All the World’s a Hat: A Conversation with Philip Treacy

May 29, 2010 • Designers, Magazine

All the World's a Hat: A Conversation with Philip Treacy

Amanda Aldinger

London-based couture milliner Philip Treacy has worked with some of fashion’s most iconic designers, and has held positions as the chief milliner for Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Valentino. The creative mind behind the butterfly-adorned plant hat atop Sarah Jessica Parker at the Sex and the City movie premiere last year, as well as Lady Gaga’s glitterized multi-tiered lightening bolt creation from this year Grammy’s, Treacy’s finely detailed and pièces
 de résistance rarely want for recognition. On a recent trip to Neiman Marcus in Chicago, where he showcased a variety of hats from his latest collection, Treacy and I sat down for a chat on glamour, the Lady Gaga effect, and everyone’s need for a touch of fantasy.

SCS: I was reading your interview with the Houston Chronicle, and you said that “your bread and butter comes from a highly conservative woman.” What did you mean by that?

PT: What I meant is that people think I make hats for crazy people, but I actually make hats for quite conservative women, English women – who are pretty wild. They look conservative, because real eccentricity is not crazy. Eccentricity is much more subtle. Some of them are actually quite conservative outwardly, but inwardly they have their own sense of fantasy, like most people.

SCS: Do you have specific women in mind when you design each hat?

PT: No – they’re just all hoping to meet a personality, really. Wearing a hat is about desire – I’m appealing to desire. We don’t need a hat, but we do need some things to make us make feel better. That’s why people shop. I very rarely find something I want, but when I do, I really want it. And that’s fantastic. I depend on that desire, because you’re appealing to something inexplicable in a person. You’re selling fantasy.

SCS: I would say in America, hats like yours would be deemed unwearable by many women.

PT: Of course.

SCS: They would be terrified by them.

PT: But what is unwearable?

SCS: An idea.

PT: An idea is unwearable?

SCS: No, I think that the concept of something being unwearable is an idea – not an actuality.

PT: Yes, because it’s about pleasure. And if the pleasure is in buying the hat just because you want it, then that’s cool too – people buy hats for different reasons. I understand there’s a whole “lack of hat-wearing” in America. But in other ways, there isn’t a lack of hat wearing. Because if you look at the rappers or the ethnic community – they’ve all got hats on. They might be baseball hats, but it’s a hat. People have things on their heads, whether it’s utilitarian or fantasy.

SCS: So are your hats more for extravagant moments?

PT: It depends. If your idea of an extravagant moment is walking down Michigan Avenue at eleven in the morning, then good for you! It’s not a crime. I say that about Victoria Beckham when people ask about her – they love to be mean to her – but I always say to people, “What’s the crime to shopping? It’s not a crime!”

SCS: No, it’s not! It’s her thing, and she’s great at it.

PT: Exactly! She is great at it. If she loves going to an airport looking all dressed up, loving that in-cognito look, or going out shopping with high heeled shoes, what’s wrong with that?

SCS: Well, it’s intimidating to a lot of women.

PT: Why? So it’s not intimidating then, if you see Britney looking like hell in cowboy boots and a sort of flowery smock and a pair of sunglasses? Do they feel more comfortable because she looks terrible?

SCS: Well, yes. Because there’s not much to be jealous of there.

PT: (laughs) Well that’s terrible!

SCS: Yes, it is terrible! But it’s true.

PT: I like Britney! I mean, I like the idea of Britney. But I’d rather look at Posh Spice looking all dressed up in Hollywood old glamour than Britney’s cowboy boots and flowery smock and looking bad.

SCS: Would you say that that mentality is –

PT: Mean?

SCS: It is mean. Does that kind of culture exist in Europe like it does here?

PT: Yes, of course. But they’re kind of better at it here.

SCS: Nicer, or meaner?

PT: Better – better at looking at bad. Don’t you think? Anyway…
SCS: So – you’ve said that “glamour is a world-wide currency.”

PT: Yes, I did.

SCS: Having primarily worked with European designers and American celebrities, what are the differences between glamour in Europe and America? Does that influence you when you’re designing for an American pop artist like Lady Gaga?

PT: There’s no difference. It’s all…ultimate glamour, yeah? It’s about inspiring people by how you look. That’s why people are attracted to someone like Lady Gaga, because she’s different. And she’s different in her imperfectness. That’s a new thing, I think, her imperfectness. I mean, her talent is pretty perfect, but her imperfectness is a new currency in celebrity glamour.

SCS: So many people have chosen to latch onto that and to exploit that.

PT: Yes! But they are quite intrigued by her because she’s not the beautiful girl strumming the guitar – she’s the total opposite. But she can deliver as well.

SCS: I know that her production model as an artist is based on Andy Warhol’s Factory

PT: Yes.

SCS: …and that you did a Pop Art collection in 2003.

PT: Yes.

SCS: Having become popularized in America for your work with Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga while also having this conservative base – I’m curious about your relationship to pop art and how you reconcile the two.

PT: I love Pop Art because it’s about popular culture. Sarah Jessica Parker is a pop art icon, and so is Lady Gaga – Michael Jackson was also. I’m attracted to and fascinated by illusion, and illusion is all of those people. I’ve met the real people and that’s great and everything, but I totally understand the illusion, and empathize with the illusion because it’s larger than life. And life can be a bit boring sometimes.

SCS: So are your hats like an illusion?

PT: Of course, yes.

SCS: What is the illusion they create?

PT: They make the wearer feel completely different in different styles. It’s like magic, it’s fantasy you’re selling. I’m selling a dream to people.

SCS: When did this idea of fantasy begin to resonate with you?

PT: I don’t know – just through having to analyze what I do. I’ve had to analyze myself because it’s analyzed by other people, and I get asked questions.

SCS: Does it upset you that your work is deconstructed by people?

PT: No – it’s just that everyone is looking for a reason, and sometimes there isn’t a reason. I quite like that aspect. I don’t know why I make hats. I like hats because I like hats. And I’m good at it. So, why not?

SCS: You have very strong ideas about design and why you do design, yet you’ve worked with strong personalities like Valentino, and Karl Lagerfeld. How do you merge the two creative visions?

PT: You collaborate with the person. When I design for Valentino, I think in terms of Valentino – I think about him and his aesthetic and styling and what he likes – his handwriting. It’s a bit like telepathy. Even when you’re making hats for a customer. People come and order a hat, and when they come and see me it’s a bit like acting like a psychiatrist. It’s not like I’m asking them very provocative or insightful questions, but I am trying to gauge the personality of the person and what’s going to make them happy with their choice of hat. You have to inject an element of daring into what they want as well.

SCS: Do you ever meet women who are intimidated by your hats?

PT: Oh, of course.

SCS: What do you say to them?

PT: Relax! Calm down, it’s not the end of the world, it’s only a hat. No customer ever leaves with a hat that they don’t want. I’d never say, “Oh you HAVE to have that.” Except I do, actually. It’s just – I am looking for the people who want to go a little bit further. Because they make the world more interesting. I love working with performers, or an artist who can perform.

SCS: Besides Lady Gaga, who are your favorites?

PT: Grace Jones. She’s a performer, she’s an artist. She has artistic power. It’s fascinating – it makes everyone else look like a pretender.

SCS: Do these individuals seek you out, or do you seek them out?

PT: They seek me out. But then sometimes I sort of have an artistic/professional affair with them. Some of those entertainers I haven’t particularly liked, or it didn’t really develop into a relationship, but sometimes they still come back for me. It’s fun. It’s just fun.

SCS: Is that the reason you do it?

PT: Yes. Of course.

Photos: Philip Treacy London
Last image: Philip Treacy with Isabella Blow, Kevin Davies photo

Image Layout: Tiffany Carlin

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