In the words of Philip Treacy, “Hats make people feel good, and that’s the point of them.” We talk to two such local designers who want to instill the feel good factor.
“Just like with fashion, millinery is not exempt from celebrity culture or changing trends, it all moves together.”
“My recession experience was kind of amazing,” says Martha Lynn, her voice void of irony. Because Martha Lynn’s recession experience was actually kind of amazing and was, actually, where her career as a designer and milliner began. Martha Lynn began crafting headgear in a time when almost all construction had stopped and the art of following one’s creative passion was more out of broke necessity than blind ambition.
“My Mum is an artist and art teacher, so that’s where my arty farty side came from and what led me to study Fine Art and Sculpture in IADT. I absolutely loved it there, I had such an amazing time. There was always lots going on, so many cool people hanging around.”
However, despite a great time in the education sense and, perhaps, an even better one in the social sense, Martha left college with the same feeling so many students experience upon graduating in the Arts – “What can I do with this degree?” The short-term answer was travel, which she did. The longer-term option was to go into architecture, which, following her travels, she also did.
“It was pretty bad timing when I started working in architecture, I literally started just before the recession. Most companies were making people redundant at that time, but thankfully I managed to stay afloat for a while – though, to be honest, it really wasn’t for me. It was my first, shall we say, real office job and, while I loved architecture, after college I just seemed to be so slow to adjust to the 9-5 thing. I always found myself itching to be creative.”
The itch presented itself through the guise of her sister’s interest in horses, leading to Martha’s attending of the races and taking notice of the best-dressed ladies in their even better-dressed bonnets. Interest piqued, Martha came across an evening course in the Grafton Academy.
“The course was with Aileen Keogan, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, is one of Ireland’s best milliners. I simply noted that it was a night course, therefore it suited me down to the ground with my job.”
Keogan’s renowned reputation was, at that time, lost on Martha. But her interest in pursuing millinery was enough to join what she was warned would be a two-year waiting list, at least, for Aileen’s class. “So that was that, or so I thought. A few weeks later, quite late on a Sunday evening, I received a random call saying that they had a last minute cancellation in the class which was starting the coming Tuesday and I could do it.
“So that’s where it all began really. I did the course and absolutely loved it and, better still became great friends with Aileen. As a teacher, she is so inspiring and so encouraging. Her training came from Paris so everything she does is extremely traditional, all her work is handmade, no machines, no glue. I learnt so much from her, she really is just an amazing lady.”
After the night course finished, Martha continued to pursue millinery and sought an internship with infamous designer and milliner, Philip Treacy.
“I wrote to them and enquired about doing something short term as I was still working full time. When they told me that all internships had to be a minimum of two weeks, I decided to go with it, taking my annual leave in order to make it happen.”
In the process of Martha’s vacation sacrifice, she was made redundant. “I took the redundancy as an opportunity to do the internship for two months as opposed to two weeks. After finishing with Philip Treacy, I interned with Stephen Jones. Working with both of them was so cool but seriously different at the same time. What makes them similar was just how much I learnt in a short space of time and how varied both internships were. I was constantly learning when I was in London, constantly learning. While working in the studios I did everything from sweeping the floor, to making hats for Valentino and Lady Gaga, to sewing on labels. I literally did everything and got to experience first-hand the intensity of working in a studio.”
“Working under Philip and Stephen I learnt a lot about how much I could do on my own as a one-man band. So after I came back from London, I applied for a grant and got to working on Martha Lynn. This was in the middle of the crash in Dublin, but as I said my recession experience was kind of amazing. Some of the guys who I had worked with in the architecture office had gone out on their own and offered me the extra room they had in their office as my studio. The Irish press were also good, the journalists always took care to get in touch and promote my work. Looking back now, I feel as though in a world of doom and gloom in Dublin at that time, I was one of the stick-out stories.”
Like many budding creatives, Martha started off making hats for friends and family and experienced an initial surge of organic growth as onlookers noticed her sculptural Stetsons. Coinciding with this was the fashion world’s natural move towards the trend, with hats finding themselves in a millennial renaissance of sorts.
“When I first discovered hats at the races, generally there were about 10-15 ladies dressed up for the competitions, now it’s becoming more popular than ever. Previously there were a lot of headpieces and feathers on the scene, now it’s returned to hats. Kate Middleton has a lot to do with that, as she is often photographed wearing one. Just like with fashion, millinery is not exempt from celebrity culture or changing trends, it all moves together.”
Though it all moves and shakes, Martha’s distinctive style as a milliner and designer is not one which wavers. “I know my style isn’t for everyone and I have now established myself to a point where customers know not to come to me for feathers.”
“Martha Lynn, the label, is something I feel I was creatively developing for years before I felt that I really found its style. To get there I played around with a lot of stuff, different shapes, materials, finishings. I introduced plastics, mixed traditional methods with modern materials like vinyl, perspex, foam and then would melt them, shape them and stick them all together to create. I think that it’s important to have a progression of creativity and style. My work is modern and yet I will always have a traditional foundation thanks to Aileen.”
“You need to add your own twist to things. My work is very graphic, structural and bold. It’s my style and I like it. Sculpture is very much at the foundation of it and funnily enough, I’ve discovered that many of my creations now are not a million miles from my college sculptures. It goes to show that these things are inside of you, you just have to let them come out.”
This sense of self-expression cannot be limited to the creator, it is also commonly shared with the customer, according to Martha.
“There is something exuberant about wearing a hat to an event, though it doesn’t always happen with my customers straight away. I find that when ordering, clients tend to stick to their more conservative side first time around but once they repeat, there is a gradual growth of bravery. The hats get bigger as they get braver and express themselves more. You see there is something totally different about wearing a hat as opposed to any other piece of clothing. Yes, you can wear a new dress and look great, but it’s not the same, only a great hat has the ability to take you to a new place, make you feel like a new person.”
“So I said ‘feck it’ I’ll send her email and see if she’d like to collaborate on something.”
In a similar vein to Martha Lynn, designer and milliner Deb Fanning’s career path was more passion project than crunching numbers to begin with. “It was about five years ago when I decided to take a lesson with Janette Pegley-Reed in Beads and Bling which used to be in Temple Bar. It was a really basic, one-day class and I just took to it straight away. That’s where it started really, I got the bug. I didn’t train immediately after that, rather I was just dying to start experimenting with materials and shapes, really excited to start making.”
Prior to her deep dive into the world of millinery, Deb had dabbled in hat making before but says that nothing solid ever came of it until now. “I had always been so intrigued by fashion in general, but particularly in millinery. It always seemed to me that there was something so special about the whole thing, the statement people made by wearing a hat or headpiece.”
Deb began crafting her own statements and gifting them to friends and family and displaying them at her leisure before she approached a friend, the owner of the former, but nonetheless fantastical Beaux Bows, an enigmatic gem which once nestled itself in the heart of George’s Arcade.
“That’s when things really took off and I began making more and really beginning to craft my label into what it is now. Stocking in Beaux Bows and receiving such positive reactions really gave me the confidence to take Deb Fanning to another level.”
“I began to wonder if there was anywhere else that I could I sell them and came across The Loft in The Powerscourt Centre, an amazing initiative ran by a group of Irish designers. The Loft allowed you to pay for your space to display and sell your designs. It was a great experience, both in terms of promoting my brand and also getting to know my customers better. Alongside my full-time job, I worked in The Loft every weekend. Getting to see how people interacted with my pieces was amazing and so helpful for me in developing my business further.”
Since her debut in the heart of Dublin city centre, Deb has continued to developed her business, stocking her creations in boutiques around the country, setting up on eCommerce store, and more recently, reducing her ‘day job’ down a part-time position, to nurture her brand further in her space in Mart Studios, Rathmines.
“I have to say, making the decision felt very natural too. A job came up that was part-time and suited, so I went for it and I’m glad I did, I’m really enjoying exploring this whole thing even further.”
This whole thing, or the art of millinery, in Deb’s case, is something that beautifully blends old and new by bringing together traditional craft and innovative finishings.
“I see my work as colourful and fun,” Deb begins, “I would also say young and funky, but honestly my hats attract all age groups from the mother-of-the-bride to a girl going to the races. What a headpiece does to an outfit or look is so unique it doesn’t bother with age limits. Wearing a hat lifts an outfit, it gives it life, makes the client look totally different, and feel totally different. It lifts it.”
Deb’s work does not limit itself to just stately affairs, with her some of her collections presenting pompom clad baseball caps and feathered pillbox bands.
“Honestly festivals are more my thing, I like to create something that works with, something really out there and extravagant.”
Her latest collaboration with festival fashion designer, Louise O’Mahony – or L.O.M Fashion, encapsulates the perfect mix of millinery, mesh, and madness making for the ultimate festival getup.
“I had been a longtime admirer of her stuff and noticed that she didn’t have any headpieces in her collections. So I said ‘feck it’ I’ll send her an email and see if she’d like to collaborate on something. We started chatting and after almost close to a year of sending samples back and forth we got to work. It was actually just an all around great experience, she was so easy to work with and everything ran so smoothly. She kind of gave me full reign, sending me over the fabrics she designed and letting me do my thing. There was trust there which is so important, and is something I think, looking at the resulting collection, really shows through.”
Trust may be evident in her collaborations, but it is pure talent and passion that shows through Deb Fanning’s solo work.
Words: Sinead O’Reilly
This column marks Sinead’s final one for Totally Dublin as fashion editor. We’d like to thank her for her invaluable insights into the fashion scene and her unwavering commitment to make us consider the downsides of fast fashion.