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A British friend recently offered me a prized contact from her Manhattan address book – no, not her heavily-in-demand colourist but, instead, her milliner. Trust a Brit to brandish that kind of number, I thought. Hat-wearing is a quintessentially British affair, hence the creations of master British milliners such as Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones.

As the sporting summer gets under way – from England’s Royal Ascot to polo in the Hamptons – a growing number of international customers, particularly from the US, are approaching British hatters.

“Americans are especially interested in hats since the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011, and since seeing the younger royals wear hats so frequently,” says Gina Foster, a London-based milliner who designed the red pillbox hat worn by the duchess during their recent state visit to New Zealand. “I don’t think hats ever went out of fashion, but the audience is much broader now.”

Foster, 38, who studied under Philip Treacy, has been making hats for 12 years. Her international clients come from the US, Mexico, Brazil and Australia. She has also designed a collection of five hats for the 2014 racing season that were inspired by the interior of London’s Goring Hotel.

The Duchess of Cambridge in a Gina Foster pillbox hat (Wireimage)

“Hats are part of English dress and culture, but we have an international audience that is seduced by glamour – and there is nothing more glamorous than a hat,” says Foster’s mentor Philip Treacy, whose numerous customers have included the late style-setter Isabella Blow, Lady Gaga and Madonna. (He also designed the much mocked hat worn by Princess Beatrice at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding; her sister Eugenie sported a less controversial Treacy design.)

“When I started at the Royal College of Art, they thought hats were for old ladies, but I thought that was completely insane,” says Treacy. Now he points to a worldwide audience that is “open to seeing hats in a new way”.

Kelly Christy is an American milliner whose work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and has designed for Diane von Furstenberg and Cynthia Rowley. Christy says hats – both classic, such as the fedora, as well as more whimsical headpieces – are back as a chic and affordable accessory after the recent downturn. “Now everyone wears them – actors, musicians, models; they complete a fashion look and are more mainstream than ever.”

Ice-cream pompom hat by Awon Golding

Ellen Goldstein, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, would agree: “Hats are a way of easing into a fashion statement.” She notes that more Americans are wearing hats to the races and to weddings, as well as in everyday wear, with men in particular routinely wearing baseball caps and short-brimmed fedoras.

Gabriela Ligenza, another London-based hat designer (see “Boffin tops” below), says Britain’s image as a hat-wearing nation had remained strong, thanks to the influence of figures such as Isabella Blow. “British milliners are slightly quirkier and more daring, but without becoming ridiculous,” she notes.

The message, reinforced by such style icons and prolific hat-wearers as Daphne Guinness, Anna Dello Russo and Paloma Faith, who has worn Ligenza’s hats, is that “your outfit really isn’t quite finished without a hat”.

A hat by Gina Foster

What’s more, as Ligenza points out, fascinators are no longer allowed in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, which has stimulated demand for contemporary designs.

Piers Atkinson, also based in London designs fun, arty hats in the shape of cream slices and cherries for customers in Melbourne, Dubai and Britain. He believes there has never been a better time for talented young designers, and points to the British Fashion Council’s “Headonism” showcase, an initiative to promote young milliners that runs during London Fashion Week in September.

Also showing at Headonism will be Awon Golding, who grew up in England, Hong Kong and India. This year her designs include eye-catching pieces for Ascot such as one in the shape of an ice-cream cone, complete with scoops of soft ostrich feather pom-poms.

Stockists in this article and this week’s other Style articles

Boffin tops

London-based hat designer Gabriela Ligenza has launched a pioneering collection of 3D-printed hats, writes Emma Firth. Her range of five sculptural and surreal designs – which wouldn’t look out of place at this month’s Venice Biennale of Architecture – arose from her desire to “create contemporary pieces that can be architectural but don’t dwarf the wearer”.

Ligenza, a trained architect, says her hats “stretch the boundaries of art”. 3D printing, she argues, is not in competition with hand-crafting: “It just allows us to create something that we otherwise couldn’t manually.”

Gabriela Ligenza’s 3D ‘Poem’ hat

The finished form is the result of a collaboration between Ligenza, a scholar in mathematical art and a 3D modeller for the fashion industry. First, Ligenza sketches a design, which is digitally turned into three dimensions by a modeller before it is sent to print. With the chosen material in a tray, a laser fuses the contours of the object. Once cooled, the loose material is removed and the solid structure is revealed underneath. This can then be painted, dyed and finished.

Each piece is intended to attract attention, from an innovative bowl-shaped hat formed by the words from ASJ Tessimond’s poem “Day Dream”, to representations of forms found in nature. Ligenza says big events like Ascot would be perfect – “unlike a wedding, where you don’t want to outshine the protagonist”.

3D printing offers milliners the potential to create hats or other fashion accessories that have “the same core designs, but which are individualised for each particular customer”, says Professor Stephen Hoskins, an expert in 3D printing.

Great British Racing, the marketing arm of British horseracing, has just commissioned Ligenza’s poem hat, swapping the original words for those of the 2014 Royal Ascot poem.

So have the seeds been planted for more 3D-printed headgear? Leading British milliner Stephen Jones says he’s keen to “explore the world of tiaras and objects for the head by using 3D printing techniques”. It would enable designers to make mass-customised items that can be tailored to the individual without adding extra cost to the manufacturing process. Printing is eco-friendly too. Instead of shipping her hats around the world, Ligenza says, “if I have a customer in Australia, I can send her a file and she can have it printed in situ”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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