American milliner Kate Brown Pernia is on sabbatical in Switzerland. She has been designing hats and teaching millinery under her Katrinka label since the 1980s. Kate is also the founder of Houston Hat Net.
How did you become interested in millinery?
I have loved hats for as long as I can remember. Having a large head size (23), I had trouble buying hats in my size when the millinery industry switched to the dreaded “one size fits all” in the United States. So I had to learn to make my own.
Where and why did you learn millinery?
In the 1980s I was living in New York City and looking for a new career after acting. I discovered the millinery program at FIT and studied with Ann Albrizio. I completed the Millinery Certificate program and began showing my hats to friends and acquaintances.
How long have you been a milliner for? Where else did you work?
I received my Millinery Certificate in 1989. Costume Designer Marjorie McCown hired me to make hats for Street Scene at City Opera which led to other offers. I was ultimately recruited to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where I was milliner for two years until I married and moved to Texas. In Texas I was busy helping my husband through law school and being a stepmother, but I kept my hand in millinery by teaching millinery in the Fashion program at Houston Community College and showing my hats with Houston Area Fiber Artists and at galleries such as Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. I founded Houston Hat Net when students complained that no one wore hats in Houston. They do now. HHN currently numbers over 300 members.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
Just about everywhere. In the theatre we used to say that “Anything can become a hat”. I collect and study vintage hats to continue my technique education and have found lots of inspiration in my garden.
What has been your most enjoyable commission?
I was invited to show hats at a pre-Kentucky Derby party in Houston in 2005. Party guests (including the men) were so taken with hats that it resulted in a large order all of which were flown in a private jet to the Kentucky Derby. I heard later that one of my hats was singled out as being the “best hat at the Kentucky Derby”. I wrote an article about the experience which was published by the American Sewing Guild in Houston.
How would you describe your style of hats?
That’s a tough one! Eclectic, probably. I love making art and cocktail hats but don’t find much of a market for them tho’ I do have a few collectors. Currently, one of the things I am working on is a line of casual hat patterns for sewing enthusiasts. I believe that the more women wear hats casually – everyday – the more willing they will be to invest in an occasion or cocktail hat. We’ve lost a lot of millinery momentum in the United States but I am optimistic about youthful interest in hats.
Who do you make hats for?
I’ve done all of the above and am getting more commissions from men too. Since my husband is now working in Switzerland I have left my studio in storage and am currently living in St. Gallen working on a book I’ve had in mind. My hat patterns are carried by www.judithm.com and my hats are appearing in Belle Armoire magazine from time to time.
What materials and techniques do you favor?
Since I am working lately with fabric hats I have been experimenting with straw fabrics such as raffia and sinamay. I have also become fascinated with fabric collage since taking an inspiring class with Rosemary Eichorn. Since St. Gallen used to the be the center of the lace industry in Switzerland I am exploring lace now too.
Any other interests?
My primary focus is teaching and writing these days. I also sew clothing for myself, read, garden and currently am exploring Europe while I have the opportunity.