Notable Hands

Designers creating one-of-a-kind handmade products

Swanepoel leads the new age of urban chapeaux!

Agnes & Arrari hats

Agnes & Arrari hats from Albertus Swanepoel

Milliners are creative individuals, just like fashion designers, with the difference that they can collaborate with multiple designers and companies whilst building their own brand. It is the relationships between individuals and hats on a day-to-day basis that is quite interesting. Hats enhance, complete, and help develop one’s aesthetic in the most uncompromised way.

Milliner Albertus Swanepoel

As appreciated as hats can be in royal weddings and major fashion shows, the millinery industry has gotten smaller over the years as suppliers have gotten out of business. South African-born Albertus Swanepoel continues to push his creative vision into making wonderful chapeaux with commercial appeal, by mastering the art of fedoras, wool caps, and all sorts of head accessories for men and women. This season, his hats could be seen at the Tommy Hilfiger fall presentation in New York among others, which as Vogue magazine has commented, “added an extra element of drama” to the shows.

With the continuous sameness of hat-production out there, it is always refreshing to see a designer who is pro in the mastering of this craft. Swanepoel still keeps his business small and real, his designs are modern, wearable, and up to date for modern women and men about town. As a designer, he takes millinery as it should be; a craft (“not crafty”) practice thanks to years of hand and aesthetic training under iconic milliners like Janine Galimard and Lola Elrich, and the continuous exchange of human energy in the process of making very special accessories.

Curious about the ins and outs of his business and design process, I was able to ask Albertus Swanepoel a few questions.

  • Could you tell me a little bit more about your experience of learning the craft of making hats from the iconic milliners Janine Galimard and Lola Ehrlich?

Janine was the real thing. Incredible milliner, nimble hands. For her, it was all about technique, skill, line and proportion. She hated “design.” I respect Lola very much. I worked for her for about six years. She also trained under Janine. Lola is super creative, cool, intelligent and has a very solid technique. I’m a big stickler for technique, and don’t really tolerate people who does not know the basic principles or can’t sew, calling themselves milliners!

  • What are the qualities that you praise the most about your hats and accessories?

It is a continuous quest for me. I’m almost ever really satisfied, and I’m always looking to push myself further. I like to think that my hats are modern and wearable. I don’t like hats to be previous or perceived as ‘art.’ I do like the fact that we make everything by hand in my studio. I have a wonderful assistant, Amber, who has been with me for four years. She really understands my esthetic and emphasis on quality.

for Derek Lam F/W 2010

for Derek Lam F/W 2010

  • What are the processes involved into the millinery work that you do?

This is too long to answer! And pretty technical. The short one will be that I work mostly with felts and faux furs for winter and straws and summer fabrics in summer. All hats are made from a wooden hat block form.  Coming from a fashion design back ground, I like making patterns and draping things, but there is a lot of ok fabric hats coming out of China, so it’s difficult to sell expensive fabric hats, unless you are a very famous brand name.

  • Have you got a favorite material for the construction of hats or it is more of a continuous search for new possibilities? Do you import the felts and materials you use?

The infrastructure of the business in the USA has sort of fallen apart. Many suppliers went out of business or moved out of the city. All American milliners use the same felt importer, so it’s tricky. There are a few other companies in Europe that make felts, but they are very expensive. I do try to use new fabrics every season, especially in cut and sew, to differentiate myself.

  • How many people are involved in the process of producing one of your hats?

I have a small business. I only have one full time assistant. During fashion week, or before, I sometimes get in two or more people in to help for a few weeks, depending on how many shows I do.

I don’t like hats to be previous or perceived as ‘art.’ I do like the fact that we make everything by hand in my studio.

  • Is the whole production of Albertus Swanepoel based in New York City?

Yes, 100% is done in NYC, and I would say about 85% in my studio. There are some things we give out to do, but we hand finish everything in the studio and ship from there as well.

  • How much of the production is custom made?

We produce all orders custom. We never just do production and then hope to sell them. I don’t have a big private customer following, but I have a few good clients- more men than women interestingly enough.

  • How would you define your brand and your stance in the fashion industry?

My hats are modern, wearable, witty, handmade. They are not precious, retro-looking or crafty. I’m on the periphery of the industry. It’s a very niche market, especially in my price bracket. I’m lucky to do hats for runway shows every season, so that gives me added exposure and keeps me connected to bigger brands.


Tommy Hilfiger FW 2013


  • How would you differentiate your work from other milliners, and how do you compete against the fast-paced fashion market?

It’s very important to have a vision, or a signature so that consumers can identify the brand in the long run. I hope to achieve that. It is very difficult to compete against the mass market, as they do ok quality hats, not necessarily great design. The sad thing is that people don’t really care that much about quality. The general consumer does not know the process involved in making a handmade hat, nor do they really care, I think! It is very different with bags and shoes (which are mostly mass produced), but have a much higher status symbol value as a handmade hat.

Luckily, computers can’t make hats!

  • Has your vision as a designer make you want to collaborate with people who praise quality and craftsmanship, over quantity?

As they say- work for the masses and eat with the classes! I have done collaborations with Target, J Crew and the Gap. For a small designer, these mammoth companies have a huge infrastructure, also in promoting a name, so that has helped my business. They also pay well, so for me, it has helped a lot. I really value and love what I do, but you can only survive so long living for the ‘art.’

Ohne Titel FW 2012

Ohne Titel FW 2012

  •  Could you tell me more about your collaborations with fashion houses like Proenza Schouler, Tommy Hilfiger, Narciso Rodriguez, etc? Do the hats on the runway get produced on a large scale, or are they only part of the shows’ styling?

The hats very seldom get produced for wholesale, as it is too expensive. It only happened a few times. One hat I did for Proenza years ago, retailed for $4000, and it actually sold!

It works differently with every designer. Some have very specific guidelines, that I execute for them others give me freedom to design and make what I think is right for the show. In most cases, I don’t even see the clothes. Sometimes I don’t even work with the designer, but with his stylist.

  •   What are the other kinds of accessories that you design?

I’ve started making scarves last fall, and hope to continue doing that. It’s difficult making a living on hats alone.

  • Have you mentored aspiring milliners in your studio?

Yes, several. Sadly, most kids coming out of design school cannot sew very well, and that is my main criteria. In the fashion industry, companies are having a really hard time replacing aging tailors and sewers too, as most kids now work only on computers, or are interested in fast fame.

Luckily, computers can’t make hats!

Araks FW 2012

Araks FW 2012

  • Is the fact that your work involves creating handmade pieces important to you on an personal level?

Absolutely. I can’t do much else, so I’m stuck with it! I’m always sad after I ship an order to a store, as I worked so hard on it for weeks. Every single hat in my studio (we make about 1400 hats per year, excluding shows and press pieces) passes through my hands, so I have a connection to it. There is an energy exchange.

  • Now a day, having a sweater knitted overseas, or a handmade hat from a New York studio, is as much of a luxury as a handbag crafted in Italy. Do you agree? Do you think that artisanal/handcrafted products carry that sense of luxury?

I’m sorry, I don’t really agree. The general consumer doesn’t really value handmade products, unless they buy couture clothes. Also, specifically with hats, it will never reach the status of a designer shoe or handbag. I also think people confuse craft with crafty, which is very different in nature, design and perception. We all hope there is a return to valuing these traits, but the world is moving too fast. We are a consuming nation (at least in America), so it’s all about having something and the next thing the following season. I also think celebrities sticking their names on fashion collections really depreciated the craft/technique of making things. I doubt Jessica Simpson or Kim Kardashian knows the difference between a raglan and a dolman sleeve!

  • What are you working on right now?

I’m doing a small collaboration with Club Monaco for Spring.

Thakoon FW 2012

Thakoon FW 2012

Photos courtesy of Albertus Swanepoel


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Notable Hands by Laura Acosta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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