Since graduating college, fine-art trained Maggie Mowbray has employed her creative skills to design and craft quality headwear. A self-taught milliner, Maggie designs hats and fancy headpieces, which are completely British made, designed and hand-produced in her studio near Edinburgh. Establishing her eponymous label in 2012, her clientele has come to include patrons of Royal Ascot and other international race events. Today, Maggie and her team offer a range of services in addition to hat making – custom design consultations and bespoke pieces for any occasion, and online consultations on design suitability. We sat down with the British milliner to discuss – among other things – her experiences as a self-taught hatmaker and the growing interest toward the millinery industry.


How did you become interested in millinery?

I have been interested in fashion for as far back as I can remember. When I left school, I decided instead to apply to art college, which took me down a different career path for some years. Living in Scotland, where it is wet and cold for much of the year, hats are essential – for me, at least – and I was always buying new hats to wear; they were my favorite accessory of choice. My interest in occasion millinery really only came about as a result of learning to make hats, when I realized their full creative potential.

You are a self-taught milliner. Did that produce any challenges along the way?

To some degree, there are certain processes involved in creating hats, which I have had to research in order to create my designs to the high standard I expect. I have read numerous old millinery teaching manuals and spent time actually studying how other milliners made hats. Many of my skills have been learned simply through trial and error. I have found my own way of doing things as a result, and have discovered some unexpected results along the way, which I may not have done had I had formal training; I like to see that as a positive.


What were you doing before launching your own label, and how did you reach this decision?

I was a visual artist. Since leaving college, I had worked in art-related jobs and was exhibiting my artwork in galleries both in the UK and abroad. The last exhibition I took part in was a small group show which was part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. The show itself was a success and well-received, however, by then I had made my first hat and knew then that my interests were more focused on fashion and design. Changing careers wasn’t an easy decision as it meant starting from scratch again, when career-wise everything was going quite well. But I believe life provides opportunities; we need to recognize them and make choices whether or not to follow them. It was definitely a right choice, which I never regretted!


How did you develop your design philosophy and where do you get your inspiration?

My design philosophy evolved with my practical experience. I find creating hats an organic process, much like molding or sculpting, but it is also important to get the composition right. The final design should be well-balanced; it’s not so noticeable when you get it right, but it’s completely obvious when it is not! That’s the secret, I suppose, making it look easy!
I am inspired by form and color; nature is a recurring theme, as is art and vintage fashion. I have always noticed the small details and shapes in nature; veins, lines, shadows, color changes – these are the things which stick and inform my designs.

What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?

Most recently, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, chose to wear one of my hats to an event. This was quite a boost, having a design worn by such a prominent public figure.


How has the milliner industry evolved since you began designing?

There appears to be more milliners on the scene than when I started. There has certainly been resurgence of interest in the millinery industry, in both people making and wearing hats.

How important is balancing creativity with being commercial to you?

I always aim to create designs, which are reflective of my personal design style, and it is also important that they are wearable; I do imagine the woman who will wear the piece when I create the design, but it has never limited my creativity. Obviously, the commercial side is important; otherwise, the business wouldn’t be able to grow and develop.


Do you think hats will become a part of the everyday wardrobe sometime again in the future or will still be meant for fancy special occasions only?

I think this is a county specific question. Certainly, in the UK, hats are being worn every day in addition to occasion hats for race events and weddings. Outside the UK, I sell mostly to the USA and Australia in their winter months. I certainly sell more everyday hats to these countries. My customers see my hats as an investment for their winter wardrobe.


Your pieces are entirely handcrafted. How long does it take for a hat to be made?

There are many processes involved in making a hat, and it really depends on the materials and amount of detail involved. A felt hat, for instance, is blocked on a wooden block. If it is a hand-formed design, it can take anything up to an hour to form it, so that I am completely happy with the finish. This then needs to dry, and when it is dry, I usually re-steam and brush the fibers and it is left to dry again. Then the hat will possibly have wire inserted to reinforce the shape, the edge sewn, any adornments invisibly stitched in place, fitting attached then usually lined and headband ribbon stitched in place. These processes can take anywhere between a day and a week, depending on how complex the design is. However, as I am never working on just one design at any one time, it is very difficult to quantify the actual time involved.


What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on my Spring/Summer 2016 collection. I am at my happiest when designing and creating new pieces. I have also designed some fabric from drawings I have made, which I am using to trial some accessories in addition to my millinery designs. I like the idea of combining my visual art with my designs.

Images © Maggie Mowbray