Hats may once have seemed like a wardrobe staple of the past — an accessory reserved for the ladies of an era when no one left home without a proper head covering.
But modern millinery seems to have a definite place in L.A.'s urban jungle as style-savvy men and women, the royal set from across the pond and celebrities are bringing a variety of headpieces back into pop culture.
Diane Keaton, for instance, is frequently seen in a bowler style, Johnny Depp favors a classic fedora and Rachel Zoe has been known to "die" over many a chapeau.
"Years ago, hats were part of a more formal dress code," said Gregg Andrews, fashion creative director for Nordstrom. "A few years ago, women would admire hats but say they could never wear one."
But that's changed.
"Today, hats are about self-expression and making an accessible fashion statement," he said. "Hats are now a casual accessory that can turn a pair of shorts and a top into an outfit."
Hats still account for only a tiny part — about 1% — of the women's accessories market, which is projected to bring in $30 billion in sales in 2012, according to a report from Accessories magazine and consumer research firm NPD Group Inc. But, in terms of dollars, hat sales increased 4% in 2011 over 2010 and are expected to come in around $326.9 million for 2012, up from $306.7 million in 2010.
The increase can be credited to the influence of celebrities, to growing concerns about sun protection and to a "new generation of consumers" — last year, more than half of hat buyers were women ages 13 to 34, the report said.
That clicks with what Andrews is seeing on the sales floor. "Our customer is very fashion-savvy," Andrews said. "She is always shopping for the newest items that will give her wardrobe an instant update. She sees hats being worn by stylish young celebrities and she wants to emulate their look."
Louise Green, owner of Louise Green Millinery in Los Angeles, has also noted the change over her 25 years in the business. "People are wearing more hats in the streets," she said.
Green, a British transplant, credits last year's wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton for her customers' newfound willingness to try different styles. "Women in the States are now becoming more adventurous with what they will wear."
Green's 9,000-square-foot showroom and factory is a sort of millinery playground, bringing the Mad Hatter's tea party to mind. In the factory behind the showroom, each Green hat is made by hand with old-school finesse. The front showroom houses racks of cloches — Green's most popular style — large floppy hats, toppers and newsboy caps ($225 to $625 depending on the style). The variety provides the perfect cure for fedora fatigue stemming from the recent influx of the style in department stores and shopping mall kiosks.
"Anything that is normal like a regular fedora, people aren't buying from us that much," said Green. "Just really anything that's special and intricate people are buying right now."
Green's fall collection is far from ordinary. The signature cloche makes an appearance, crafted of lush felt in styles such as the Minnie, which comes in deep purple with a lavender velvet trim, crimson feather and sequin floral embellishment. The Ethal cloche in emerald is part of the vintage fall collection and is fastened with romantic fabricated flowers plucked from Green's expansive library. The Kelly soft topper hat is a nod to the 1940s with a bold black satin bow and sparkle pin. Elaborate black feathers give the hat extra height.
"People will still come in and ask for a typical Kentucky Derby hat," Green noted as she picked a large straw hat with plain trim from a display in her showroom. "But now when people come in, they are more likely to ask for one of the special ones with feathers and sparkles and things like that."
These "special ones" are what Green calls "whimsies." Also known as a fascinator, the whimsy is a small headpiece that sits atop the head rather like a headband and frequently features an elaborate design. It has been a popular style for horse race attendees this year, both in the U.K. and the U.S. Green's whimsies are ornately decorated with vintage lace, sequins, feathers and flowers she collects from her trips to vintage stores.
Azita Ariane Azarpira, owner of Ariane Millinery, has also seen a spike in the number of women looking for fascinators since the royal wedding. Like Green, Azarpira, who grew up in Tehran and attended college in London, has a shop full of styles ranging from vintage to modern, and she creates bespoke pieces, as well. In her trendy shop on Melrose she caters to celebrity clients including Beyoncé, Ann-Margret, Ashton Kutcher, Kelly Osbourne and George Lopez with hats ranging from about $80 to $1,200. She also designs for television programs ("Glee," for instance) and film ("The Spirit").
"To me, a modern milliner is not a slave to fashion," she said. "A modern milliner will encourage women to explore their inner beauty and share their individual beauty by wearing a hat that speaks of who they are."
For those not content merely wearing a hat, Azarpira offers workshops on how to make them.
Hat-making may seem like a niche business, but Green and Azarpira's clienteles run the gamut.
Younger people are flocking to her store, Green says, and not just for special occasions. Celebrity stylists frequent the showroom. Green has been supplying the popular CW show"Hart of Dixie" with hats and just finished a long run with"Desperate Housewives."
"We never know who's going to walk in the door," Green said. "There is always something fun happening."
Louise Green Millinery is at 1616 Cotner Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 479-1881; http://www.louisegreen.com; open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Ariane Millinery is at 8121 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 951-9929; http://www.ariane-millinery.com; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Julie Neigher contributed to this report.