Millinery in the 21st Century

​The second year of Fashion Management is well and truly in motion! The first part of our project involves researching a brand that needs revitalising, some life breathed back into it – after a lot of thought I have chosen Robert Piguet, who embraced theatrical 30s romanticism. 

Although Piguet wasn’t known for accessories, I got swept up in the 1930s hats – to me, they epitomised the glamour that was in the air during the decade. I decided to interview a local milliner, the wonderful Sophie Cooke of Imogen’s Imagination in Sheffield, to see if and how the trade has changed in the 21st century. 

Hi Sophie! How did you get started in millinery? Did you complete a degree and/or internship or go freelance?
“I started off in 2006-ish using pre-made hat shapes and decorating them for myself and friends to wear to burlesque nights. It was just a hobby to scratch the creative itch. As a result, I was asked to make them for a local shop, the owner of which ran the burlesque night.  I did that for a year or so but then took a break.  In late 2008 I started selling at vintage fairs and developed design more suitable to the market, still using pre-made shapes.  It wasn’t until September 2009 that I started evening classes at Leeds College of Art and Design that I learnt to make hats from scratch.  I attended 5 years of classes, 30 sessions a year, whilst working full-time, for most of it. This is the only formal training I have.  My mum and grandma taught me to sew; machine, hand and embroidery. Everything else has been learnt as I’ve gone alone. The only formal creative qualification I have is a GCSE in Design and Technology, about 2 decades ago (That’s as old as I’ll admit to! lol). I didn’t start the business “full-time” until late October 2013, and even since then, I have always had a part-time job of between 8-18.5 hours to help tide me over financially.”

What types of skills do you think somebody would need to be successful in millinery?
“Strong work ethic.  Desire to experiment and learn new skills. Thick skinned, emotionally, not just physically to avoid workroom stabbing injuries! Creative. Imaginative. Organised- juggling clients, finances, stock can be tricky. Inventive. Brave. I don’t believe I can claim to be successful, I’m not denying that I haven’t had my moments, I guess it depends how on you measure success. I haven’t missed a mortgage payment, I pay my studio rent on time…but if you measure success in nights out, holiday and treats, then the reduced section at the supermarket is my best friend!”

What have you enjoyed the most about your career in millinery?
There is nothing more satisfying than getting paid! Apart from the moment when someone tries on a hat and their posture suddenly gets a little straighter, a smile creeps across their face and then they grin.  That’s when you know the hat is right.  That is hugely satisfying.  Sometimes it’s a bit like being a hairdresser, people tell you all sorts of things! I think because it’s such a personal purchase, and such a new experience to have a hat made for you, as well as the client being heavily involved in the design process, it is part of them. Often because the hat is to be worn for a memorable occasion, the hat and by proxy you, to an extent, become part of that memory. I love getting photos from happy clients at their events…you know they wore it, enjoyed wearing and what to share that joy with you and your Facebook page! ;o)”

What is one of the biggest problems you have faced in your career in millinery? 
“Money and time in equal measures.  I can honestly say that I spend more time at the PC than I do making. It’s hard work selling, whether it’s online, in person at events or with custom order clients. It all takes time.  Research, admin, finances, promotion.  I know that I have stock that I haven’t listed online because I haven’t got good enough photos, or the time to create the listings.  If I had the cash, I would happily pay someone to help me out, but without the balance of time to develop and create income through a variety of sources (sales, networking, workshops, press development etc) my time becomes more full of the mundane jobs.”


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