-on hats, though their commissioned designs are more dramatic. They concede that “a lot of women still associate hats and head pieces with the horse racing carnival. It doesn't even occur to them to accessorise their head for other occasions.” Milliner Ann Shoebridge, however, thinks this mentality is slowly changing. “I definitely think that millinery is undergoing a revival along with all other specialised ‘crafts’.”
Jurine Adriana of burgeoning label JLoveS is even more hopeful in her assessment of Melburnians’ proclivity towards headwear. The Indonesian-turned-local designer has the benefit of a worldly perspective on how we dress. “I have to admit that England's culture still hasn't left Australia. Many people, of any age, still dress up from head to toe even for a short journey to the market. Headpieces take part a lot in this, even though they’re not as fancy as the ones we see during Spring Carnival.”
Away from the hectic spring season these milliners undertake various methods to keep demand flowing. Some, like The Hummingbird Road duo and Shoebridge (who devotes half of her year to Spring Racing production), busy themselves with special occasion orders, usually bridal. Meanwhile Adriana branches out into different accessories and embraced online shopping from day one to ensure demand for her designs is trans-seasonal. “I started JloveS online and surprisingly I got more overseas orders than Australian at the beginning. So luckily, when it's a bit slow in this country, I will still get constant orders throughout the year from overseas.”
Nikolina Kucan began her label, Nikolina Concepts, as a purely creative outlet so she feels the spike of the carnival season more than most. Her sculptural hats pay homage to traditional shapes and techniques but with a strictly modern finish. She supplements her own label by working for another, Izaro. “With the label that I am working for now we also design fascinators for our clients and most girls that come through would rather opt for a fascinator than a traditional veil. This industry certainly has its seasonal peaks,” she acknowledges. It is hardly surprising, then, that Kucan sees value in versatility and hopes in future “to work on a collection of more wearable designs that have more of that steady flow throughout the year”.
So how to entice those who are graduating from their first flimsy headpiece into the milliner’s studio for something substantial, instead of the tempting production-line facsimiles? Having personally executed a ladylike spit-take at the price of department store hats last racing season, I’m familiar with the quandary when checking the tag on a milliner’s piece only to discover there’s not much difference.
Well, there is the invaluable personal experience with the milliner. “There is a growing appreciation and enjoyment of visiting a craftsperson and having that special one-on-one relationship with the maker,” explains Shoebridge. Kucan, too, is optimistic for the future popularity of millinery, with reservations: “I certainly believe that generations of race-goers to come will, on occasion, choose a commissioned piece over easy, cheap fashion. [But] there will always be those who opt for something that is mass produced.”
But ultimately, as Gunawan suggests, “people don't mind paying premium for the design and quality. The head piece is comfortable to wear and lasts for a long, long time.”
The final argument for Melburnians to leave our collective designer hats on is the designs themselves. With these young milliners forging ahead there is no need to wear a monstrosity of sinamay and straw. This is not your grandmother’s wide-brimmed Sunday best. Instead, their headwear creations are lively, modern and – most importantly – distinct from what every other champagne-swilling race goer out on the lawns will be wearing this carnival.