In fashion, the studios of rising designers often leave something to be desired. Sure, there are some who plot out their collections in airy downtown lofts with wide-plank floors (courtesy of deep-pocketed parents or investors), but wander along Manhattan’s West 30th Street and you’ll find that behind those grimy upper windows sits many a newly minted star, draping, pinning and sketching in a room not much bigger than a studio apartment.
Case in point: the office of milliner Albertus Swanepoel, who, at age 50, is considered one of fashion’s most exciting new accessories designers. It’s on the third floor of a low-slung Garment District building that resembles a suburban police station. Down a long hallway with flickering fluorescent lights, in a room of about 200 square feet, Swanepoel handcrafts more than 800 hats a year for his own line, plus dozens of exquisite one-off pieces for designers’ runway shows. “This was all in my living room until two years ago,” Swanepoel says, gesturing at the piles of grosgrain ribbon, feathers and blocks (the round wooden molds of heads that milliners use to shape hats, much as cobblers use lasts to craft shoes) that clutter one workbench. Tall and elegantly disheveled, with a sweep of dark hair and a white goatee, Swanepoel lives with his partner of six years in Washington Heights, in a sprawling Art Deco apartment above the Hudson River, though he is contemplating moving. “It’s very cheap up there, but no one wants to visit us,” he says. “And I can’t work late because cabs are very expensive and the trains run local, and I don’t want to get home at, you know, two in the morning.”
For a man who is clearly a grown-up among young upstarts—his fellow nominees for CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Accessory Design this year, Justin Giunta of Subversive Jewelry (he nabbed it) and shoemaker Alejandro Ingelmo, are 30 and 35, respectively—Swanepoel is refreshingly unabashed about his struggle to stay solvent, let alone become successful, in an industry reeling from the economic crisis. While bags, shoes and jewelry are typically cash cows for both ready-to-wear and accessory designers, hats…well, let’s just say there’s nary a line out the door of any Madison Avenue boutique for the latest pillbox. Yet if anyone is going to make the cloche or the panama a sought-after accoutrement, it’s Swanepoel.
When asked to describe his aesthetic, the designer laughs. “I’m not a minimalist,” he says. Indeed, his pieces range from an intricately wrapped linen turban (created for Proenza Schouler’s spring 2005 runway show, his first major collaboration) to a jaunty hunting cap with a thin rooster feather pluming from its side (one of Swanepoel’s favorites, it was for Carolina Herrera’s fall 2008 show). His approach is painstakingly detailed: He hand-sews dip-dyed lace onto the crowns of felt fedoras, shellacks ebony latex body paint onto boating caps, even trolls flea markets and eBay for discarded blocks, the shapes of which are nearly always imperceptibly different yet help him come up with new silhouettes each season. According to Swanepoel, the last “great blockmaker” in the United States, a gentleman who ran a company in Brooklyn called La Mode, died several years ago. Swanepoel now orders from the best craftsmen in Paris, which is, he points out, an expensive journey. “The fedora blocks from the Forties, that’s honestly the mainstay,” says Swanepoel of his most successful style. “And it’s funny. In the end, you use a very small portion of your blocks over and over again, and you get known for that sort of shape…. To me, they’re like my babies.”