Sunday, March 13, 2016
EASTER IS COMING. SUZANNE HAS A HAT FOR YOU.
Do you have your Easter hat yet?
With Easter and the annual Easter Parade fast approaching, we thought it would be fun to get you into the spirit of things, so we made a visit to Suzanne Couture Millinery, a jewel box of a hat shop which has been in business for more than thirty years. These days, it's difficult to find hats at all, much less a broad variety of hats in every color for every occasion and every whim, so when we visited Suzanne, who stocks - or can custom make - just about anything you can dream up, we nearly fainted with sensory overload. We'd like to share our surfeit of pleasure with you.
Before you've even taken your second step inside her atelier, you are greeted by a display of more than a dozen one-of-a-kind hats. More hats line shelves on both sides, and peering into the back, one can see part of the workshop where these confections come to life.
Perhaps the most dramatic from that display is this beauty, which looks like it could have been worn by Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, and immortalized by Al Hirschfeld. It brings to mind a huge sea anenome, and the feathers are dyed in wonderfully gradated shades of pink.
Suzanne's work is characterized by very fine attention to detail. In the hat below, the large ribbon and feather, which balance handsomely (one wide and curved; the other narrow and straight) are the same color as the straw. If you look more closely, however (double click to enlarge the photo), you can see that the fine network covering the hat consists of both straight and wavy filaments. Wavy filaments in vegetable fiber are very unusual, so this very discreet touch adds an extra level of artistry to an already spectacular hat. Suzanne dyes much of her material herself, often working late into the night and starting early in the morning. During our visit, she was working on a colorful fur hat that she will deliver in the fall.
The night before we met with her, Suzanne had attended the Bonnet Bash at the National Arts Club. The theme was Through the Looking Glass, and here are some of the hats Suzanne whipped up for the evening. To top off an already wonderful design inspired by the Lewis Carroll book, the hands of the clock are made of feather shafts.
Jean says: Repeat after me: "Up on the left and down on the right." Suzanne instructed us in the proper British way to wear a hat. Even hat blocks are constructed so that they tilt over the right eye. Why? Traditionally, when a gentleman escorts a lady, he walks on her left, his right arm interlocked with her left. Tilting a hat to the right opens her face to her companion. A look at old paintings and illustrated books will bear this out, she said. Jean sports another of the Bonnet Bash creations, featuring white and red roses and the knight made of a playing card.
Suzanne's hats look as great coming as going. The reverse of the hat above is a crimson vision. (From this angle, you can also observe that Jean has tilted her hat over her right eye!) News flash for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton fans! Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Burton's Alice in Wonderland, is set to debut in NYC on May 27th.
Another of the Lewis Carroll-inspired hats is this number, a twirling skyscraper of flowers constructed entirely of playing cards. Through the Looking Glass fans will recognize this hat as a reference to the garden of talking flowers.
One of Suzanne's greatest assets is her ability to imbue her technically perfect creations with a touch of humor. Case in point, her injection of toothy smiles into the center each of the talking flowers. Suzanne worked for three years for Josephine, a New York milliner, before taking over her business when Josephine retired, but had begun making her own clothes as a teenager in South Africa.
This hat also went to the Bonnet Bash. When asked where she sourced the gorgeous plump feather bouquets that look like proteus flowers in the midst of fireworks, Suzanne astounded us when she said she had made them herself. We dared not ask, but this probably means untold hours spent dyeing countless feathers, painstakingly cutting them into shape, and gluing them into place. The color combination and placement show very practiced and skilled eyes and hands. (You might double click on this one, too.)
Another of Suzanne's feathered hats features nothing but squares. The hat is square, and is decorated with feathers with thick shafts deftly cut into square shapes. But instead of running parallel to each square, the shaft of the feather runs at an angle to each square, for great contrast. Suzanne explained that different clients order different parts of the feather for their hats. With the leftover parts, Suzanne created this design to recycle them. Love the single long feather that runs straight across the back. This is the hat as Suzanne placed it on Valerie's head. Before that, Valerie had tried the hat on with no assistance, and placed the long feather in the front (in spite of the position of the label). Valerie also discovered that she typically tilts her hat in contravention of tradition. Fortunately, most of her friends and colleagues know as little about tradition as she does, so there is no laughing and pointing. At least not about that.
Hats are most often made of felt, straw (or another similar vegetable fiber), feathers or woven fiber (not necessarily in that order). Suzanne uses those materials, but also branches out into fun and unexpected materials. Here is a very playful hat she made out of transparent, soft, pink vinyl.
A good milliner has to keep a variety of materials at hand for exactly the right occasion. Some might not get used for months or years, but a milliner knows potential hat material when she sees it. Below, a hat that Suzanne decorated with antique paillettes, painted with silver starbursts, found in her travels. Each has a single hole, and had to be sewn on individually. To add tension, cut feather shafts bisect the design.
Two more examples of Suzanne's range: The black straw disc on the left, orbited by circles of colored plastic and decorated with jeweled planets looks like a glamorous galaxy. The saturated red feathered orb on the right is a stunner. Anyone wearing it would make a memorable entrance, exit, and everything in between.
One of Jean's all-time favorite silhouettes is a coolie-style hat, so she immediately gravitated to this piece of light straw with thin, darker stripes around half of it. Displays are changed regularly, to reflect the change in the season. So if you're headed south of the equator, and need a warm hat, you won't see any out front, but you should still ask.
Another dressier straw hat, also by Suzanne, resembled a pale pink fortune cookie, enveloped in a delicate, jeweled net.
The rear view adds the fillip of a shiny metallic bow-like lining that catches the light.
Two hats -- one shape! Suzanne's artistry transforms the traditional riding hat into two entirely different looks. First the black and white graphic stripes with fuchsia satin and feather trim is lady-like and formal.
Second, the stark black leather version is a minimalist's dream.
Amorphous shapes and swirls permeate many of her designs. These two red straw images resemble entwined swan necks.
Suzanne also makes a practice of showing the works of other milliners. They have different points of view, so they add to the great variety available under one roof. Here are some works by the other milliners Suzanne carries.
The accordion structure of this straw hat by Mirjam Nuver allows it to accommodate two completely different looks. Shown here, it lies nearly flat on the head. But Suzanne showed us the crown is so flexible that it can be pulled down almost to the ears and form a large funnel-shaped crown above the head, with the red border encircling the head at a distance, like a halo.
Harvey Santos' black and white hat of three concave discs, with black bugle beads scattered here and there, is named "Think".
The geometric front of the hat is in total contrast to the unexpectedly romantic pastel pink rear view.
With its core encircled by outer rings, this hat in felt and plexi, by milliner Keely Hunter, brings to mind the structure of the atom, or the planet Saturn.
Very likely, millinery students are challenged at least once to make a hat out of unconventional materials. (If you ever watched Project Runway, you may have seen the episode where contestants were taken to the nature store Evolution and asked to incorporate taxidermied insects into their work.) Here, Harvy Santos has combined soft with hard, mineral with animal and colorless with color in a hat made of feathers and - we think - aluminum.
Similarly, Noel Stewart takes very simple white feathers, but assembles them in a completely unexpected manner.
Most of the hats are for special occasions. During our visit, a client was ordering hats for a family occasion. Suzanne asked several questions that never would have occurred to us, and the client dutifully contacted one of the adult children for the answers. What was the child's hair color? Was it parted right, left or center? Would the hat be tilted over the left or right eye? (Notice the allowance for non-believers in old British traditions.) And by when would it need to be ready?
Not all of Suzanne's hats are for special occasions. Some are just for occasions, like the rain hat below, in printed cotton with a glistening clear vinyl overlayer.
But even if the occasions aren't special, all of Suzanne's hats are.
Icing on the cake! Beautiful black and white hat boxes protect the chic headwear. (And Suzanne will show you on how to carry it properly.)
Twin hats in the opening photograph by Karen Henriksen.
A major event for millinery in New York - and therefore a major event for Suzanne - is the annual Central Park Conservancy Frederick Law Olmstead Luncheon (nicknamed "the hat luncheon"), held each May. To see a selection of the many hats at last year's luncheon, click here. (Suzanne is very discreet, so we don't know which ones are hers.)