words Marcus Fairs
“When people come in here they ask to see the machinery. That’s the machinery,” says Philip Treacy, spreading his long, thin, pale fingers out in front of him. As he gives us a tour of his attic studio, he picks up objects and rubs them slowly as if he’s smelling them with his fingertips.
“I make hats because I like to work with my hands,” he says simply. “There’s just a great satisfaction for having made something. It’s fulfilling and it’s exciting.” Treacy, 37, is the most famous hat designer in the world but really he’s more like a hat charmer: he teases hats out of the air with his bare hands. “It starts off as a flat material,” he says, taking a sheet of Sparterie – a stiff fabric mesh used by milliners – and softly rubbing it between his forefingers and thumbs.
“I manipulate it into a form, I press it and shape it,” he says, his Galway accent as soft as his touch. “And all of the hats come from that.” He holds up the Sparterie, which has now been coaxed into the beginnings of a lithe three-dimensional form. “It’s an orchid,” he explains.
The studio, on a grey industrial estate near railway tracks in Battersea, south London, resembles a scentless florist, stuffed with a kaleidoscope of hats, feathers and boas instead of flowers. There are display stands loaded with wide-brimmed hats with big floppy blooms on them; piles of sinuous hats like snakes poised to strike; hats for the new Harry Potter film like jellies in a tornado. If you didn’t know they were hats, you might guess they were sculptures.
In the long, narrow, brightly lit workshop, Treacy’s girls are snipping and twirling dyed plumage into spirals while eating pastries and listening to Magic FM. His office next door has lots of plants but no hats, although shelves of carved wooden hatblocks cover an entire wall. These are the moulds over which Treacy’s extraordinary headgear is formed. They look like a collection of giant sea creatures. Each block, an exact copy of one of Treacy’s Sparterie models, is hand-carved by craftsmen in Paris.
For the first time in his 15-year career, Treacy is now exploring areas of design beyond hats. Recently he was invited by Tom Dixon, then design director at Habitat, to design a piece of furniture as part of a project to celebrate the company’s 40th birthday. Treacy produced a chair that, he concedes, looks a bit like a hat.
“Hats are about a shape – and everything has a shape, be it a chair, a glass or a table. So I’ve developed a style of … shape.” He has a habit of pausing for a long time before the last word in a sentence and, when it is finally uttered,, the word “shape” is spoken very slowly and exactly. “It was exciting to turn a hat into a chair.”
The Habitat project kindled an interest in furniture and interiors, and last year he was appointed design director for a new hotel on the west coast of Ireland, close to where he grew up. The 96-room hotel, called The G, overlooks Lough Atalia in Galway and will be Treacy’s first interiors project; he is working alongside local architect Douglas Wallace.
“I’m working with a team of people and I’m inspiring them in a different way maybe from how they always think,” he says. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s another form of shape.”
The hotel is due to open in June. Frustratingly, however, Treacy is being extremely coy about the designs, which are being kept secret until the opening. Even getting a description of the hotel proves extremely tiresome.
“It’s kind of an opportunity for me to take everything I’ve learned and put it into this hotel,” he says nebulously. “It may be an image, it may be a photograph, it may be a colour scheme; it may be my sensitivity for different materials. I want to work with other designers, and use designers’ products that I like in the hotel. It’s [about] my favourite things. So I developed a concept of what the hotel looks like. Not the actual building because the building was already there. It’s a shell. So it’s a total … visual.”
What kind of products has he chosen? “I’m choosing things that aren’t specifically a look or a period, although sometimes maybe I’m just mixing up that period. It’s exciting to mix reproduction antiques with pink camouflage Warhol prints. So that mixture itself makes it look quite new.”
Has he visited other hotels as part of his research? “I travel a lot so I see beautiful hotels but I don’t really see the point in interpreting somebody else’s vision. I started with a … very … basic perception of … you know, Galway is by the sea. And to say I’m using the sea as an influence makes it sound very seashells and things like that but it’s a more interesting approach than that.”
So what is it then? “I’m in the middle of it so it’s all developing. We’ve done mock-ups of bedrooms and things like that and now we’re working on the downstairs area. We’ve started to do some fabrications, furniture, various things that will make it more interesting. I’ve designed some of the lights and the prototypes are coming out at the moment as well.”
What does it look like? “It will be … me. People will expect feathers and jush and decoration, but I don’t really like that kind of thing in design. I like very simple, fluid, organic lines. Hotels are about entertaining the customer and I entertain in a visual way when I design hats because I’m appealing to people’s sense of … enjoyment at seeing something that’s beautiful.”
I really want to see it, I say. “I know you do but I don’t want you to!” he says softly, as if gently rebuffing a demanding child.
Okay. Will the hotel feature hats? “No. It would be NAFF to have a hat on a light, looking like a hat. You can see where it’s come from but it’s not that pedestrian.”
Treacy isn’t designing everything himself but he is insisting on approving everything personally. “You know it’s quite trendy to have fashion designers work on those sorts of projects but sometimes maybe the designer doesn’t really work on it at all. I’m a perfectionist and I see everything. If something is out a millimetre I can see it a
It’s perhaps a leap of faith on the part of Monogram Hotels, Treacy’s client at The G, to put their project in the hands of a designer who is brilliant at creating shapes but whose ability to manipulate light and space is completely untested. From Treacy’s descriptions, it sounds very much as if his role is closer to that of a set-dresser than an interior designer and the absence of sketches of room layouts or plans at his studio suggests that this work is being done elsewhere.
Given his expertise is in crafting small-scale objects, how did he set about designing a hotel? “I started by designing the door handles,” he replies. “It was exciting to start with a door handle because hotels are full of door handles. I went to the Milan furniture fair to look at door handles but I didn’t find one I thought was really … the one. Instead I met a company that could make whatever I wanted. And I approached it exactly the same way I approach making a shape for hats. The shape arrived by hand; I mocked it up in Sparterie.”
What does his door handle look like? “It’s a fluid, elegant door handle. And it’s … very me.” He dashes off in search of a photograph but returns empty-handed. “I haven’t got it,” he says. “I haven’t got anything here.”
Treacy’s hollow Sparterie models for the handles and lights were sent to a rapid prototyping company in Belgium. Treacy describes the technique as “sort of like a Star Trek process of the shape coming out, being burnt by a laser from a liquid.” The handles will be manufactured in “some sort of metal”, he says vaguely.
Treacy is sceptical about the ability of digital technology to faithfully reproduce hand-crafted objects. “Handwork is the luxury of the future,” he says. “We’re led to believe it’s the computer age and everything can be translated by computer, or scanned into computers. Initially I was fascinated and intrigued by that because I thought it completely negates everything I’m doing by hand so that’s great, let’s embrace it and have a go. But it’s not so simple. I’ve been working with this process for a couple of years and it doesn’t work.”
He believes that the artisanal hatblock-makers in Paris are still better at capturing the spirit of a hand-crafted shape than a scanner. “There is an element to what one makes with one’s hands that is impossible to translate by computer,” he says. “They don’t pick up nuances that the eye does.”
Treacy’s sensitive eye and dextrous hands were apparent from an early age. As a young boy growing up in rural west Ireland, he secretly made dresses and hats for his sister’s dolls, accessorising them with feathers collected from the family’s chickens, geese and ducks. After studying fashion in Dublin he won a place at London’s Royal College of Art in 1988, where he settled on designing hats.
“I started designing hats because I didn’t really agree with the public perception that hats were an old-fashioned … accessory. I didn’t agree with the perception that hats were something funny to wear on your head. The whole point of a hat is to make you look better. It can enhance your soul, and it can enhance the … shape of your face. And now hats have gone from being a conformist accessory to being a rebellious accessory. They’ve become exactly the opposite of what they represented before.”
Treacy himself is largely responsible for the rehabilitation of the hat. The most successful and influential milliner of recent times, he has won the British Accessory Designer of the Year award five times and staged solo exhibitions at London’s Design Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum and Paris’ Musée des Arts Decorative, amongst others.
He shot to fame while still at the Royal College, when he was discovered by Isabella Blow, then style editor at Tatler magazine. Blow became his leading client, muse and champion. He designed many of his most memorable pieces for her, including the famous “ship” hat, topped with a fully-rigged model of a galleon. Treacy says this is still his favourite of all his designs.
Since graduating in 1990, Treacy has built up his own couture and ready-to-wear labels while also working for fashion houses including Chanel and Givenchy. And he’s clearly not tired of hats: “The limitations of hats are that they revolve around a head, but really they have no limitations. I have an opportunity to influence how people see hats in the 21st century. That is a very exciting position.”
But he’s also confident about his abilities to design just about anything he chooses. “Designers are no longer designing just specifically in their boxes,” he says. “That’s what’s exciting about being a designer today, because you can design … whatever you like. I’m open to everything. It would be fantastic to do a car, because cars are beautiful shapes. I just see that the possibilities are endless.”
As we prepare to leave, Treacy finally locates a Polaroid photo of his door handle. It looks like a seashell, consisting of a spiral with an extended lip. If you didn’t know it was a door handle, you might guess it was a hat.