Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones

LOS ANGELES — Hats off to the milliners who persist in the face of an ever more casual culture. Resolute in the belief that not everyone wants to settle for a throwaway bucket hat, these hatters give shape to their fantasies with straw and felt, and serve those individuals who dare to make a statement from the top.
True hat devotees can be pretty daring, too. They won’t think twice, for instance, about whipping out the cash to buy the chapeau right off the head of a perfect stranger, as designer Maria Elena de Estevez Ruiz has discovered time and again.
“I’d go to a party and end up selling the hat off my head,” said the designer, who’s been supplying specialty boutiques in the U.S., Canada and Japan with her handmade hats for the last decade.
It’s flattering, but the repeated requests have their drawbacks. “I then have to fix my hair,” she laughed.
This reaction from hat lovers is understandable. De Estevez Ruiz works with velour felt, a finer woven than wool; fur felt, and sisal straw. The palette runs the gamut, from hunter green to hot pink.
The hand-stitched, hand-sculpted styles are then trimmed with python, rhinestones, grosgrain or yarns. A few are accented with velvet flowers, brass buttons or dramatic feathers. The hats wholesale from $50 to $95.
It’s a steal for what is essentially millinery couture. In fact, de Estevez Ruiz will work closely with accounts, regularly designing color schemes or thematic styles corresponding with the clothes a store will carry.
“Anything can inspire me. I am in love with other eras. I loved the extreme shapes of the Forties. But to me, it’s about the art, the color,” she noted. “I listen to my intuition as I work.”
It’s also a life-long affair. “I always loved hats. My mother always dressed me in hats.”
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, a first-generation American after her parents fled Cuba in the 1950s, de Estevez Ruiz and her two older brothers would entertain themselves for hours by playing dress-up.
She remembers always finishing her look with an oversized, lime green hat.
“Maria Elena looks so perfect in hats. That’s why she can make so many styles,” observed Jeanette Engel, her California Mart sales rep for the last three years. The two met through a mutual friend and bonded instantly.
Declining to reveal specific numbers, Engel offered that sales have increased by 25 percent since her showroom picked up the line. Some 35 retail accounts regularly carry the hats, including The Hat Box in Los Angeles and Irvine, Calif.; Institut, New York; Gils, Oklahoma City, and The Twenty Four Collection, Miami Beach.
Not surprisingly, metropolitan cities such as San Francisco and Southern areas from Florida to Louisiana are particularly consistent customers.
“People laugh that I don’t have employees. But I have to be part of the process. I couldn’t have someone do it for me. I’d miss the job.”
Of course, de Estevez Ruiz is willing to admit that will not always be the case. The success this spring of her sisal straw cowboy hats revealed the potential for growth. She hand-molded “hundreds,” including the one worn by Minnie Driver in a photo that appeared in InStyle magazine.
“I’m always on time with my orders. I love the challenge.”
She’s also known from the start that her class of hats are not for the mass market. Despite recent orders for Bebe and BCBG stores nationwide, many retailers who walk through the showroom pass on the line.
“Everyone is in awe of them, but not everyone can use them in their store,” observed Engel. “It has to be a style where even price isn’t an object.” Case in point: the cowboy hat that wholesales for $50.
For holiday, de Estevez Ruiz expects the blanket-stitch felt beanie to attract interest because, as she pointed out, “It’s not so conspicuous.”
Of course, life is not hats alone. Even the hat maker undergoes periods when she prefers to go hatless because of the attention they attract. “It’s usually when I want to be incognito,” she said.
And no hats appear in the figurative oil paintings hanging in the home she shares with her husband and their five-year-old son in the seaside community of Corona del Mar.
De Estevez Ruiz spent much of the Eighties studying art and printmaking in London and Madrid. In between stints in Europe, she studied art at Otis Parsons in Los Angeles.
Back in the U.S. in 1989 and unemployed, she began experimenting with millinery as an art medium. Among her first retail clients was Giorgio of Beverly Hills. She fashioned one-of-a-kind styles with vintage trims.
“I’ve always done my hats by hand until recently, when I learned to use the sewing machine. But I still come at it from an artist angle. For me, that’s what it’s all about, the art.”
The milliner has other tricks to pull out of her hat business. “I’d like to diversify into other products that tie in with my hats: handbags and scarves.”
Does it concern de Estevez Ruiz that the days when everyone wore hats continue to fade into distant memory? Not in the slightest. She knows enough kindred spirits are out there to keep her in business.
“Hats can transform someone. I love that fact. People still want an individual look. A hat gives just that.”

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