A couture milliner is a rare gem. Hard to find, but once you do, you can fully appreciate the exquisite workmanship with all of your heart. Leah C. is a true artist and does some of the most amazing couture head pieces and hats. For a stylist like myself, her inspirational hats always add glamour and chicness to any shoot. We caught up with the designer to photograph some of her incredible fall creations and to talk Vogue, The Great Gatsby, and Irving Penn.
Photographer: Amanda Bruns
Makeup: Deborah Altizio @ Agent Oliver; Hair: Andrea Wilson; Model: Kit @ mc2
Cannon: When was the first time you touched a hat?
Leah C: Well, my mom had some very cool late 60s hats which of course were part of our dress up wardrobe but what I really got into were all the trimmings in her sewing cabinet! I think that hats were important to me growing up, to help achieve the looks we saw in Elle and Vogue. For instance, a simple black straw 80s big brim boater would get a ribbon treatment added and voilà! I attained the chic Spanish dancer hat with the white tank and high-waisted wide-leg sailor pants as seen in Elle.
C: Where did you study?
LC: I began my millinery studies at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia under Mr. Alzie, who brought us up to New York City for supply shopping. The man who sold me my first felt 18 years ago is still a wonderful friend and now we work in the same building! I also studied at FIT and took all the courses they had to offer in millinery. I did work under Patricia Underwood for two years, which I like to consider my graduate study years and at the Metropolitan Opera's costume department with one of my teachers, which was magical. Since then there has been a lot of self teaching and research. It did all full circle around and I designed and taught a millinery course at Parsons School of Design for three years.
C: How do you find your inspiration?
LC: Very easily! Nature provides a plethora of inspiration. People and their interests and tastes provide a plethora of inspiration. History and modern day renditions of past times and fashions, provide a ton of inspiration. The routes of change in millinery, historically, provide an unending source of inspiration. The trick is, interpreting these studies to create styles that fit today's woman and lifestyle. Doing a daily visual study of my field, I take a lot in and then it's how you throw it back out there as an artist.
I am very picky about my materials and am a collector of feathers. The passion that comes from a collector's point of view or curator's eye is obvious and the elements I use in my work reflect this selective process. I use my stock with intent and purpose in the Leah C. designs that come from my head and am inspired by my collection, I have love for the individual objects themselves.
C: What is the first memory of your favorite hat?
LC: The black and white shot by Irving Penn with the heavy black wide net veiling over Lisa Fonssagrives' face, so graphic, so stunning, so unforgettable. That was a page up on my wall since forever, ripped out of my father's American Photographer issues we got in the 70s and 80s that often featured Penn's work from the early glamorous days through his artistic cycles.
C: Your favorite photo shoot with hats?
LC: Speaking of which, I am most proud of having one of my dramatic evening pieces photographed a while back by the legendary Irving Penn for American Vogue. My "Whirlwind" hat was worn by Nicole Kidman, tall and elegant with Harry Winston jewels and Lagerfeld garments. I was also totally thrilled when I received a call from Paris via Harper's Bazaar saying Karl Lagerfeld and Lady Amanda Harlech were freaking over my hats on set and indeed they created a most stunning shot with my creation in a Bazaar story paying homage to Daisy Fellows.
C: What exactly is a milliner?
LC: Well, there are many positions in the labor chain of the hat making industry.
A milliner is generally a "finisher" but these days we also occupy other roles in this chain such as being the "blocker," the person who uses steam and techniques to form the base shape of the hat. It was a very, very industrial field with much higher levels of production than today and that employed many more people. Many people say to me their grandmother was a milliner. The word milliner is derived from the people who lived in the area of Milan, Italy who made and sold decorative items for hats and garments. Basically, trim elements which are the finishing decoration on a felt or straw hat. As these people traveled to sell their goods, the term and title also traveled.
C: Who do you design for?
LC: I design for women who have a strong sense of personal style and use every special occasion in life to express themselves fashionably. My creations can top off a look, add to an ensemble, or help you look chic on a bad hair day! I design for that person who is looking for something special, that brings them joy and confidence. Basically, one can enhance one's beauty with a Leah C. creation. I think I strive to help my customers complete their look with appropriate headwear for their occasion or life in general. My customers embody this spirit, receive lots of compliments, and have fun wearing their couture millinery, I love it!
C: How long does an average couture headpiece take to make?
LC: Oooh, well, generally a piece is made in stages, so tough to guesstimate but certainly many days for sure.
C: The Great Gatsby movie is being released soon and that was such a great era for couture hats and head pieces.
LC: Yes, I have been designing my signature 20s style bandeaux for years and am absolutely thrilled that modern day women will get some help to see how beautiful and easy it is to wear this style. Along with spreading the understanding of how glam and interesting feather work can be. This is my specialty so I have always enjoyed making pieces that are Gatsby-esque and have designed many different takes on the styles from that time period. It's flirty and provocative, I'm excited to see how people interpret this 1920s revival, but we can definitely help give you the look, but today's look.
C: What is a normal day in the Leah C. life?
LC: Eyes open, espresso goes on the stove. Exercise, cook my lunch, get a groovy work outfit on and walk to work. Check urgent emails, switch into my clogs, and check my production list. Tend to incoming appointments, both clients and press, and strap on my tool belt to get down to creating. Every day is different and that is what makes it exciting because you never know what wonderful person will enter into your life that day or what seed you have planted will grow into an amazing opportunity. And then there is alway Miller Time.
C: Stylists are such a part of fashion and showcasing brands — how do you work with stylists?
LC: I work directly or indirectly with stylists almost everyday! These days it is rare the stylist has time to come to my showroom to pull, but there are those few people who continue that tradition and I love it. Mostly I ask appropriate questions to then curate a pull myself according to my interpretation of their theme or direction. It is helpful if the assistants and interns know some of the correct "language" to describe what their key stylist is looking for in the way of headwear, but unfortunately that is usually not the case…it's a generational thing since hats have not been part of the vocabulary used in quotidian vernacular for a while now. But it is such a pleasure to see how the stylist's vision has brought to life one of my creations in editorials. Top talent lays it all out each in his or her own way and my work can go in so many directions that it is all about the rest of the ensemble, the model, hair, makeup, and look of the photography that will make that spread unique. It is a pleasure to work with teams of the top talent in the world.
C: Who is your favorite milliner?
LC: I absolutely love Cristobal's designs presented in his house of Balenciega in the 1960s.
C: Please pass on some couture advice for hat buyers and brides. What shapes for which faces, etc.
LC: Go for what is most flattering to you, color wise and shape wise. Look at the neckline of your garment and play with shape. Millinery changes your silhouette so ask your self as you are trying on, what shape are you creating with your pick of headwear and does it create balance? One can be quite a complete vision from head to toe if your headwear is chosen well. There are quite a lot of messy feather things out there, don't be sucked into fad or cheap price point, instead look for refined, graceful work that is light, never heavy!
I consider myself a colorist and believe that each person's complexion, eye color, hair color, makeup should be taken into consideration when selecting a colored piece. By offering a wide variety of designs at the showroom, the individual has a choice of hat, therefore I encourage self expression and to go for it!
C: Some couture advice for budding hat designers?
LC: Study! Practice, Study! You cannot take one hat making class and call yourself a couture milliner. Period.