Byline: Alice Welsh
Some people might have trouble understanding how ballet can lead to a career as a hat maker, but for Stephanie Saland, who was a member of the New York City Ballet for 21 years and a principal for nearly 10 of those years, the connection is natural.
“I see everything in terms of line and shape, and the curve and fluidity of a hat depends on these same principles,” said Saland, who now lives in Seattle, on a recent visit to New York. Instead of writing her memoirs and quietly fading from view after she retired in 1993, Saland started a whole new venture. While recovering from an injury in the late Eighties, she took a hand-sewing hat class and began making custom millinery for members of the company.
“I had been putting together costumes and being made up my entire life, so it felt right,” she explained. What started as a hobby turned into a second career after Saland took an apprenticeship at Christian Dior in Paris. In less than three months, Saland’s skill went beyond mere decoration to actual hat construction.
“I sewed by hand nine hours a day. I was sitting for the first time in my life, and nine hours a day of talking French is a lot,” she recalled. “Making a couture hat is a very involved process that begins with sketches, in this case from Gianfranco Ferré. After the prototype was made, he would look it over and put Post-It notes all over it.
“Most people aren’t aware of how physical this type of hat-making is,” she continued. “You are shaping it with your hands and making sure all the grains are going the same way.”
Saland still does made-to-order hats, but her collection, which she describes as “functional with a twist,” is also carried by two stores in New York — L’Artisan Parfumeur on Madison Avenue and Wilbur on Christopher Street.
After Paris, Saland moved to Seattle to join her boyfriend, Otto Neubert, ballet master of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company, and set up shop.
“I went cold turkey from the ballet world when I moved out there. I kept my hair long for a year, then I cut it to shoulder length and then more,” she noted.
Saland also let herself gain 10 pounds, but one has to wonder where she put them.
“It’s hard to let go of your body after all those years — to give yourself permission to release those old judgments. I miss different parts of ballet — the ritual aspect of training,” Saland concedes. “But I don’t miss the stage too much.” Maybe that’s because she’s created a new stage for her talents.