After picking up his second Scottish Fashion Award in two years, Glasgow milliner William Chambers passes on tips to Ali Howard about how to make the perfect hat.
It's not easy making a hat.
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Just ask milliner William Chambers. The winner of Accessories Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards can spend as long as two days making one single piece of headwear. Today, with the help of Chambers, I'm going to attempt to make one in one hour.
We're in his second-floor studio just off Glasgow's Blythswood Square, a relatively small room that acts as both a workspace and a showcase for his fabulous headgear. The furniture is second-hand vintage. A glass cabinet houses his divine bridal collection and, on one wall, rows of shelves feature hat after hat – a millinery multitude of colour, fabrics and styles. There are feathers, flowers, fancy fabric. They look like works of art.
It's been a big year for Chambers. Aside from the aforementioned award – his second to date (he also won in 2010) – the 33-year-old has been in New York as part of Scotland Re:Designed, a collective aimed at promoting the country's fashion and textile industries. He also, more importantly, took part in Headonism, a British Fashion Council initiative curated by the famed milliner Stephen Jones to celebrate the new wave of emerging milliners.
Their work was showcased during London Fashion Week in February and, next week, Chambers is off with Jones and the rest of the Headonism collective to Royal Ascot. Hats are back and Headonism intends to prove it.
He's made hats for pop singers including Róisín Murphy, Ana Matronic, Joan Jett and Kelis but, for now, Chambers is helping me make my own headpiece, using only material, a headband and some netting. We find the centre point on the felt and mark it with a pin. "From here on in, we fold it and we want to stitch each point so it's held," explains Chambers. "The good thing about this is, because it's just a little headpiece, we don't have to worry about it being perfect."
Thank goodness for that. He hands me a needle and thread and points to where I need to put stitches. This sounds simple – and it is – but my fingers lack the dexterity of Chambers.
Every piece Chambers makes is handmade – nothing is bought in. He tries to sketch ideas first, usually making a doodle and noting a possible colour and material.
I'm working with turquoise felt. "Jump to the middle, just to secure it," instructs Chambers, as we fold it in half and put a crease in it to get the illusion of a bow and add more stitches underneath.
As we work, Chambers tells me about the moment he got the call for Headonism from the Fashion Council.
"I thought they were taking the p***," he laughs. "I couldn't understand why they were calling me. But I checked my emails and it was all there in black and white. Then Stephen Jones called himself to say I was definitely doing it."
Jones curated the exhibition because he sees strength in numbers. Having been at the forefront of the millinery industry since the late 1970s, Jones is keen to support young up-and-coming milliners he believes in. "It's not about competition," says Chambers. "He's seeing the future and supporting it – so it's quite flattering."
Was he nervous when he called? "Oh, yes," he smiles. "Because I think he's amazing. I've spoken to him before and met him once, but I was like, 'I know this voice...' It was quite nerve-wracking."
Chambers had two weeks to make a full collection before Fashion Week, working all hours. Standout pieces include the Crystal Cocktail Cascade, a hat made of wonderfully geometric flowers; and the Bloomer Pill hat, which features an oversized pink flower shape atop a small base. There's everything from the subtle to the sublime.
The experience was a learning curve. "But it makes me realise I can do it up here," he adds, meaning in Scotland. He's keen to look into funding and possibly start an apprenticeship scheme.
More stitching continues, with Chambers patiently guiding me. He tells me about his days at Fashion Week which seemed like a whirlwind of networking.
'It was exciting and great to be a part of," he recalls. His work caught the eye of celebrities, including Colin Firth's fashion-conscious wife Olivia. It's all a bit of a blur now, says Chambers, but good preparation for the trip to Ascot, which will see his work, along with the five others from the Headonism collective, displayed to 80,000 people, including – hopefully – the royal family. "It's a different world," says Chambers. There's also been talk of taking the exhibition to France.
One look at the beauties in his studio and it's easy to see why hats deserve to be back in vogue. These are not your run of the mill efforts found on the high street, but rather carefully-crafted works of art which move between the supremely elegant to the fabulously funky. Yet many women remain reluctant wear hats. Why?
"It's not an accessory everyone's comfortable with," Chambers replies, while cutting fabric. "A hat is actually on you. They draw attention, people look at you. But it's a good thing; if you can get over that and be brave, they are very empowering."
With the finishing touches put on my bow, I check myself in the mirror and agree. I feel elevated.
Curiously, Chambers isn't a hat wearer himself. Instead, it's all about his stylish signature specs, though he will wear a hat in winter for the purely functional reason of keeping his head warm. "Or maybe if I lose my hair," he jokes. "I get more enjoyment from seeing my hats on someone else."
He tells me about the women who reluctantly visit his studio because they believe they have to wear a hat to a particular event. "Then they try something on and their face says everything – they light up."
And that's the difference between hats by designers such as Chambers and those found on the high street: individuality, something to suit a particular personality. "It doesn't have to be a big straw thing," he smiles. He tweaks my effort. "See, it's so simple?"
It was while working in the former ribbon emporium that was VV Rouleaux in Glasgow's Miller Street, making little "bits and pieces", that Chambers felt spurred on to take up a 10-week part-time evening class in millinery at the now-renamed City of Glasgow College in 2007.
He'd completed a degree in textiles, with a focus on knitwear, in 2001, but didn't want to go into that market.
"I came home from work one day and told my partner, 'I think I'm going to be a hat maker." He laughs at the memory. "Doing textiles was great fun but I liked making something that wasn't 'fashion'. Fashion is full of people who either like something or they don't. With a hat, it doesn't really follow fashion or trends. It's more sculpture. It's an inanimate object, but it comes alive. It just works better for me."
It wasn't long before Chambers was receiving attention for his work. At the end of 2008, he won a car through a design and talent competition held by Vice Magazine.
"If it wasn't for that win, I don't think I'd be doing this now," he says. Having sold the car immediately, the win gave Chambers enough money to leave VV Rouleaux and focus on millinery full time.
As we sew a centrepiece for my bow, Chambers makes it look so easy, but he didn't learn it all at the evening class. He had to work on his own, learning by trial and error.
He's not the only milliner working in Scotland, but the good thing about him, he says, is that he tries to stand out. "I try to make my hats look as if they could be sold internationally – and it's paid off. I look at what's going on in the world of hats and try and stay on a par with them."
Following the New York visit Chambers has several stockists in America, a country not known for hat-wearing. He puts the recent surge in popularity there down to the "Kate Middleton effect". Meanwhile, 30% of his business is done online – with purchasers coming from France, China and the Middle East.
"I want to stay in Glasgow but I want to be doing well. It's a hard business to make money in – but we're getting there."
Materials are expensive; the work time-consuming. "But I enjoy it. When you find something you love, then why not do it?"
Chambers spends an average of six to eight hours a day in the studio, taking appointments, making three collections a year and doing every piece made to order, in a semi-bespoke manner. Pieces need sculpted, glue has to dry and intricate faux flowers and other details are hand cut. I can appreciate how intricate the work is and it takes me several minutes to make some final stitches and weave through the intricate veil on my piece but, with that, it's finished.
Creativity didn't come easy to me but for Chambers it started in childhood. "I had a hard time at school. I didn't enjoy academic subjects so if it wasn't for my art school teacher, I don't think I'd be doing this."
As for the immediate future, Chambers is focused on Royal Ascot. His work, along with that of the other milliners, will be featured as part of the BBC's coverage of the event, which starts on Tuesday. And the exposure for Chambers, to such a wealthy hat-wearing audience, will be invaluable.
"It's funny how things turn out," he smiles. "I've been very lucky to be able to do this up here. I feel fortunate. Without Stephen [Jones] and his support, I don't think I'd be where I am this year."
Headonism at Royal Ascot is on from June 19-23