It is not unusual in fashion for a designer to toil for many years without getting the kind of recognition Swanepoel has received recently, which includes two CFDA award nominations, a highly publicized line of khaki hats for the Gap, and runway partnerships with Herrera and Proenza Schouler as well as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Thakoon, Diane von Furstenberg and Narciso Rodriguez; for the latter, Swanepoel made wonderfully spooky black and white helmets with cutout eyes for fall. But even he admits his path to top milliner was particularly circuitous, even painful, which makes this moment—he is working on expanding with a less expensive, machine-made diffusion line and talking to larger retailers about designing in-house collections—sweeter, and plenty precarious.
The youngest of four sons raised in a devoutly Dutch Calvinist household in Pretoria, South Africa, Swanepoel arrived late to the idea that he could find work as a designer. “I was very shielded,” he says, fidgeting with a clasp on his watch. He didn’t set eyes on a fashion magazine until he was 17, and while he prefers to keep the details of his upbringing off the record, it suffices to say his youth was bound by many rules. “I think that’s why, really, I ended up in fashion,” he says. After majoring in fine arts (to the chagrin of his parents) at the local university, Swanepoel launched a successful ready-to-wear line, Quartus Manna, in Johannesburg. “I think that repression…gives you this added drive to create beautiful things,” he explains. “Everything else might be so miserable that it’s some kind of escape.” Yet after winning a Coty Award in South Africa in 1987, Swanepoel and his then wife, Shaneen Huxham, now a well-known glove designer, packed up their apartment and moved to New York. He soon shuttered his business altogether, eager to parlay what he deems his little-pond success into something bolder.
Initially, all went according to plan. “I remember the first night we went out, someone took us to eat on Madison Avenue and Calvin Klein was [at our restaurant], and it was all sort of amazing,” Swanepoel recalls. Yet eight months into his job at a sportswear company, one he declines to name, he was told his services were no longer needed. “And I didn’t have work papers,” Swanepoel says. “We then had a really hard time, honestly.” Scraping together the last of their savings, the couple bought piles of leather gloves and started decorating them with beads and sparkles. Three months and dozens of phone calls later, Bergdorf Goodman placed a $10,000 order. Gloves, however, are a winter business, and Swanepoel and Huxham needed an income to get them through the rest of the year. What do women like to wear in the summer? Why, little straw hats, Swanepoel figured. And cotton bucket ones too! So while working various freelance jobs, he began taking millinery classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied under Janine Galimard, the former in-house hatmaker for Cristóbal Balenciaga. A formidable mentor, Galimard won Swanepoel’s admiration. “She would throw hats on the floor and step on them,” he says fondly. “I remember I once made this hat with a very high crown and she said, ‘All you need is a broom with this.’”