Swanepoel, however, had stumbled upon a calling. (By 2000, he and Huxham had split up, and Swanepoel subsequently came out.) He began working for Lynne Mackey, a Broadway hatmaker (Shrek, Mamma Mia!), and the famed milliner Lola Ehrlich. By 2004 he was doing small capsule collections for Jane Mayle, who then put him in touch with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. The following season, Swanepoel’s linen turbans glided down their runway.
Swanepoel’s ability to approach hats as modern, wearable accessories as well as sculptural works of art is part of his appeal: For Wang’s fall 2009 show, Swanepoel couldn’t get the thin brims of his bowler caps to stay stiff, so he inserted inside them the strips of plastic that carmakers use to create dashboards. And there remains a root-for-the-underdog affection for him among designers. “A man in the studio was wearing a charming tweed hat Albertus had done, and I thought, We must have these hats for the collection!” says Herrera of her collaboration with Swanepoel for her fall 2008 show. “Albertus made these wonderful traditional British-style fedoras that we put atop everything from the caped looks to the evening gowns. They looked fantastic.”
Recently Swanepoel was driving up the West Side Highway, where his smiling face, surrounded by models in his hats, looked down on commuters from an enormous Gap billboard. “It was surreal,” he says with a laugh. “It has taken me a long time to get here, but I don’t think I was ready for it before. I’m not resentful at all. I’m just grateful.”