Phillp Treacy, Hat Designer by Marian Hume with Philip Treacy
How to build the perfect library; our resident book aficionado casts her eyes over a new monograph celebrating a unique creative talent
Review by Kate Slotover
“If you were to ask me to remove my Philip Treacy hat at a party, in truth it is the emotional and physical equivalent of requesting I remove my liver”, Lady Gaga memorably remarks, while Sarah Jessica Parker laments the fact that she lives so far away, ‘If only there weren’t a large pond separating us, oh the mischief we could cause’. Philip Treacy’s hats have adorned the heads of everyone and anyone, from Kate Moss to the Duchess of Cornwall, who you might remember married Prince Charles sporting an elegant concoction of pheasant feathers. His new book is a showcase of his work, the people he has designed for and the renowned photographers who captured his creations.
An early image is a black-and-white wedding photo, chosen because as a child in Ireland Treacy used to love to attend weddings. People dressed up looking fabulous provided an antidote to the rainy grey Irish landscape surrounding him, and he was fascinated. There wasn’t much call for glamour in the tiny Irish village of Ahascragh, but Treacy remembers his mother donning lipstick and a beret, carefully positioned just so, to go out to the local shop. His sister worked as a nurse in London and used to bring back magazines when she returned home for visits; through her Treacy discovered Vogue and Harpers & Queen.
His talent eventually secured him a place on the MA Fashion Design course at the Royal College of Art, but it was his encounter with fashion editor Isabella Blow that propelled him into fashion’s elite. It was a perfect partnership as Treacy liked to work and make the hats and Isabella liked to socialize and to wear them. She was someone who ‘lived for the excitement of creating the impossible’ he remembers, her passionate flow of ideas both exciting and daunting, ‘she would plant an interest and instil a kind of fear about what she was suggesting you do.’ She connected him with key designers such as Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and seems never to have had a shadow of doubt in her mind as to his worth. It was the same with Alexander McQueen who she also supported and championed from his student days, and he was to become another key collaborator who would challenge Treacy and inspire him to create show-stopping work.
It is hard to separate out Treacy’s career from these other two complex creative figures and there is no sense that he would want to; each has a tribute chapter in the book and he acknowledges sadly that once they were a trio, now it is just him alone. Yet while the legend and influence of Blow and McQueen continues to grow and develop as people evaluate their legacy, Treacy has maintained his own steady course, perhaps best symbolised by the ship-hat he originally created for Blow. ‘The ship has sailed to more places than I’ve ever been’ he writes. It is a hat that ‘travels in people’s imaginations as well.’
Treacy’s work encapsulates the world of bespoke luxury and yet the materials are most often as humble as straw and feathers. One of the most beautiful images in the book is his collection of hat blocks, handmade, based on Treacy’s own maquettes, by a craftsman in Paris. He has come a long way since his early days working from Blow’s basement; now his is a household name and he has a team of people who work with him, yet each and every hat still passes through his own hands. He sees his hats in proportion to the whole body, not just the head. “A hat can be anything that happens around the head, or its proximity…” and thus we see hats shaped like saucers, hats that curl under rather than over the head, or ones that form masks over the face. Ever innovative he is interested in new techniques, and has recently been experimenting with 3D printing and rapid prototyping.
Richard Avedon, Mario Testino, Liliian Bassman, Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth – just a few of the celebrated photographers whose images feature in the book. ‘Fashion is one of those areas that’s very democratic; you can come from nowhere and work with the greats’, Treacy says. And thus the book becomes an exploration of image-making, whether it’s amplifying a persona such as Grace Jones, or pushing the boundaries of what a hat can be, the ways it can enhance the wearer. ‘Full-frontal people are not always the tough cookies that they seem’, Treacy notes. ‘Sometimes people who project that persona, it’s that which gives them confidence. It’s a mask.’ Softly spoken and still boyishly charming, Treacy seems like someone who is comfortable in his own skin. He’s a magpie, always interested in the next thing. This book, however, stands as a beautiful and enduring testament to his achievements so far, and is utterly deserving of a place in our perfect library.