In my time paying attention to fashion shows, I can recall many collections (like, recently, both Marc Jacobs's and Dior's for Fall 2017) in which hats and headpieces took center stage. I can also recall others in which such accessories were more subdued, but nonetheless had a sweeping impact on the range's aesthetic as a whole. Hats are, of course, a crucial component of the fashion ecosystem, and so is millinery, the centuries-old craft, trade and business of hat-making. And the more that fashion (ready-to-wear, specifically) evolves with the changing times, there's something so wonderful about the ways in which traditional millinery — its design, sourcing, production, manufacturing and sale — stays the same, catering to the needs of the broader industry at large while also standing strong as its own category, with its own customs.
When I speak to Gigi Burris, a New York-based milliner, Parsons graduate and CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, ahead of New York Fashion Week, she's quick to remind me that the millinery business is quite niche, allowing for her own eponymous made-to-order and wholesale operation to stand out to consumers. But on the industry-facing side, Burris has also found that the smaller pool has made it so that designers can find her fairly easily when they need to — meaning that she'll often get requests, sometimes very last-minute ones, to create hats or hair accessories for other brands' runway shows. This, however, is something Burris and her team take on willingly, especially because she produces everything locally and is able to move product much faster than she would otherwise.
"Every fashion week is such a learning experience," she tells me over the phone. "We're challenged to do things that we never thought that we could do, especially when it comes to these runway partnerships, and then once all of anxiety and adrenaline is over, you're just like, 'I gotta do this again in six months?'" She laughs, and I do, too, because if there's a better way to describe the dual exuberance and exhaustion of fashion month, I haven't heard it yet.
I spoke with Burris about all that goes into her fashion week process (including pulling all-nighters to make barrettes and combs), why she takes issue with the word "sustainable" and why she's so honored to pass along the craft to a younger generation. Read on for the details.
Were you always interested in millinery?
I always loved headbands and headpieces, and I think what I've always loved most about hats is that they're so emotional. They're a unique way to transform the way you look and the way you feel. When I sketched my ready-to-wear during school, [my sketches] always had a hat on them. I studied abroad at Parsons Paris and just fell in love with this idea of craft and the romance of what craft was about, so it was something I knew I was drawn to.
When did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
When [you graduate] from Parsons, you kind of think at that stage that you're going to walk right in and be an assistant designer at Balenciaga. [Laughs] And when that didn't happen because it was 2009 and there were very limited opportunities, I continued to make hats. I learned how to make hats in school and I continued to make them. Friends who were stylists' assistants were pulling them for editorials and friends started wearing them, and it eventually led to me starting the brand.
I think there was a very organic start to the brand because at the time, there weren't a lot of young people pursuing this. There wasn't a younger voice in the market. And now, there are a few young people who are doing it, which I think is amazing. It speaks to this movement towards handmade objects. It still brings me a lot of joy, and I take a lot of pride in preserving [millinery]. It's a centuries-old, really special [craft], and the fact that I can preserve it and teach more people about it is awesome.
How do you go about building out your seasonal collections?
We work to develop a large main collection twice a year that shows with the fashion week calendar. I think we're a little bit different than some of the other millinery offerings because I studied ready-to-wear at Parsons, so I'm coming from a ready-to-wear background. When it comes to fashion week, we want to offer a really well-merchandised collection. We have a super-tight color palette. We choose a theme that has a very extensive, researched moodboard, and we collect tons of inspiration images. We present a pretty clear message every fashion week which, I think, is different than some of the other milliners that might show a lot of different hats, but maybe not so much of a collection.
How and when do you start preparing for fashion week?
I would say we try to have our collection completed about two weeks before. And that never happens. [Laughs] We're always working up until the night before because that's just how fashion week is. We hold market appointments for our buyers, and we have an amazing group; we work with Lane Crawford and The Webster and Neiman Marcus.
We show in New York and we show in Paris, so we participate in both fashion weeks. With about a week before fashion week, we shoot our lookbook; it's an on-model photo shoot that we shoot the whole collection on, and that speaks to the theme of the season.
The reason we try to have everything finished two weeks in advance is because we always, always, always have a designer call us two weeks before to make their hats for their show. It could very well still happen for this fashion week! We've worked with a lot of great people I know from the Fashion Fund: Baja East and Adam Selman; we've worked with Brother Vellies; we've worked with Tanya Taylor. We've even done some collaborations during Bridal Fashion Week. We worked with the Oscar de la Renta team to do some really cute hats for the flower girls [last season].
We've done private label work for a lot of major runway shows — not to name names, but definitely ones you would recognize. When they need a millinery expert, they can call us and we can produce something under their own name. [We've gotten calls] a week before and we've had to stay up all night making like, little barrettes and combs for runway shows. And when that happens, I'm pretty honest with the designers and tell them what's realistic given the timeline, and if people are organized enough to come to us well in advance, we can make amazing things. But there are limitations when people come to us a week out.
Do you have any favorite pieces you designed for another designer's ready-to-wear collections?
I think one of my recent favorites were the pieces that we did for Adam Selman. They were these beautiful veils that had handmade silk roses on the top. Adam was really inspired by roses, and he had a pretty clear direction for what he wanted for the headpieces. His shows are always fun and funky, but there was still an element of drama that was brought by the hats. It's really special that we get to partner with people to do that.
How does your millinery work compare to other accessories that might come down the runway during fashion week, like footwear or handbags?
I think there's something very unique about being a milliner because designers that design and show ready-to-wear really have such a unique vision for that season. And oftentimes, they're producing their own handbags; they're producing their own shoes; they're producing their own jewelry. But hats are a very unique category. It's a super-specialized niche, so you'll find very few houses that are producing their own hats. One of the things I love most about what I do is that I can work with some of these amazing ready-to-wear designers to make these theatrical moments happen on the runway.
How did you go about building relationships with the designers you work with in that capacity?
One of the blessings and curses of being so niche is that it can be challenging to grow the business. But one of the benefits of being so niche is that there's very few of us, and not everyone's willing to drop everything and make it happen. We're willing to work all night, or willing to do things last-minute. And because we're so niche, it's pretty easy to find us. It's almost immediately after fashion week that people want samples — so immediately after fashion week, and often during fashion week, we rush to duplicate the whole collection.
What does that turnaround look like?
Well, because we make everything locally — and that's something that's extremely important to us — I think that also adds benefit to the last-minute nature of some of these runway requests. We make everything here — our factory is in Brooklyn — and then we have a few sewing subcontractors in Midtown, so it's all done locally. We can turn things around pretty fast — if we really pushed our factory, in about a week.
Do you typically receive a lot of custom orders in advance of fashion week, as well?
We're at such a stage in the industry that it's all about peacocking and selfies and, you know, street style — not meant in a condescending way, just a commentary of where we are right now. We have so many requests for hats ... you know, crazy pieces and beanies and felt hats because people know that at fashion week in February, they're going to be photographed walking in and out of shows and they're going to want a hat. That's a big part of [the business], too: working with stylists and editors to offer them product and make sure they know that it's available to them because that's really valuable to us.
Where do you go about sourcing your materials?
We show straw in September and we show felt in February. I'm very sustainable, but there's something buzzy about the word "sustainable." But millinery is a centuries-old craft, and it's always been about handwork, and it's always been about local [production], and it's always been about this beauty of working with your hands, so we were sustainable well before that was a "thing." We source materials from all around the globe. The best producers of felt come from the Czech Republic. The best straw comes from Ecuador and Madagascar, so we work with a program in Ecuador that works directly with artisans there to import really unique braids. And then we also get beautiful straw from Switzerland; there's one manufacturer out of Switzerland that makes specialty braids.
With millinery being a centuries-old craft, as you described, are there more young people taking interest?
Definitely. When I was at Parsons, there were only four people that signed up for the millinery class. I had to beg my friend, like, "Please take this class, or otherwise they're going to cancel it." And now I heard there are three or four classes that are all full!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.