Philip Treacy talks hats and Hollywood

Philip Treacy talks hats and Hollywood
Hats that inspired the Philip Treacy MAC collection. (Philip Treacy)

Americans may never be as interested in hats as they are during the season of horse races that starts with the Kentucky Derby and moves on through the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes — the races that make up the Triple Crown. (American Pharoah won the Derby on Saturday; now we have to anticipate the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico race course on May 16 and the Belmont in Elmont, N.Y. on June 6.)

Hats were out in force at the Derby. So it seemed like a good time to highlight couture hat designer Philip Treacy, best known for his creations for British royals including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Beatrice.


Treacy, famous for his sculptural and sometimes spectacular creations, has also worked with clients including music stars Lady Gaga, Grace Jones and Madonna, actress Sarah Jessica Parker (who wore a Treacy creation to the Met Gala on Monday) and fashion labels, Victoria Beckham, Alexander McQueen and Chanel, and he also launched a collaboration this year with MAC Cosmetics incolving makeup ($16-$35) to enhance eyes, lips or cheekbones inspired by three of his hats. We talked to him about his influences and how to “’decorate your head.”

In addition to British aristocrats your designs have also been seen on American celebrities including actors.

I am really inspired by early Hollywood.... Hollywood invented our perception of glamour. They knew all the tricks to make people look glamorous and beautiful. So the beauty industry has early Hollywood to be grateful to.

What specific ways did early Hollywood inform your hat making? For instance, from my understanding, celebrities would use hats even as anti-agers to veil wrinkles.

Sure, you know, lighting designers in early Hollywood who worked on the movies, they knew how to light hats. All that kind of mystery, and drama, and beauty they portrayed onscreen was exceptional. [Early Hollywood] wasn't afraid of shadows and darkness. It was much more interesting and much more cinematic, don't you think? …Marlene Dietrich did so much for the beauty industry. She taught people how to look good and how to sort of wear clothes, and hats, and makeup. Makeup was crucial to early Hollywood because it helped in the illusion business, and that's what Hollywood was about — creating beautiful images and beauty. All those kind of Clarence Sinclair Bull images, was he MGM's photographer?


He and the other Hollywood photographers at the time, they changed makeup and gave the world their perception of beauty, and, boy, did it work. It made these people legends and icons. I mean there are contemporary icons who use that in the same way, like maybe Madonna, how she has herself photographed, and other entertainers, but early Hollywood really was the birth of all that… I was very influenced by all those major Hollywood stars from that era because they knew how to wear hats. They themselves were masters of illusion. So they used hats to make themselves look incredible, which is the point of a hat or the point of makeup, really.… I believe in beauty and elegance, and that's why I make hats, and that's why I like makeup, because it's transformative.

These hats in the MAC collaboration, what came first, the makeup or the hats?

The hats came first, and the silver hat  is my version of a very famous Garbo image from when she was making "Mata Hari." It's one of my favorite hats in the world ever. I made my version of that hat using rapid prototyping, like 3D printing. So basically, I made the shape and then I scanned the shape into the computer, and then refined it on the computer. It's an amazing technique. It's like "Star Trek".… The hats brought about the beautiful makeup colors.

Were the hats made specifically for the MAC collaboration?

Some were [from the archives], but the black piece I made especially for the shoot. I wanted something to highlight the eye. You look at the piece, but all you really look at is the eye and how beautiful Val Garland's makeup is, who did the makeup on that day. Each [hat] was chosen to accentuate the cheekbones or the lips or the eyes.

How is it many Brits are so comfortable wearing hats like yours?

Oh, because it's part of the psyche here [in England]. It's part of the culture. The kind of hats I make can be considered unusual, but I make hats for very conservative English women who think my hats look normal. But glamour doesn't really have any territory. Women all over the world are interested in glamour, and we have an international clientele who come from every culture and from every nationality. Asians, Africans, all women like to look good and hats accentuate that. When people wear makeup or hats they do so because it makes them look better and, importantly, makes them feel better. It's a kind of contemporary idea of fashion. Designers no longer dictate what is fashion anymore. They think they do, but they don't really. Today the power is with the consumer. They choose what they like. In the '70s everybody wore miniskirts, whether they looked good in them or not. Today it's a more democratic approach. People are sharper and smarter about fashion and they decide what fashion is — what they like.

What hats look best on different face shapes? For example, if you have a round face, what shape of hat looks best on you?


I don't know the answer to that because a big part of the success of a hat on somebody is its sympathy to the personality of the person. So it's very difficult to generalize. Every hat has its own personality, and it's the combination of the hat and the personality of the person that makes the hat great…. A hat is a kind of prop to accentuate your best features. When people try hats on at my studio it's important we try lots and lots of different hats on. I can tell immediately what is the best one.

You see a lot of Millennials wearing hats, at least in the States, particularly casual-style hats. Certain regions and groups in the U.S. have a hat-wearing tradition. Where do you think hats in America are headed?

People do really wear hats, even in America. I have a fantastic audience in America for my hats. So when I travel in America working with the stores I work with, like Neiman Marcus or Saks, the women love the hats but keep saying, “I wish we had somewhere to go in them.” That’s the problem. I went to the famous classic car show in Pebble Beach [Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance] and people were wearing the most amazing hats.

People since the beginning of time, they've always decorated their heads in some way and always will. One of my favorite hats is the baseball cap. I love that hat. People in America also wear beanie hats... You look on MTV, lots of people have hats on ... or things in their hair. What is fascinating about working in fashion is that fashion is about change, it's not really just about clothes. The hat is the ultimate glamour accessory.… I'm just trying to preach it to people of the world.