IN CHICAGO, A SMALL BUT THRIVING GROUP OF HATMAKERS HAS BANDED TOGETHER TO PROMOTE ITS SHARED PASSION.
Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli
Shame on Oprah Winfrey. When the talk show maven held a segment on passion a few weeks ago, she brought in as an example a milliner from, of all places, Connecticut. Chicago hatmakers certainly understand why Oprah chose a milliner for this particular show. With millinery supplies difficult to obtain and the hat-wearing customers hard to come by, passion — not a yen to make a bundle overnight — is what makes these artisans tick.
What they don’t understand is why Ms. Winfrey didn’t choose a local milliner. Chicago is home to nine of the most passionate hatmakers around, who work under the banner of the Millinery Arts Alliance. These women market the wonder of hats to both dedicated fans and newcomers to the world of chapeaux.
“Women like to dress up, and a hat is the ultimate accessory,” said Lisa Farrell, co-president of the alliance and owner of Ooh-La-La, a hat shop in Highland Park, Ill.
The MAA got its start in 1995, when a group of Chicago-area milliners decided to pool their efforts to promote their hats, which are hand-made, often of hand-made materials and can cost up to $700.
“We are offering a couture service,” said Loreta Corsetti, co-president and owner of Loreta Corsetti Millinery. Apparently, it’s a service more and more women crave. Corsetti expects her sales to double this year, to about $35,000. Farrell, for her part, reports sales of about $5,000 a month. Veronica Chin, who runs Burning Bush Millinery, posts sales of about $1,000 a month, and like Corsetti, says this year has been phenomenally good. Custom hats for weddings and events are a huge part of MAA members’ business, accounting for 40 percent of Corsetti’s business and 50 percent of sales for Susanne Wiesen, owner of Pale Moon Millinery. They agree their clientele are hard to pin down. “It’s hard to say who our typical customer is,” Farrell said. “It’s younger women who have gone through the baseball hat thing and want something more sophisticated; it’s older women who grew up wearing hats. It’s a wide range of people.”
Chin, for her part, has seen another type of customer, and that’s women who are undergoing chemotherapy and are seeking stylish head coverings.
One avid MAA fan is Janice Koerber, a systems analyst in Chicago. Koerber started collecting vintage hats in Chicago and now has over 250, which she displays on pegs hanging about her loft.
Koerber also gives MAA members a boost by marketing hats on her own through Charming Hats in Chicago (CHIC), a hat club she and a friend started five years ago.
“Both of us are hat-wearers, so we started wearing them to restaurants,” Koerber said. Another MAA fan is Dianne Crosell, who works in the wholesale flower business. “I wore hats before I met [MAA members], but now I’m a connoisseur,” said Crosell, who spends about $1,600 a year on hats.
MAA members’ designs run from simple to ornate. Wiesen’s simplest hat on display these days is a taupe sisal cloche trimmed in taupe and finished off with a matching vintage button. Priced at $155, it’s a look a woman can dress up or dress down, Wiesen said.
Her most sophisticated hat is a black veiled, heart-shaped cocktail hat trimmed with doupioni silk and festooned with hand-embroidered cherries. The hat took about 12 hours to make: Wiesen does all the work, even embroidery, by hand.
Meanwhile, over at Burning Bush, Chin’s favorite hat is what she calls a “Mad Hatter hat”: an asymmetrical number made of black silk, banded with a strip of copper Thai silk and decorated with rose and seafoam green silk flowers. Chin calls the $260 creation “a floral fantasia.”
While the materials sound simple, hat-making supplies aren’t easy to come by in this country. Corsetti, for instance, buys custom-made blocks from Luton, England, and Florence, Italy. “It’s difficult for us to find blocks,” she said, referring to the forms that are the milliner’s equivalent of a dressmaker’s dummy.
The alliance’s first collaborative marketing effort was called La Fete des Catherinettes, the first American celebration of the traditional French hat-making festival that also honors St. Catherine, the patron saint of milliners.
The celebration began with dinner at Chicago’s elegant Brasserie Jo, and continued with a weekend of trunk shows at local boutiques. MAA succeeded in attracting hat devotees and raising about $6,000 for Y-Me, a national breast-cancer awareness organization.
Richard Melman, owner of Brasserie Jo, part of his Lettuce Entertain You empire of restaurants, was so taken by the hat-wearing women that he invited the MAA to hold a weekly hat dinner at the brasserie. That event, Les Chapeaux at Brasserie Jo, continues to this day. Every Thursday evening, anywhere from 15 to 40 women gather to wear their own creations and perhaps buy a new one from MAA designers, who showcase their hats every week. The hat lovers not only get to show off their latest buys; they also get a complimentary “chapeau au chocolat” dessert, created by Jean Joho, the brasserie’s chef.
The yearly Catherinettes show continues as well, changing venues and form every year. In 1999, it was held at Kass-Meridian, a local art gallery. Last year, it returned to Brasserie Jo, and attendees were treated to samples of Beaujolais nouveau to sip as they ogled the latest offerings. This year, the event was held May 15 at the tony Casino Club in Chicago. Loreta Corsetti Millinery were featured, as was a talk by New York socialite Nan Kempner, who brought along some of her hats for millinery show-and-tell. The event was sponsored by the advisory board of the Hope B. McCormick Costume Center at the Chicago Historical Society.
Other hat-marketing strategies are in the works, for instance a Web site. Networking helps immeasurably, noted Corsetti. “We always meet other artisans, and they link us with someone else,” she said. “They get new customers, and we get new customers.” Membership has changed some over the years. Founding members who are still active include Corsetti, whose hats are inspired by the art of the Italian Renaissance; Kate Burch of Kate Burch Hat Studio, whose affection for hats grew out of her history of collecting and selling vintage clothing; Eia Radosavljevic of Eia Millinery Design, a graduate of FIT and a hatmaker since 1990; and Laura Whitlock of Laura Whitlock Millinery, who has designed hats for feature films such as “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
Newer members include Farrell, whose background is in retailing and costume design; Chin, who also teaches millinery at Chicago-area design schools; Holly Lowell, owner of the Queen of H’Arts hat shop in Evanston; Wiesen, a former corporate finance executive who studied millinery with Chin and opened her own millinery business in 1997, and Carmen R. Henry, whose hats are sold at Macy’s in Pentagon City, Va., and boutiques around the country.
So far, the alliance’s efforts are paying off. “There’s more interest in millinery than ever,” said Corsetti. “Women have come to not look at hats as something silly, or something their mother wore.”
To find out about current MAA affairs, call their 24-hour “hatline” at 312-409-6311.