Alexandra Harper trained in Millinery in Brisbane, Australia and established a clientele base before relocating to New York then settling in London two years ago, establishing her studio with a shop front in Angel in London. She kindly came in with her six week old son to discuss the business of hats. At the top of her hat block collection she has the dome block which she inherited from her grandmother which she first starting making hats on in the evenings while working in law in Brisbane.
L: Where did you train and what was the valuable part of your training?
A: Training at TAFE for several years in Brisbane, the most valuable part I think just learning the basic techniques. TAFE never proclaimed to be turning you into the world’s best designer it was always about you come and you learn to make hats and you learn techniques, mostly the old fashion techniques so without that I don’t think you can go on to become a really good milliner.
L: Did you ever have the opportunity to work for someone else?
A: Brisbane back when I started was not as big as say Melbourne for millinery, it was getting there but not so much. So no, for me it was kicking off and going for it.
L: How do you find a comparison between the customer in Brisbane versus the customer you have here in London?
A: Here there are a lot more of events and functions that women wear hats for, not just horse racing but very popular for weddings for the bride and guests, garden parties, rowing and all sorts of horse races. A lady the other day came in because her husband was being knighted and she needed a hat (laughs). So there are a lot more functions but the client is generally much more conservative, less into colour than the Australian clients and often want more conservative and sedate they don’t want outlandish, they don’t want really wild, generally.
L: On your website you currently have four collections listed, do you set release dates for that, how do you build up to collections?
A: I base the collections around the normal fashion calendar so the next collection will be Autumn-Winter released in March-ish. So usually March and September are my two main points for Autumn-Winter, Spring-Summer. I have had a relationship with Disney for the last two years where I have done four collections over the two years based on one of their characters or films and they have come out roughly twice a year in between the other main collections. But generally Autumn-Winter, Spring-Summer and Bridal released March, April, May.
L:Do you find that people will only order from your current range or will look back retrospectively? Do they order from what they see or do they want something custom made?
A: My pieces are all one offs, so yes, if a customer comes in or on the website they look at all the images and everything I have done, if it is a bespoke piece they will like the flowers for that, the feathers from that, the colour from something else and so on so we put something together. I would say 80% of the time clients want custom even when they can try something on and it looks fabulous and I am making the same thing with a slight difference I would say that is more a British thing they the bespoke, custom made, made just for them even if you do say the piece is a one off you won’t see it again they still like the thought that it is made for them. But maybe 20% of the time ladies are happy to say yes, that is it.
L: Are the customers generally organised enough to allow for this process or are there cases that don’t allow enough time?
A: Sometimes it is expected to happen in a couple of days and sometimes it can but depending on the season, if I get a week I consider myself lucky but a week to two weeks is a good lead time. Generally brides are a lot more organised and know what they want and come in several months in advance and mothers of the bride’s very similar.
L: Do wear hats? Do you attends events that require hat wearing or do you just make?
A: If I go to an event that I can wear a hat then I will wear one because I think you have to promote hat wearing as much as possible. I worry about myself last and generally pick something that is already make in the studio.
L: What do you think your most enjoyable commission has been?
A: I like doing these far out society events, these ladies come in and say my husband is a QC and he is going to be knighted on Tuesday. And the stories, this lady, her husband had just been made a judge and she actually had a lot of personality and she went away with this massive wing thing and said my husband is going to kill me and I said why, she said because it just not the done thing and my response was well all the more reason to buy it. So I like ladies like that and I like brides. I like working with a bride and seeing it through to the last picture. And I have had a couple of guys come in with very specific ideas about with what sorts of hats they want, I don’t usually do men’s stuff but in these cases. The first one was a guy getting married, to his male partner and he wanted a purple sparkly top hat, at first I was like I’m not a costume milliner and I don’t want it to go into the realm of costume and he agreed. And a couple of other guys who don’t want just plain male hats, not just fedora or bowlas but maybe a fedora shape with a bit of embellishment and interest.
L: What materials and techniques do you find that you favour?
A:My pieces are not so much traditional style pull down on you head, they are more pieces, not fascinators they are too small but I like a headpiece usually with a buckram base and then I use alot of fabrics in my pieces, silks mostly, I do a lot of beading, I like the effect beading creates, either a little or on mass. Feathers I love working with always very popular too. I guess I like blocking proper shapes and interesting shapes and using fabric, feathers and handmade flowers.
L: When you form a shape, do you block the shape from current blocks or develop new ones?
A: There are a couple of shapes I always do from collection to collection as they are always popular and very wearable but I don’t have a huge block collection as you can see but maybe once a year I will bring in a new shape and will have it made generally. I have it made by Owen at Guy and Morse blocks, he has got use to me going like this from a flat drawing. I am terrible at sketching but between us we work it out.
L: So when you are creating, in TAFE they teach the model of sit down and sketch, do you sketch, or start with a block or material?
A: If I am just making a piece that is not bespoke I generally start with a material or feather and I want to use that, as the hero and this fits in in relation to the look I am to achieve. If it is bespoke it is often the shape we start with and customer has tried something on and been drawn to the shape and the embellishment comes after that. Sometimes a customer will want a drawing, which I can do but I warn them it might put them off (laughs). Usually just go for it.
L: Is it just you in the studio or do you have a team?
A:It’s me generally in the summer I take on interns who need a bit of work experience to do the grunt work.
L: Are you a quiet worker or usually have music playing?
A: Both, sometimes I want absolute silence and sometimes I will crank it up and annoy the whole street.
L: When you come into the studio what does your day look like?
A: Usually there is like ten things on the go at once. So I open up, I am open to walk ins when I’m here, and they do which surprises me a lot. Quite a few will walk in a take and card then come back and order and there have been some ladies who have come to buy and hat or just walked past. Especially in winter when I have a couple of felty or woolen beanie pieces. Once I am open, I just work, generally under a time restraint working to a deadline. ANd of course a big part of the business aside from the business is social media and marketing and working with my PR company.
L: You outsource your PR?
A: Last year I was with a group called Forward PR and they have been very good and will kick off again with a PR push in about march. Because it such a huge business, PR, there are so many opportunities to think about so many things, it is absolutely worth the investment. I started with them when I first arrived in London, as I had a reputation in Australia but not over here. I had done a few sales to UK based clients but particularly in the start it was very useful to have that PR. I think here because it is year round, in comparison to in Australia it is a very different focus particularly on facing, where here it stretches all year to all types of events. In Australia I would be like Melbourne Cup would finish and that would be it but here I think having the PR pushes you to extend past Royal Ascot and weddings for someone like me I want my hats to be a fashion product, rather than an old fashioned or traditional product.
L: Who would you like to see one of your hats on?
A: (Umms)… I would quite like to see one of Kate Middleton, not because ‘oh my god’ I want to dress Kate Middleton but because I think she needs to crank it up a bit. She is such a conservative, she could really be an interesting personality but I guess that is the role she plays. It would be cool to put someone on her.
L: When you came were you apprehensive about coming over to London as an Australian Milliner?
A: Of course, I think as any Australian is trying to come over and break the establishment but you soon realise there are loads of Australians in London and it is not unusual to encounter an Australian in any field, be it Millinery or otherwise. I think they might not be interested in my multi-coloured youthful pieces but it’s so big there is a market for everyone.
L: How do you find the power of your website? Do you get many online orders?
A: Majority want to come in and try on, the majority of my website orders are guys buying for their partners, people in Europe or up North who aren’t in London. I still have customers in AUstralia and I still have new customers from Australia. You have to be careful with feathers and straws and customs so it is slightly limited but we make it work. A couple of brides from Australia and North Queensland for racing. I am very pleased to make pieces for customers back in Australia and to keep that relationship going.
L: What made you choose this area for your location?
A: I bought this shop before I lived in the area. But this area is where I always wanted to be both living and working. Angel is very busy, Isling is a regenerated area, lots of boutique shops and cafes, village feel. This area has a design history, strong creative types so it has that vibe. I always wanted a shop that I could work in and close up if I needed. So it just came up and it has enough passing trade, and convenient.
L: What era do you find yourself most drawn to?
A: I don’t know, I think being a child of 80’s I am inevitably influenced by that so a lot of my pieces can be quite large, poppy, the color and the composition, have a bold 80s vibe. I guess I’m quite influenced by Art Deco shapes, sometimes. Really good question, i think as a milliner you look to what’s next and what’s coming and that’s kind of what I’m doing but i guess what’s coming next is also a nod to something in the past.
L: What do you do when you are not making hats?
A: Well before baby, I played piano a lot and am currently renovating my house at the moment because what you want to be doing with a newborn. I am a good cook, I cook every night as I am fortunate to live about 5 minutes walk. It’s a huge luxury to be able to walk to work.