Much-loved Australian milliner Kim Fletcher takes us through the process of making headpieces — her daily routine, the artists she looks up to, and why her designs are so popular. She also tells us about what separates Australian racegoers’ fashion from the rest of the world.
ON GETTING STARTED IN MILLINERY
The biggest challenge I had when beginning millinery was justifying the cost of making hats as it can be an extremely expensive hobby. Until you begin creating millinery, you have no idea how much money is swallowed up by the equipment and materials needed to make that beautiful piece perched on your head.
For example, for every brim and crown I have a wooden hat block (mould) to match, as your head is elliptical in shape and not round. These blocks cannot be manufactured on a lathe but instead must be hand-sculptured in wood by a very talented artisan. Hence, not cheap.
I have been making hats for over 23 years now and have a collection of over 150 hat blocks sitting in my workroom.
My favourite milliner would have to be Stephen Jones from England. Stephen is prolific in his output of beautiful millinery both under his own label and that of Dior. He stretches the boundaries as to the public perception of what millinery is by his use of materials previously not seen in traditional headwear and also his design aesthetic. Who else would come up with the concept of upside down barbie dolls forming a punk mohawk?
I have got one Stephen Jones hat though that is very special to me as he gave it to me as a gift the first time he came to Melbourne for the Melbourne Cup Carnival. The hat is gold fabric fedora and made from a material normally used in shoes. That is a hat that I treasure.
HOW THE MAGIC HAPPENS
I usually find my inspiration in the materials I use, and so that normally is my starting point when designing. This season I am again using acetate but have started using metals and a foam material I have been experimenting with for the past year in my trimmings.
I have also decided to make a few large brimmed hats for Spring Racing Carnival this year, and although we will sell more headpieces than full on hats, it will be nice to see them. Metallic hardware on headwear will also be popular, especially rose gold.
“A normal day will see me leaving for home at about 6pm, but during Spring Racing Carnival you will often find the lights still on in my workroom until the wee hours.”
Most mornings I get up at 6.45 and take our dog Benson for a walk. I’m lucky enough to live near the beach and so even in the middle of winter a quick walk is a good way to start the day. I buy the newspaper on the way home and read that while having breakfast and get ready for the day. I leave home at about 8am and usually have to pick up items on the way to work so may not actually start work at my shop until 10.
My workroom is the directly behind my showroom. A normal day will see me leaving for home at about 6pm, but during Spring Racing Carnival you will often find the lights still on in my workroom until the wee hours. That is the nature of what I do — you work hard and long hours when the work is available.
MUSES, AND FINDING THE RIGHT HAT
When making an order for a client the process is very collaborative. At the end of the day I can make a hat to suit a client by looking at face shape, build and colouring but you also need to consider a clients personality and what makes them happy.
We have quite a few hats in my shop and so playing dress-up is often an important part of the process. Most women don’t know what suits them, so by trying a variety of pieces on they can define what they do and don’t prefer.
Getting the right hat is so important, for you have to remember that when I meet you I am looking at your face, and therefore your headwear tells me a lot about you before we even converse. So you must be aware of the image you wish to project.
I am lucky enough over the years to have had an association with both Myer and Channel 7 and so have made hats for many of their ambassadors and presenters and my favourite is always Joh Griggs. Joh is an absolute joy to deal with and she is the same off screen as on, totally unaffected and lovely.
If I had a wish list of who I’d like to make a hat for it would probably be Lady Gaga as she is such a risk-taker and fashion icon. Locally, it would probably be Kate Blanchett as she is always on trend with her fashion choices and the epitome of elegance.
“My hats usually appeal to strong women who are comfortable in their own skins and like to be seen.”
THE KIM FLETCHER TOUCH
My designs tend to be very strong and visible. “Subtle” is not a word usually associated with my work. For that reason my hats usually appeal to strong women who are comfortable in their own skins and like to be seen.
My philosophy in millinery is that hats can transport you to anywhere you want to be and whoever you want to be. They are frivolous and fun, and why be boring when you can be extravagant and interesting?
I have been lucky enough to be supported by people in the racing industry and I think that comes from the fact I actually love horse racing. You will see me at racetracks all year round, not just over the more popular carnival periods. I also believe millinery should be fun — after all, I’m not curing cancer, I am just making a hat and hopefully that is making my clients smile. I don’t take myself or what I do too seriously.
AUSTRALIAN RACEGOERS VERSUS THE WORLD
Its amazing with all my travels following major race meetings throughout the world racewear definitely takes on the characteristics of the country it is in.
You look at Royal Ascot where the style is more genteel and traditional, and colours generally are more subdued. Compare that to Melbourne where you have more flamboyant combinations and brighter colours.
“In Australia we have big blue skies and so tend to wear bold colours and the further north you go, the brighter the colours.”
I often think that racewear is just a reflection of the local culture itself. In Australia we have big blue skies and so tend to wear bold colours and the further north you go, the brighter the colours.
On Asian racetracks you don’t tend to see a lot of women as it is seen as a very masculine sport with an emphasis on racing and gambling. So the women attending these meetings will more often be seen wearing suits. This is changing slowly as the race clubs see the value in attracting women to their courses. In Dubai because of the heat the race meetings are day/night meetings so different clothing is worn.
The Dubai Racing Club has put a lot of effort into their Style Stakes over the years. On Dubai World Cup Night you find beautifully dressed patrons who wear amazing garments that reflect the diversity of their population.
My favourite race day in the world is Oaks Day during the Melbourne Cup Carnival. I love to catch the train to Flemington on Oaks Day as the carriages are awash with beautifully attired women with most of them wearing millinery.
Oaks Day is the most fashionable day of the Spring Racing Carnival as it is the finale of the Myer Fashions of the Field which is a national competition. The Professional Millinery Award is also held on Oaks Day as part of the competition and so it is great to catch up with so many colleagues. It is like grand finale day for milliners and we can all relax.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Track Mode is a horse racing and fashion site founded and curated by Nina O’Brien. Subscribe to our newsletter to get exclusive race day fashion edits straight to your inbox! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google+.
Treat yourself to our guide to Spring Racing Carnival 2016 to get the best out of the season! You’ll find racing fashion inspiration, guides to horse racing, and more interviews with the most important personalities in the horse racing industry.
You can shop for Kim Fletcher’s headpieces on her website.