The Art and Business of a Manhattan Milliner
Milliner Jennifer Ouellette has managed to stitch together the best of old and new business practices—a challenging pursuit when practicing one of fashion’s oldest art forms. She’s combined a concern for the environment and the livelihood of her staff with painstaking, traditional craftsmanship. The results are hats that seem to transcend time.
The only millinery currently producing in Manhattan’s garment district, Ouellette’s studio takes customers back to an era when society ladies never left home without a hat and a pair of gloves.
The workshop, designed and decorated to resemble a retro boutique, holds surprises in every corner.
A collection of carved wooden hat blocks (molds) is stacked all around, with some lining antique shelves of wrought iron. An enormous wooden sign from the early 1900s, carved with the word “Millinery,” hangs on one of the walls. Spools of ribbon and boxes overflowing with trims and headbands checker the room, and parked on a shelf near the entrance are a dozen vintage German sewing machines used for hat making.
The setting fits perfectly with the work process, as the staff still uses manual couture sewing techniques that have been passed down for generations. Each hat takes two to three hours to construct. Each is steamed by hand, then shaped over one of the myriad carved oak blocks. Folds and creases are made using a strong cord that is tied over the different shapes of each wood block and then removed before the hat is enhanced with trims and decorations. All of the decorative details are created in-house.
In hopes of preserving the traditional, labor-intensive methods, Ouellette is planning to turn her workshop into a living museum for tours and lectures.
Classic Yet Fresh Designs Catch On
Despite the vintage appeal, Ouellette’s designs seem fresh and innovative, hearkening to an era of sophistication rather than following current fads and fashion trends.
“Each of our hats is a timeless design and becomes part of our customer’s style and permanent wardrobe,” she said.
Ouellette started her hat business in 1996 in New York and quickly found a following of hat lovers and hat-loving retailers and boutiques for her millinery sculptures, headbands, and half-hat fascinators. She branched into the bridal market a few years later.
Now she is a steady supplier of hats to Barneys, with the sweet spot for her hats at $300. They can go for as high as $1,000, and have been worn by celebrities including Katie Holmes, Debra Messing, and Reese Witherspoon.
Nature and history inspire her designs. The tilted pagoda-shaped City Scape Headpiece was designed after 9/11 as a “tribute to the resilience of NYC.” Her mentor, British master milliner Stephen Jones, selected the piece to be included in an exhibit he curated, “Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” that showed in 2009 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Comfortable by Design
For 20 years—starting before it was fashionable to do so—Ouellette has been dedicated to creating a fair-trade brand. To accomplish this goal, all of her products had to be created in-house to guarantee the quality of the manufacturing techniques as well as the conditions for her workers.
Ouellette sources the highest quality, sustainable materials, preferring natural fabrics and materials like felt and straw over synthetics. Trims and grosgrain ribbons are sourced from Switzerland. Meltingly soft rabbit hair felt from the Czech Republic is like ultra-thick cashmere.
Whenever possible, the hats are hand- and machine-sewn instead of glued—hence the collection of specialty machines. Ouellette doesn’t use stiffener or chemicals for sizing, a common practice throughout the industry.
“I prefer not to use chemicals on the hats. The result is that my hats are usually softer and feel more natural. They feel better when you put them on,” she said.
Eight hat couturiers work in the Manhattan atelier; another 12 are based in the Dominican Republic.
Years ago, while working with many Dominicans in the hat industry in New York, Ouellette had learned that the Dominican Republic was losing its apparel industry to Haiti and China.
“I discovered this amazing available labor pool,” she said. “I seized the opportunity to create a sustainable business.”
Ouellette believes U.S. businesses have been reluctant to branch out to places where labor laws are strictly enforced. Most fashion manufacturers consider minimum wage and required benefits too expensive.
But Ouellette saw it as an opportunity to build a fair-trade business. Her studio is centrally located in Santiago, “the heart of the country’s commerce, where the people are well-known for their craftsmanship and handiwork,” she said.
Because the millinery business requires specific techniques and skilled handiwork, it requires “a steady and conscientious team.” In addition, her design methods are unique to the industry and “far from fast fashion.” Both are time-consuming to teach and to learn.
It can sometimes take several seasons for new staff members to learn techniques, since the work differs depending on the time of year. “Training new workers is a mutual investment,” she said.
Working so closely with her staff, Ouellette considers her employees to be colleagues and pays them a fair salary. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t,” she said.
“It’s important to me to create positivity within my coworkers and develop a pleasant work environment. The last group of new hires was three years ago, and I still have my first employee working with me after 20 years!” she said.
As her website states, “Our philosophy is to work with a positive mind and spirit so that our work brings a sense of balance and harmony to our customers and staff.”
Isabelle Kellogg is a strategic consultant in communications and editorial content for fine jewelry, lifestyle, and life science clients.
By Isabelle Kellogg, Sharon Kilarski