The City Milliner

Making every day a hat day

The City Milliner

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When I met a milliner named Gabrielle and a trunk maker named Louis

The City Milliner- When a hatter met a milliner and a trunk maker

I can't profess to be a dedicated follower of fashion.

I've never been on trend or en vogue. I don't read fashion magazines unless I am at the hairdresser and I've forgotten my kindle. Both are rare occasions.

I can't remember when I bought new clothes... and before then 'new' would likely to have been from a second hand shop (erm...vintage?). I've always dressed for myself, for my feet (no heels), for practical reasons, and as a result, don't really know, or dare I say it, care, about designers/labels or latest collections. 

So imagine my surprise, when in the space of a single week, I found myself worshipping at the altar of not one but two fashion behemoths. Chanel and the Madamemoiselle Privé exhibition and Louis Vuitton with the Series 3 exhibition.  

Part story-telling seduction- part sensorial-how does one say it?- Bitch-slap!

Chanel hit the nose and ears (birdsong no less) with Gardens (indoor and outside), and rooms of giant compacts, steaming and gurgling as they opened, swirling and wafting the ingredients for Chanel no 5. Fingertips were seduced with floor to ceiling, drape upon drape, of black and white materials which begged to be touched. Eyes blinked at twinkles from Coco's one and only diamond collection, then squinted looking at the lighting rod filled busts trying to see HOW the artisans had melded sheer fabrics,feathers, beads and glittering embroidery to make up Mr Lagerfeld's latest evening wear collection. 


Louis Vuitton- on the other hand- was brash. With digital multimedia and flash, LV logos changed shape, tunnels of lights connected rooms, models on walls walked circles around guests (making you feel a little bit dizzy if I'm honest). Lasers and 3D computer images created shoes and bags before your eyes. Trunks from the past were boxed in museum cases whilst the latest bags hung on white sculptures. A room full of catwalks and 25 life size screens gave everyone a front row seat. 

If Chanel had been magic come nostalgic romance, LV was magic does tomorrow's world.  

I loved that the crafts, on which the houses were built, were celebrated and shared; from workshops open to the public in Lemarié and Lesage at Chanel; to being able to sit at a LV Workbench and see the process through the makers eyes. And where Chanel's designs out-sparkled and enchanted any of the offerings on the LV catwalks (in my view) - it was LV's idea to have visitors crowd around a real-life LV craftswoman making signature "Petite malle" trunk bags(below) giving the curious visitor an opportunity to ask questions which really endeared.

And what did I take away to reapply to my world?

As a founder of fledgling business and hatter

1. That even Multi Billion dollar brands were small once.  

Chanel was recently valued $6.8billion. Louis Vuitton a cool $28.1 billion. However we all start somewhere. This might seem obvious- but who would have thought a 1909 milliner could become the mother of the House of Chanel? Or in 1854 a trunk maker could become the darling of Paris and the founder of a mega fashion label?  Hmm... I wonder if the Saatchi Gallery is taking bookings for the year 2100. Who for? The City Milliner exhibition of course.

2. Attention to detail is at the heart of well made products, from trunks to dresses. Your brand and everyone who works for the brand need to embrace it

3.If you want to be a luxury brand think like a luxury brand. Customer experience is key and goes beyond the end product

4. Functional, Simple, Modern is enduring.

Chanel's designs were classic and comfortable and have lasted the test of time. Firm believer in comfort and she build a beautiful brand which put comfort and 'being able to move in it' at the heart of it. 

5.Slow and steady wins the race ( Quality over Speed)

 Though you always want to get a clients order out to them as soon as possible- detail takes care and time. I was surprised and reassured at how slow Louise Vuitton machinist stitches the leather pieces together.

6. Strive for perfection in how you put things together so people don't know how you've done it. I remember my milliner tutor telling me this in making hats and both LV and Chanel's collections exhibited this- every one of our hats should beg the question 'how did they do that?' 

7. Be curious in your craft and keep telling stories. It's not just about a dress, a trunk, a shoe... it's the experimentation, the testing, the multiple fittings and the story(ies) behind it.

Mademoiselle Privé Exhibition, London 2015

Mademoiselle Privé Exhibition, London 2015

8. Passion, Attention to detail, Drive and Constant Curiosity are attitudinal qualities which are vital to be a successful craftsman/business. It's not about the school you went to. This is a pet peeve of mine- I didn't study fashion or design. The LV craftswoman had been a chocolatier in her pre LV days.  Chanel didn't go to a fashion school either:

I was self taught, I learned badly and haphazardly…I had worked out on my own that which cannot be taught…it is with this that one succeeds. ~ Gabrielle Chanel

6. The road is long. Like Louis or Chanel, I might not be around to see The City Milliner exhibition. But I can live with that.




The artists behind our hat blocks

“He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
― Francis of Assisi

These days I get excited by craftsmanship. Not just the beauty of the end product but the individuals, processes, the tools, and the stories behind each piece.

Becoming a bespoke hatter, and thus a maker myself has given me a greater appreciation for the skills involved, often handed down from one maker to another; the labour of love involved on a piece by piece basis, the frustration of trying to create the actuality of your mind's eye, the continual problem solving when someone or something (namely what you're trying make) poses a challenge which requires you to do something different without showing you how... and the time, the time, the oh- so- much- time- involved in creating something by hand.

In a world of time = money, volume = cash,  craftsmanship is at odds with commercialism. Ever heard of a wealthy craftsman or woman? Me neither... not yet anyway. But as woodworker Richard Maguire points out in his excellent post The price of a craftsman

Craftspeople don’t go in to their work with the anticipation to earn lots of money... our craft is part of who we are and what we love’

All bespoke artisans, from hatters to tailors, from jewellers to bag makers rely on their fellow craftspeople for tools and materials of the trade. For example, the hat you commission from The City Milliner will - depending on whether it is panama, fur, wool or cloth- have included a weaver, a feltmaker, a block maker, a leather worker, a stamp maker to name a few. The tools used to create your hat may have included the handcrafted brim cutter, the hand carved tolliker, puller downer, stretcher and most probably a hat block.

Handcrafted Tools of a Hatter - The City Milliner

It's particularly hard as a milliner/ hatter to find the tools for your trade. An industry which created thousands of patents for tools has all but died, and with it many of the tool-making skill sets. We hatters scrabble for tools on eBay, or we commision the few remaining tool makers who are scattered across the globe. And it's not cheap.  In the image above you have probably the best part of £2300 worth of tools and several days of work from each of the artisans involved. Worth every single penny. 

Those of you following us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook were made aware of our excitement when we knew our bespoke hat blocks would be delivered last week.

Hat blocks are one of the most important parts of a hatter's tool kit. These are the forms which the felt or panama body is stretched over- creating the mold of the hat. Hatters like myself use the wooden forms - larger manufacturers use metal blocks. A hand carved wooden block start from £95 ranging into the upper hundreds of £s.

The particuarly squeak worthy delivery of blocks were from Boon & Lane, one of the last surviving hat block makers in the world. Is it workshop of 10 or even 5 people? - nope it's a team of two- Alan Davies and Steve Lane. 

The Hat Block makers Alan Davies & Steve Lane from Boon & Lane

In their Luton workshop and foundry they make both aluminium and wooden blocks for hatters large and small across the globe. Christies, Frederick Fox, Philip Treacy, the who's who of the hat world are amongst their past and present client list.  

For our hat-blocks I'd briefed Alan with what I thought I needed- 3 crown blocks and 4 brim blocks so I could handshape open crowns fedoras, trilbies and homburgs. He helped me to glean what I actually needed- we shared some doodles via the net- talked a little more- and then I left him to it to do his magic. Tania and I have been to their workshop, we've seen the hundreds of shapes in his studio, I know his client list include the great and global, and in a dwindling trade- they've survived. I knew we were in good hands.

Each block, whether aluminium or wood requires a mixture of skill and precision, coupled with years of experience and patience- from being able to translate the customers vision into a form, to creating the form to the exacting shapes and sizes required and managing the multiple variables of wood, plaster, metal, weather, glue, varnish.

The Making of our Hat Blocks

I asked Alan to document the process of our hat blocks with photos.

As the wood used by Alan is kiln treated Obeche wood the story starts not in Luton, but Africa.  Triplochiton scleroxylon (for the tree geeks) these tropical trees are found in Benin, Cameroon, Congo, DRC, Côte d'Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea; Ghana; Guinea; Liberia; Nigeria; Sierra Leone. Recognisable for their long trunks and highly elevated crowns, popular in the timber trade, the wood from these are particularly good for making hat blocks due to the absence of knots in the wood, and the wood being lightweight but strong (us milliners have a habit of sticking hatblocks with pins which requires resilience yet they need to be light enough to be carried from work bench to work bench). 

Depending on the height of the finished block, 2/3 pieces of wood are glued and compressed together before being left to dry. Once dry the basic shapes are cut out with a band saw and then the chiselling, measuring, carving, measuring, sanding, measuring process begins to get the exacting curves and shape of the block.

As our hat crown blocks need to fit within the brims block as seen below taking into account the hat body whether it be panama or felt- it is vital that their sizing is precise. 



Once sanded the blocks are then varnished with up to 5 coats of yacht varnish- each requiring drying time between. I asked Alan how long it takes- 'it depends' he said 'on the wood, the weather, the complexity of the piece...'

The finished varnished hat blocks waiting to dry


I asked Alan what was the most frustrating part of his work  'its the money, we're not charging enough...' yet he's aware milliners can't afford more. 

Its amazing how some of the merest transactional services can cost thousands yet an object created by hand barely covers the time and effort spent on it. Which is why the heart has to be involved.. and why Francis Assisi quote rings true- it's more than craft- it is art.

And Alan & Steve are artists. The finished result, the beauty of these blocks, built to last hundreds of pins, strings, the onslaught of steam, stiffener..means these tools- their art will be around long after Alan and Steve. The tools will outlast their makers, having formed hundreds of hats, worked on by dozens of hatters and milliners - just like this one which we found this weekend dating from 1939.

This was made by William Plant a hat block turner which ran from 1828 and finally closed in 1976. 

William Plant Hat block from 1939

Hat Blocks are not just tools, they are pieces of art. Functional Art.

For more on Boon & Lane or Williams Plant block makers there are two wonderful videos.

'Mad As' by Alun Bull - The Boon and Lane story

Hat Block Maker by John Crumpton




The City Milliner Ltd 2015

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