Designers creating one-of-a-kind handmade products
by Laura Acosta
The afternoon sun lights up the wood forms and the hanging hats in Jennifer Ouellette’s Broadway studio. As I arrived, three employees gathered around a table sewing faux mink and rabbit felt ribbon-headbands. Once in a while they would stand up to iron and give structure to the felt headpieces they were working on.
Ouellette’s studio is an open space that makes for showroom, production area, PR, and design space at the same time. Different from any fashion designer studio, there is only one mannequin, but countless of wooden hat forms, and the walls are adorned with Jennifer Ouellette’s creations. At the moment, there are mostly straw hats and headbands exposed, as the fall-winter felt and faux fur pieces are currently in production.
With the influence of her grandmother and mother, who owned a vintage shop in Missouri, and having been mentored by iconic hat maker Stephen Jones, for the past 16 years, Jennifer Ouellette has created handmade headpieces that she calls “affordable luxuries.” Ouellette produces, sells, and develops her designs within the same space.
Ouellette went about the different sides of her business, and techniques she feels proud of applying to even the simplest headpiece. There is a constant rebirth and evolution of designs at her studio. Ouellette produces about 200 styles each season, and all of them to be sold on her website and at retailers like Barney’s New York and Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, or else in small boutiques around America, Europe and Asia. She has range and different audiences, yet her style is recognizable – she calls it “feminine with hints of the past.”
I was curious about how Ouellette sustains a business that requires 100% handwork, taking into consideration the economic woes, of the past 10 years. “It definitely is a dying trade,” commented the designer. “And the economy made it all more difficult, because everyone goes for the lowest bidder… so we are challenged to create pieces that are worth buying, for more than the synthetic hats sold down the street.” After leaving Ouellette’s studio I found many of the stores she was referring to – mainly Asian owned, in which hats are displayed on windows in large quantities or exposed on the sidewalk under the 90º summer sun.
Ouellette has taken a different road ever since she created her line. “Quality is my biggest motivation.” She is also big on keeping her studio a sustainable space. No piece of material – from felts, pieces of leather, and ribbon cut outs – could ever be discarded, as there are always ideas that can come from little pieces. Ouellette is not afraid of mixing different colored straws, or patent leathers, and she can also make very charming patchwork hats. “The funny thing is when the scraps are over, and you have to make the ‘recycled’ hats from scratch!”
Ouellette also praises sustainability in the sense that her business is based on fair trades, where production employees are happy and valued for their skills. One woman had been working in Brooklyn at a mass production factory with no windows before starting working for Ouellette. Other came from the Dominican Republic, where she opened a studio three years ago. “I had to think ahead, because the oversees markets have saturated the streets.” The NYC millinery district, which used to be located around 38th Street, is now deserted, and there certainly aren’t many hat designers with productions based in New York. “There is a huge labor pool in countries like the Dominican Republic,” said Ouellette. Opposite to designers that find contractors oversees to manufacture their products, Jennifer Ouellette’s studio is but a medium that allows the designer to have control over products and lowering productions costs, whilst helping crafts women in developing countries. She praises that it is with a lot of corazón (heart) and soul that her pieces are made.
Her New York employees might still be the more skilled out of them all, and are in charge of the most complicated and custom design headpieces. There is almost no gluing involved in the process, with the exception of some tags. (I learnt that it’s the amount of glue in mass-market headbands that gives women headaches).
An embellished elastic band may require many stages of production, and even the bending of a feather on top of a headband arch – in the form of a spine – has its own technique, as do the voluminous bows and ribbons, or the sewing of braided straw hats (straw is made of special papers). Beading headbands, for instance, have exposed stitching, as a sign that, ‘Yes! There were some hands sewing these!’ “The trick is not to make the stitches too long, or else fingers can get caught” when putting on the headbands, explained Ouellette.
Felt hats are actually made from one unique piece of felt that, after being steamed to very high temperatures, is stretched over wooden hat forms and tied with cords to secure the shape until it dries (Wait for the animal print felt hats coming to Barney’s next fall). Other hats have wire and interfacing to create structures. Even so, it is as important that the fabric breathes, as for the headpieces to be light and in the right sizing – some of the perks of buying designer hats!
Photographs by Laura Acosta