Designer Janessa Leone Wants to Bring Hats to the Mainstream

The world should not be divided into two camps: "hat people" and "non-hat people."
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Alyssa Vingan Klein
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The world should not be divided into two camps: "hat people" and "non-hat people."
Photo: Courtesy of Janessa Leone

Photo: Courtesy of Janessa Leone

A good hat is hard to find: It's often that you see an off-duty celebrity like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley or Jessica Alba wearing a perfectly fitted, vintage-inspired straw or felt hat, but far less frequently do you come across one that you can imagine incorporating into your day-to-day wardrobe.

That's where Janessa Leone comes in. The Los Angeles-based designer is on a mission to create a collection that will go anywhere and everywhere with you, eventually becoming your signature piece.

The San Diego native has built her eponymous label from scratch since its founding in 2012 -- without the help of investors,  just her own hard-earned savings -- and although she only has four styles of hats to her name at present, she has aspirations of creating a lifestyle brand in the not-so-distant future. She's already carried by Barneys New York, Los Angeles boutique Satine and hip bi-coastal retailer Reformation, so that goal doesn't seem too far fetched. After swooning over her spring lookbook, we chatted with Leone about her unconventional career path, her trial-and-error approach to design and her top tips for finding the right hat.

Tell me a bit about your design philosophy.

I'm not one who really believes in trends or anything that is just outfit-specific. The hat that I always have in my mind is really versatile -- you can dress it up for a night out, or it can be an easy accessory that brings any outfit to the next level if you're running around on errands and don't have a lot of time to get ready. Hats have been my favorite accessory since I was really little. They're easy to throw on and I instantly feel more confident, and that's the idea I try to give people from my line.

Do you have a first "hat memory" from when you were a kid?

There was a hat that my mom put me in all the time in the '80s. It had a huge brim that flipped up and a massive flower pinned on it. I thought I was the coolest little girl and I wore it everywhere. It was not adorable by any means, but I loved it. My grandfather is Italian and he always wore a hat -- it was just something that I grew up with.

Are you trained in millinery? How did you learn how to technically put together a hat?

I kind of fell into it, I have no design background at all. Designing it is a bit tricky -- it's very intricate in order to relay my ideas to my manufacturers. I started off making what I call "Frankenhats," and I would cut different pieces off of different hats and pin or glue them together. I had an idea and I would pretty much design and measure them on my own head -- they looked so makeshift, but I found someone to who kind of "got" it to design the block and work with me on that. So far, I've designed two hat bodies as a starting point, and for fall we're expanding to four bodies. I got lucky to find a really good manufacturer on the East Coast who I can communicate strongly with and I can express my ideas for how I want things to look.

A photo from Leone's spring lookbook.

A photo from Leone's spring lookbook.

Are your hats each made by hand?

Everything is made by hand, it's a really in-depth, intricate process. For one hat, it goes through about 25 different people from start to finish. It's a true skill -- the people who make them have been doing this their whole lives, and there's not necessarily a handbook for it when it comes to the dimensions, the feel, the strength of the wool. Everything is by touch. They know the in and outs of millinery. 

Was there a particular instance or piece that inspired you to start your own line?

I've always had the same aesthetic and I've always wanted to do something in the fashion industry but I didn't know what. I just stumbled into designing hats -- I always loved them, I just saw there was a void in the market for hats that are cool but also very classic. I have this hat I found at a vintage store in Paris that I wore everywhere, and people would stop me and let me know how cool they thought it was. I started thinking, "What's so great about this hat," and it was made in Italy in the '40s. I used that one piece as an inspiration to make hats that are accessible to the masses that were just as well made. That's the framework of everything that I design.

What type of girl would you say you design for?

My muses who are all over my inspiration board are the very free-spirited, Anita Pallenbergs of the world -- from the '60s and '70s -- and Kate Moss a little bit later. They have a very strong identity in their fashion sense and also in who they are. They look so chic and effortless. They're creatives, and that's who I identify with and who inspires me. I try to design for girls who are free-willed and love all of the arts -- things that would draw them to travel all over the world, searching for new cool things and looking for new adventures. 

Do you have words of wisdom for someone who might think that she can't pull off a hat?

It's funny because now that I'm in this world, I realize that hats carry a stigma. They can be intimidating if hats aren't a usual part of your wardrobe, but hats are great because you don't have to have a certain body type -- they fit everyone. People just have to find that initial confidence to wear one. It's something that everyone's going to see, and they're not incredibly common in the United States. You just really have to own it if you're going to wear it -- don't feel insecure or shy about it. I'm hoping that hats eventually become a little more mainstream so everyone will stop separating themselves into "hat people" and "not hat people."

A photo from Leone's spring lookbook.

A photo from Leone's spring lookbook.

Do you think there's one type of hat every girl should own that will never go out of style?

A simple wool fedora -- something that doesn't have an exaggerated brim. Something that's very basic and well made, whether it's tan or black, something that can go with everything.

What's the next big thing in the world of hats?

I think since Saint Laurent did that really wide brimmed fedora a couple of seasons ago I think that's finally starting to trickle down to the point where people are recognizing it. I think we're going to see a lot bigger brimmed wool hats, as well as boleros -- they have a flat top, I think they're making a big comeback. I have one for spring and for fall -- I'd say they're going to be everywhere come September.

What's next for you and your brand?

I definitely have plans to expand. I'm not exactly sure what my next steps are, but ultimately I'd like to have a lifestyle brand with the same focus of quality-made products that are accessible and synonymous with craftsmanship across the board. Whether it's shoes, handbags, clothes... I'm planning to do all of them! I want to use the good fortune that I have and continue to create and design beautiful things that are classic with a little bit of a twist.